What Nationals can learn from hiccups in Rangers, Tigers rebuilds

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What Nats can learn from hiccups in Rangers, Tigers rebuilds originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers made clear their feelings toward the progress of their ongoing rebuilds over the last two weeks with their respective firings of President of Baseball Operations Jon Daniels and GM Alex Avila. Daniels had been one of Texas’s leading front office executives since 2005. Avila was in his 22nd year with the Tigers.

Both organizations decided change was needed after their long-term rebuilds didn’t translate to a winning product on the field in 2022. The two clubs were among the biggest spenders in free agency last offseason, shelling out over $800 million combined in free-agent contracts with hopes of building around young cores just as they were breaking into the majors.

Instead, the Tigers (45-75) are last place in the AL Central and barreling toward their eighth straight losing season. The Rangers (52-65) have improved on their 102-loss campaign of a year ago, but they cut ties with Daniels and manager Chris Woodward as their playoff hopes dwindled. Detroit and Texas will now move forward with new decision makers at the top.

The Nationals are in the early stages of a rebuild of their own. That word, “rebuild,” carries with it a lot of weight. President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo prefers to use “reboot,” emphasizing that the club doesn’t intend to spend the next half decade losing. When the club traded superstar outfielder Juan Soto for a historic haul of prospects at the deadline, he expressed confidence in beating the timeline of a long-term rebuild.

“I think we’ve taken several steps forward,” Rizzo said in a press conference following the trade. “It accelerates the process. I think that you lose a generational talent like that, but you put in five key elements of your future championship roster along with last year’s trade deadline and the last three drafts and the last three international signing periods. We’ve put in this system, in the last three years, 15 or 16 high-quality, high-tooled up players that have very impactful futures ahead of them.”

Now devoid of a franchise cornerstone in Soto, the Nationals (39-80) plan to build around a young core that includes CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, Josiah Gray, Keibert Ruiz, Luis García and Cade Cavalli. There is plenty of potential to go around in that group and the farm system behind them is much improved, but they all have a lot of proving to do in the majors.

The Tigers thought they had a championship core in the making with former top prospects Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning all set to share the field for the first time in 2022. They signed shortstop Javier Báez (six years, $140 million) and starter Eduardo Rodríguez (five years, $77 million) to long-term deals, believing they could vault themselves back into playoff contention.

Those young players could still eventually pan out, but injuries disrupted the seasons of all three of their pitchers — Mize and Skubal are out for the year — while Torkelson (.577 OPS) was sent back down to the minors and Greene (.617 OPS) hasn’t fared much better. To make matters worse, those free-agent contracts got off to poor starts with Báez struggling mightily at the plate and Rodríguez missing three months due to a rib injury and off-field personal matter.

Detroit went all in on an unproven core, and it resulted in Avila’s departure. The Rangers made a couple of big splashes last winter as well, inking shortstop Corey Seager (10 years, $325 million), second baseman Marcus Semien (seven years, $175 million) and starter Jon Gray (four years, $56 million) to significant contracts and trading for veteran catcher Mitch Garver.

The difference between the Tigers and Rangers is the latter still has lots of talent coming up through the minor leagues. Baseball America listed Texas sixth in its midseason farm system rankings Thursday while Detroit landed at 27th. The Rangers didn’t play up to their high expectations for this year, but they know what they have in pre-arbitration players like first baseman Nate Lowe, outfielder Adolis García and starter Dane Dunning.

Even amid a front office shakeup, Texas is still headed in a positive direction with the option of either rolling the dice on some of its prospects or trading them for established players to compete sooner. The Rangers also benefit from not having any bad contracts hanging over their heads from the previous regime, unlike the Tigers with Miguel Cabrera.

The cautionary tale: It’s a risky move to go all-in on an unproven roster.

Washington plans to return to contention in the near future, but doing so would require the Nationals to be more aggressive in free agency and the trade market. If the ballclub, which is on a 109-loss pace, is to take a step forward next season and contend for the playoffs in 2024, it would mean members of their aforementioned core establishing themselves as capable major leaguers.

Will Abrams turn out to be the reliable contact hitter he was in Triple-A? Can Gore adjust to the workload required of a full-time starter? Is Gray going to cut down on the home runs? How consistent will Ruiz be at the plate? Can García reach base enough to warrant a spot in the everyday lineup? How will Cavalli’s skillset play once he reaches the majors?

Before the Nationals can determine whether their 2024 roster will be ready to make the leap, they will need to answer at least a few of those questions in 2023. They could still be aggressive this offseason, but expectations should be tempered and any moves made hedged with an eye on building for the long term until a dependable core starts to take shape.