MILWAUKEE — After two days of meeting with his fellow general managers at the Pfister Hotel, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has a different sense than after past similar gatherings. After losing 196 games in his first two years at the helm, Rizzo entered these meetings with a third-place team led by a young core. The league took notice.
“The early sense I got is that there’s a lot of interest in a lot of our players, which is good,” Rizzo said. “It hasn’t been like that for many of these meetings.”
As Rizzo has bounced trade ideas off of other clubs – “foundation-laying things,” he said – his main focus has been finding the right fit to deal for a center fielder. The Nationals have been clear their top priority is acquiring a center fielder, and despite an expanded set of free agent center fielders, Rizzo believes the player will come in a trade.
“We’re open to acquiring a player any means we can,” Rizzo said. “I still think the logical way would be a trade route. That’s not to say that something else wouldn’t come up later on.”
Rizzo used the general managers’ meetings as a way to start trade talks with other clubs. “We’ve talked to a lot of people that we feel are fits with,” he said. “The conversations were good, fruitful. We’ll see if they bear any fruit at the end. But we’ve done a good job of targeting the teams we feel we’d be fits with. We’ve talked to a lot of them.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a huge pool of players. There’s a lot of good players that fit what we’re trying to do. Everyone is open for a lot of things. Everyone keeps an open mind, and then you work on things.”
One of the players unlikely to be available in a trade is Denard Span, the Minnesota Twins center fielder and on-base force the Nationals nearly plucked at the last trade deadline. Twins General Manager Terry Ryan indicated he is not willing to trade Span or Ben Revere, another speedy outfielder.
“We’re a little lean” in the outfield, Ryan said. “Span is a good player. We have plans for him to be our leadoff hitter and out center fielder. He had a tough year injury-wise as well. We are in the same need as most clubs. We’re looking for a good center fielder and a leadoff hitter. He can do both. Span is important to our ballclub.”
The Nationals hope to upgrade at the top of their lineup, where their leadoff hitters had a league-worst .285 on-base percentage last season. Still, finding a center fielder who bats leadoff isn’t a necessity for them.
“I don’t think it’s a big priority,” Rizzo said. “He needs to be a two-way player, offense and defense, a well-rounded type of guy. To be a prototypical leadoff guy that kind of slaps the ball and runs, we’re not that specific.”
With the Nationals not fixated on a leadoff-hitting center fielder, players like B.J. Upton, who could be available in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, and Cuban defector Yoennis Cespedes would be more attractive. Rizzo said he has never seen Cespedes play in person, but Nationals scouts have “seen him extensively this offseason,” Rizzo said. “We feel that we’ve got a pretty good track record on him.”
The Nationals have an open-ended leadoff situation, with shortstop Ian Desmond the best current option. Desmond has a .304 career on-base percentage, but he thrived late in 2011 after Manager Davey Johnson moved him to leadoff. After Desmond began hitting first, he hit .305 with a .342 on-base percentage over 186 plate appearances.
Rizzo spoke Tuesday afternoon with Johnson, and both agreed they would feel fine with Desmond hitting first this year. “I’d feel comfortable going that route,” Rizzo said. “If we’re as-is, I think that’s the way we’d go heading into spring training.”
The meetings are winding down, with general managers and owners scheduled to leave tomorrow. Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner could not make the meetings because of a minor medical issue, and Ed Cohen, another principal owner, is representing the Nationals.
Last year at the GM meetings, which took place in Florida, Rizzo and Lerner flew directly to California to meet with Jayson Werth at agent Scott Boras’s offices. Nothing like that this year – Rizzo is flying back to Washington tomorrow.