The Nationals have been a team in transition since winning the 2019 World Series. Their on-field talent has shifted the team into a new strata of contention (which is to say, non-contention), the front office has had to retool itself under GM Mike Rizzo after numerous departures, and most of the stars that represented the Nationals for the last half decade have departed. With all those changes, the Nationals are working to remake their identity.
Externally, Juan Soto will be the face of this club for the next three years, but internally, the organization needs processes, ethos, and a shared vision to return to their status as a perennial contender. That starts with establishing a “Nationals Way,” writes Mark Zuckerman of MASNsports.com. While awaiting participation from the Major League contingent of players, the Nationals are wasting no time in putting their minor league campers to work in building that culture.
In St. Louis, organization wide adherence to the “Cardinal Way” has long been the call-to-arms for the most stable franchise in the National League. It’s not a bad model to follow. But it’s not easy to duplicate.
The Cardinal Way is more than strategy, more than brand. People, baseball teams, businesses, any complex organization needs a ground truth, to know “true north,” and the Cardinal Way is the religion that keeps St. Louis baseball on task. It’s not an accident that two teams with the strongest organizational identities – the Yankees and Cardinals – have been the most stable contenders over the years. Out of 22 baseball seasons this century, the Cardinals made the postseason 15 times. They put a winning ballclub on the field in 21 of those 22 years, only failing to do so in 2007 when they posted a hardly-disastrous 78-84 record. The Cardinal Way works.
Of course, other franchises have talked the talk about building organizational continuity, but it’s harder than it looks. If there’s hope in the Nationals Way succeeding, it’s in their short history. The Nationals posted a winning record in eight consecutive seasons from 2012 to 2019. They were not, at the time, viewed as a behemoth of contention because it wasn’t until the eighth season – their championship season – that they even won a playoff round . But they had created an engine that routinely churned out winners.
That said, while competence became boilerplate for those Nationals, true contention was balanced on a razor’s edge. Only once did they make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, despite four division titles in the six-year span from 2012 to 2017. From where we sit today, the fact that their run coalesced into a World Series win seems more magical than engineered. But of course, that doesn’t give the Nats’ organization enough credit.
With Major Leaguers locked out, Ryan Zimmerman retired, and a host of new instructors leading the way in Nats camp, whatever system was in place before needs a system reboot in order to get up and running again. De Jon Watson, in his first season as the Nats’ Director of Player Development, is the man tasked with establishing the Nationals Way. De Watson talked to reporters, including Zuckerman, who provides some details about the system they’re trying to implement. Zuckerman passes along De Watson’s plan, but with axioms like “attacking the strike zone” and “doing damage when we have the opportunity to do damage,” the Nationals Way, publicly, is more esoteric than proper outline. In that way, it’s identical to the Cardinal Way. It’ll take time to know if they’re similar in any of the ways that matter most.