Assessing 2023 MLB front offices: Mike Rizzo's Washington Nationals may be making a turnaround

Rizzo used his savvy in 2023 to improve the Washington Nationals by subtraction.
Mar 30, 2023; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo
Mar 30, 2023; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo / Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Rizzo front office WAA impact for Washington Nationals: -1.9 games. Rank in MLB: T-17. Rank in division: 5.

One year deeper into Mike Rizzo’s post-2019 rebuild, the numbers remain negative. They do, however, appear to be approaching a turnaround.

The -1.9 game short-term impact imposed on the Nats by the team’s front office work is not nearly as negative as it was just one season ago. In 2022, Rizzo’s teardown was in full swing, costing the Nats -10.8 games as measured by WAA.

That was a National League-worst and exceeded only by the perpetual teardown underway in Oakland.

In 2023, the Nats remained a last-place team in the NL East. But the win total increased from 55 to 71, and the margin separating them from the division’s fourth place team shrunk from 14 games to just four.

In the nation’s capital, of course, one finds progress where one can.

Rizzo achieved something approaching stability (even if at a sub-mediocre level) in 2023 by proceeding cautiously with the personnel he had previously obtained, signed or grown. His preference appeared to be to allow that on-hand talent to mature and see what happened.

As a result, the Nats front office engaged in only 32 personnel moves since the end of the 2022 postseason affecting a big league roster. For reference, the average for an MLB front office is about 50.

Those 32 moves netted the aforementioned -1.9 short-term impact as measured by the net Wins Above Average of the players involved.

WAA is used in this series of front office evaluations because it is a zero-based version of WAR, therefore enabling valid approximations of impact against wins and losses.

Virtually the only new player of note Rizzo bothered himself with in 2023 was veteran infielder Jeimer Candelario. In November, Rizzo signed Candelario as a low-cost free agent at the bargain rate of $5 million for one year.

Candelario hit a pleasant .258 with some power while holding down third base for the Nats, his contributions amounting to +1.6 WAA. Then, at the trade deadline, having maximized Candelario’s potential, he flipped him to the Cubs for a couple of minor leaguers who may or may not ever help the Nats.

Of the 32 moves made by Rizzo, 13 benefitted the Nats while 16 worked out to the team’s short-term detriment and three were neutral.

With the notable exception of Candelario, Rizzo’s obvious weakness was a consistent inability to identify usable talent at the bargain basement section of the free agent marketplace, that bargain basement being where the Nats always shop these days. Rizzo signed, re-signed or extended 14 free agents since the end of the 2022 post-season, but only three produced a positive value.

Aside from Candelario,  the other two positives were outfielder Stone Garrett, who Rizzo signed after he was released by Arizona, and infielder Michael Chavis. Garrett batted .279 in 271 plate appearances and could figure in future Nationals plans.

But Rizzo’s 2023 free agent excursions more typically attracted such filler pieces as outfielder Corey Dickerson, pitchers Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams, and first baseman Dominic Smith. Those four players alone set back the Nats cause to the tune of -5.1 WAA.

Here’s the short-term and long-term statistical profile on the 2023 performance of Washington’s leadership team. All figures reflect Wins Above Average.

Acquired by trade, waiver claim or purchase

  • Since October 2022: 4 players, -0.6 net impact
  • Prior to October 2023:  11 players, +4.4 net impact

Signed as a free agent or extended for multiple seasons

  • Since October 2022: 14 players, -4.4 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022: 8 players, -3.1 net impact

System products

  • Since October 2022: 7 players, -1.5 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022: 4 players, -2.6 net impact

Traded away, waived, sold, released or lost to free agency

  • Since October 2022: 7 players, +4.6 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022: 9 players, -1.0 net impact.

Hired to run the Nats front office prior to the season of 2010, Rizzo ranks among the most senior team chief execs, and it shows in his head-to-head dealings with peers. To the extent the Nats have an identifiable core of talent, it largely consists of previous-season Rizzo acquisitions: C.J. Abrams, Lane Thomas, Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore, Keibert Ruiz and Hunter Harvey.

All were obtained by Rizzo in head-to-head swaps.

His luck did not run quite as strong this past season, although Rizzo’s more stand-pat, developmental approach encompassed the addition of only four fringe players via trade. Rather, Rizzo used his savvy in 2023 to improve the Nats by subtraction.

Since the end of the 2022 postseason, he has separated seven players from the Nats by trade or free agency who subsequently played for another MLB team. All seven generated negative value for their acquiring/signing teams.