Before the Nationals played their penultimate game of the season, General Manager Mike Rizzo looked back at 2013 and looked ahead to the winter. He covered a lot of ground, so we’ll cut to the chase and run through Rizzo’s thoughts, bullet-point style.
>>> Rizzo, obviously, said the search to replace Manager Davey Johnson will take priority. “That’s probably job No. 1, because a manager is going to have input on what we do with the roster construction and that type of thing,” Rizzo said. Beyond that, Rizzo would not discuss the search because the season has not ended yet.
>>> Ryan Zimmerman will be the Nationals’ 2014 third baseman. His play alone had already established that. Zimmerman has lately been buzzing accurate throws across the diamond, a sign that he has more fully recovered from his shoulder surgery last November. But Rizzo made clear today he never considered moving Zimmerman to first.
“I never had any discussions or thoughts about anyone else,” Rizzo said. “He was our third baseman of the future and a middle-of-the-lineup hitter, and I knew that as his shoulder was rehabbing and getting better each and every day that he’d be the defensive guy that we’ve had in the past and hopefully we’ll have in the future.”
>>> Rizzo had n interesting take on what ailed the Nationals this season. He thought the Nationals’ failed early in the year at turning base runners into runs.
“I think offensive efficiency is the thing that kind of disappointed us most,” Rizzo said. “It’s not doing the little things to create runs and manufacture runs. We were more reliant on the longball, I think, than we should’ve been and I think it’s shown. We’ve created more runs, we’ve stolen more bases, we’ve hit with runners in scoring position much better recently, and that’s really the roster that we constructed all along. We just waited too long to get it going.”
Their offensive shortcomings – which largely went away once the lineup got healthier and Rick Schu came aboard as hitting coach – seemed not to be predicated on “efficiency” as much of a lack of hitting. The Nationals made productive outs in 32 percent of their opportunities, which ranked sixth in the NL. The Nationals plated 14 percent of their baserunners, just above league average. They had 68 successful sacrifice hits, which ranked fourth.
Also in the what-went-wrong vein, Rizzo revisited his decision to start the season with converted starter Zach Duke as the Nationals’ lone left-handed reliever. Rizzo was asked if he would have done that differently.
“I think that will come in the assessment part,” Rizzo said. “I’m sure there is. It’s been documented we probably should have went with another left-handed reliever to start the season. We made a decision we felt comfortable with at the time. There’s enough analyzation to go over. We’re going to dissect this season every which way we can and see what we can improve. The front-office decisions we made will be part of the analysis and we’ll see if we can improve that part of the operation, too.”
>>> The possibility of extending Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann has been a frequent topic. It will come to a head this offseason more than ever. Both Desmond and Zimmermann – two homegrown, all-star caliber players – are two seasons away from free agency. If the Nationals cannot strike a deal with them this winter, the chances of both tempting free agency with just one year to go becomes eminently more likely.
“Desi is one of our core players,” Rizzo said. “He’s one of our leaders on the team. If there’s a deal out there that we can get done that keeps him here for the long-term, it would be certainly up there on the priority list. It’s going to be a deal that would have to work for both parties.
And Zimmermann, too?
“Yeah He’s one of our own,” Rizzo said. “We drafted, developed and signed him. He’s one of the really good pitchers in the league. We’d certainly like to keep him on our team.”
>>> Rizzo was a bit vague in discussing his priorities in terms of roster construction. He rightfully sees a roster with its lineup set. Among the Nationals’ eight starting position players, all are under contract or team control for next season.
“The team, as far as the core group, is set up pretty good,” Rizzo said. “The core rotation and the core bullpen is set up pretty good. I think we’re going to look to obviously better ourselves in any way we can. But just looking at an overview, we’ll probably look to improve the bullpen, see if we can improve the bench a little bit. And any other way that we can improve the everyday lineup, if there’s any way we can do that, we’ll certainly look into that also.”
Second base is probably the Nationals’ most muddled spot. Anthony Rendon emerged as the starter, but it could become a competition in spring between him, Steve Lombardozzi and Danny Espinosa, who finished the year struggling in the minors. Espinosa seems to be a trade candidate, but Rizzo spoke highly of him.
“When the season ends tomorrow, Rendon will be our starting second baseman,” Rizzo said. “But we’re going to go into spring training with an open competition for a lot of positions. We’ve got a lot of good young players at that position. Rendon has played remarkably well at that position for a guy who is learning defensively at the major league level and trying to hit for the first time at the major league level. Compound that with that he’s played more games than he’s ever played in his career and he’s had a remarkable rookie season. And let’s not forget about Danny Espinosa, who hit 20 home runs and stole 20 bases in the big leagues already and is a stalwart defensive player. And Lombo, who is one of the most steady players that we have on the ballclub. We’ve got a lot of good options over there and we’re going to roll them out there in spring training and see what happens.”
With Zimmerman further entrenched at third base, the Nationals have less motivation to try to trade Adam LaRoche. Rizzo expressed confidence that LaRoche will bounce back from the worst full season of his career, chalking it up to the problem LaRoche had keeping weight on.
“I think this year was an anomaly for him,” Rizzo said. “He showed streaks of being the Adam LaRoche that we all know. He had some physical ailments that curtailed some of his production. I’m confident he’ll come back to spring training next year fit, healthy and ready to produce, as he always has.”