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The Nationals should be bad again. So why is Mike Rizzo smiling?

Washington Nationals president and general manager Mike Rizzo (right) and assistant GM Mike DeBartolo grin during spring workouts. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
7 min

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The roots of what is playing out here at Washington Nationals spring training can be traced to the evening of Friday, July 2, 2021. Before first pitch, those Nats were 40-39, 2½ games back of the Atlanta Braves, second in the National League East. They had a chance. In the second inning, left fielder Kyle Schwarber — coming off a stretch in which he walloped 16 homers in 18 games — cracked a single that he thought he could stretch into a double.

Rounding first, Schwarber’s hamstring popped. Cue an organizational pivot. Did Schwarber’s injury lead directly to a worst-in-the-majors, 107-loss season in 2022 and a 2023 in which the excitement isn’t about the current major league roster but those in the future? No. Does it help answer the question: How did the Nationals go from perennial contenders to absolute reclamation project? Absolutely.

Walk back to those days to explain how this team ended up here.

“We had several casualties that really affected us,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said here this week. “Schwarber was going to be down for a long time with the hamstring. We got the news that [co-ace Stephen] Strasburg was done for the season. We had several other smaller injuries that kind of added up to: ‘Hey, we’ve got to make a decision here. Do we add to the current roster utilizing whatever prospects that we had left? Or do we kind of pivot and retool and gather some prospects?’ ”

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In so many ways, these Nationals are in a state of limbo they haven’t endured since the nascent days of 2005 and ’06, when Major League Baseball still owned the club and then-commissioner Bud Selig hadn’t yet chosen Ted Lerner to become the franchise’s owner. Last year, Lerner’s family announced its intention to explore a sale. Last month, Lerner died at 97. And here are the Nats, mostly measuring progress below the surface — without a commitment of either ownership’s energy or its finances going forward.

It can read as depressing. The list of players who are main attractions at camps across Florida and Arizona — Trea Turner and Max Scherzer, Schwarber and Bryce Harper, Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon — would suggest this was a straight strip-down and sell-off that turned the Nationals into a shell of their former selves. Couple that with the backdrop of the Lerners’ (not-yet-realized) sale attempt, and it’s easy to cry “fire sale.” But it’s also worth reconstructing a bit.

As the Nationals headed into a key stretch in late July 2021, they were undecided: Buy or sell? Their system was already thinned, some from a decade of trying to buy at the trade deadline (and in the offseason), some by drafts that didn’t work out, some by drafts that lacked a first-round pick because they had signed marquee free agents in the offseason.

Then came the following set of events: They lost the last game of a series against Miami, were swept over the weekend in Baltimore, sent Strasburg to a doctor to evaluate his persistent neck and shoulder issues — and received the recommendation that the 2019 World Series MVP undergo surgery to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome. By the time they agreed to send Scherzer and Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 29, they were eight games under .500 and eight games back of the Braves, in fourth.

“Believe me: No general manager, no field manager, wants to rebuild,” Rizzo said. “It’s last on our list of things to do. These are organizational decisions that we have to make. And we sat and we met like we always do, and we thought about it, and we made the decision that it was time to kind of re-fertilize the farm system and take a step sideways to move forward.”

Sideways ended up being backward at the major league level, particularly after last summer’s mega-trade of Soto — the next painful step in the process that came after he turned down a 15-year, $440 million extension offer. But if there is a positive vibe to Nats camp this spring — and there is — it’s not only because they haven’t yet opened the season and had the long road this summer laid out before them. It’s because the system now has some promise.

Young outfielder James Wood looks like an NBA small forward; former high school teammate Elijah Green looks like an NFL safety. Wood, in particular, could move quickly through the system. Jarlin Susana, an 18-year-old right-hander who stands a full 6 feet 6 and carries 235 pounds, casually pumped strikes in the high 90s during a minor league scrimmage Thursday.

Brady House, the 2021 first-round pick who is moving from shortstop to third, is healthy and ready. Robert Hassell III, who came over with Wood and Susana in the Soto trade, is dealing with a wrist issue but should be the starting center fielder at Class AA Harrisburg with the ability to be promoted. Right-hander Cole Henry threw live batting practice Tuesday, his first action since preemptive surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome — and could pitch in Class AAA games as soon as May.

There’s so much going on here. Those players and others give Nats officials — many of whom spend the morning hours smiling as they watch the action on the back fields here — the feeling that the cupboard is no longer bare.

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“This is the most upside group in the minor leagues that we’ve ever had coming up,” Rizzo said. “You talk about big, physical, toolsy, athletic guys. And I think that there are tools that translate into playability and should translate into becoming the foundation going forward.

“But my thought is always [that] it takes 10 prospects to get one superstar. The more, the better. The more athletic players that you can put in the system, the better chance you have of having a good group of players that turn it into the core of a championship club — like we had in ’12 to ’19.”

Nothing hangs over this spring training like the uncertainty around ownership because how can you make plans for 2024, 2026 or beyond if no executive or coach has a deal that extends beyond this season? But a close second is … well, let Rizzo put forth the argument because he took back-to-back 100-loss teams in 2008 and ’09 and built that core he was talking about.

“As I’ve said before and I say this with pride: We’ve done it before,” he said. “We know what we’re looking at. We know what we’re trying to do.”

There is both truth and brashness in that. But it’s followed quickly by the following: “We can’t rush the process. That’s the unfortunate part about it. You’ve got to live through it.”

The Nationals are living through an organizational decision to pivot born by a decade of trying to compete for the biggest prizes. In March, before they have lost the first of what could be so many games, it’s possible to envision how it might work out.