The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Uncertain ownership situation hangs over Nationals at GM meetings

“What has changed is the uncertainty of what’s the final payroll going to look like — and what’s the ownership group going to look like down the road?” Mike Rizzo said. “As far as coming here and coming to the winter meetings, we’re going as we always have with the Lerners as ownership, trying to just do what we can do to move this process along.” (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

LAS VEGAS — Inside Resorts World here this week, at the casino or any number of restaurants, just about every mention of the Washington Nationals prompts a form of the same question: Who is buying them?

That’s not to imply the Nationals are the talk of Major League Baseball’s general managers’ meetings in Las Vegas. Very far from it. But with free agency starting Thursday, the Nationals’ entire existence — what they are, what they could be, what steps they might take to distance themselves from a 55-107 finish in 2022 — is defined by the uncertainty of their ownership situation.

Asked to connect some dots Wednesday, to explain whether the ongoing sale process will affect spending this offseason, General Manager Mike Rizzo kept with the company line, saying, “We’ve been told to do business as usual.” The reality is Washington is both being shopped and at a rebuilding stage that wouldn’t typically yield splashy signings. Yet key details remain up in the air.

“What has changed is the uncertainty of what’s the final payroll going to look like — and what’s the ownership group going to look like down the road?” Rizzo said. “As far as coming here and coming to the winter meetings, we’re going as we always have with the Lerners as ownership, trying to just do what we can do to move this process along.”

Is it challenging not to have payroll clarity heading into the offseason?

“At this point, there’s not a whole lot of challenges,” Rizzo said. “But there’ll be a time where we’ll need some clarity to make some finite, concrete decisions.”

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Last winter and spring, the Nationals signed five players to major league contracts: César Hernández, Steve Cishek, Nelson Cruz, Sean Doolittle and Ehire Adrianza. A year later, one big difference is that they have installed more of a young core, including shortstop CJ Abrams, second baseman Luis García, right-handed starter Cade Cavalli and left-handed starter MacKenzie Gore. Keibert Ruiz, recovered from a testicular injury, is expected to be the Nationals’ catcher of the present and future. Josiah Gray could highlight the next competitive rotation with Cavalli and Gore. And then there are the other prospects who arrived in the Juan Soto-Josh Bell trade, the prospects who were already with Washington and the small handful of surprises in the farm system.

Getting young guys to the majors is not always a linear process. Instead, paths are often littered with hurdles and potential off-ramps. Infielder Brady House, one of the club’s top minor league position players, missed most of last season with a lower-back injury that, according to Rizzo, has since cleared up. Cavalli debuted in August and quickly landed on the injured list with shoulder inflammation. Cole Henry, a top pitching prospect, had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome toward the end of summer and is facing a long recovery.

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But Rizzo remains committed to a simple roster-building method: Once the Nationals know what they have in-house, he will return to aggressively pursuing big-name players through free agency and trades. He feels closer to that point than he did a year ago. Until he is fully there, though, the Nationals are more likely to sign veterans and reclamation projects to one-year deals or minor league contracts. Doolittle already has returned on a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. On Wednesday, Rizzo highlighted starting pitching as the club’s biggest need, then added he could add a bat at third base, first base, in the designated hitter spot or in the corners of the outfield.

The middle of the diamond — Ruiz at catcher, Abrams at shortstop, García at second, Victor Robles and/or Lane Thomas in center — is more crowded at the moment. So if the Nationals were shopping for a premier shortstop, wanted a frontline starter to elevate their staff or thought it was time to add a power hitter on a lucrative contract, an undefined budget would seem more consequential. But that doesn’t mean Rizzo isn’t itching to have the parameters set.

His team has finished in last place for three consecutive years. His rotation, once a prized possession, ended 2022 with the worst ERA in the majors. And while Rizzo is getting good at listing Abrams, Ruiz, Cavalli, Gore and so on, he knows there is a long way to go.

“I’m antsy. I’m anxious. I’m competitive. I hate the way the season went,” the GM said. “But you have to be true to the process, and rushing it just compounds the problem.”

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