At baseball winter meetings, Nationals’ Mike Rizzo is usually predictably unpredictable


Could Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo be one of the centers of attention at the upcoming baseball winter meetings? His track record may provide an answer. (Nick Wass/AP)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist November 30, 2011

Hold on to your (Nationals) hats. Whatever Washington’s top priority is for this offseason — free agent pitcher Mark Buehrle or Roy Oswalt, or an unlikely mega-signing of Prince Fielder, or a trade for a center fielder who can hit leadoff, like B.J. Upton — we’ll probably find out in a hurry.

General Manager Mike Rizzo usually runs silent, acts fast and pays up, if necessary, for the player he wants most. Then after the holidays, he bargain-hunts for free agents at positions where supply exceeds demand.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

If you listen to Manager Davey Johnson, the Nats may need to add only one, or at most two players right now. If your list is short, you can shop fast.

Dec. 1 is the date when baseball’s hot stove league usually heats up, sometimes reaching a boiling point in a hurry. One big signing serves as a catalyst for the next. Last year, Adam Dunn, Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford and Cliff Lee went off the free agent board on Dec. 3, 5, 7 and 15, signing almost a half-billion dollars’ worth of guaranteed contracts.

So far in his tenure, Rizzo has been predictably unpredictable. He does exactly what he says he’ll do; but the names, like Werth, can be a shock. His timing can be unexpected. The winter meetings, with lots of trades, start Monday. The Nats signed Werth the day before last year’s winter meetings.

Now, the GM says he wants a quality 200-inning starter, but not just a workhorse. That sounds like Buehrle or Oswalt. But, given Rizzo’s $25 million offer to Aroldis Chapman two offseasons ago, it might be a star like Yu Darvish or Tsuyoshi Wada from Japan. “Mike’s out of the country,” Johnson said slyly on Tuesday.

Rizzo also openly covets that center fielder who can hit leadoff, probably in a trade. Upton of the Rays, Denard Span of the Twins or even free agent Coco Crisp fit the general mold. But so does Cuba’s Yoenis Cespedes, much scouted by the Nats, but on whom opinions vary widely.

The Nats have a low enough payroll to go after almost any free agent, even Fielder, at least in theory. The team is deep enough in young pitchers, middle infielders and catching prospects that any trade is plausible. Yet, according to Johnson, the best strategy for this winter may be patience.

“We can contend for the playoffs next year right where we are, with a couple of tweaks. We’re one player, maybe two players, away from being a strong team,” Johnson said.

Then he made it clear one of those players might be Bryce Harper, 19. “You can’t hide talent,” Johnson said. “Bryce is like Dwight Gooden [in the Mets’ rotation at age 19]. If he’s ready, he’s ready.”

Johnson would welcome Buehrle or Oswalt, who would “improve an area where we are pretty good already so that it’s really pretty good.

“But we already have seven starters with first-division stuff. It takes time to find out how good Ross Detwiler, Brad Peacock and Tom Milone can be. It took three years in the majors for Ron Darling to figure it out.”

As for gaudier acquisitions, Johnson is skeptical whether a Fielder, or a center fielder who comes at high cost, would be best for the Nats, despite the immediate impact.

“Anybody would like that left-handed [Fielder] bat in the middle. But is that a fit? You have an $8 million Adam LaRoche” returning healthy,Johnson said. “The timing is not there, it seems to me.”

If you wonder why Johnson is a player’s manager who inspires loyalty, you got an example. By minimizing this week’s Fielder trial-balloon rumor, he only made one person happy: Merry Christmas, LaRoche family. Besides, Michael Morse’s best defensive position is first base, too. Some distant day, Anthony Rendon at third base and Ryan Zimmerman at first might make sense. So, don’t clog up a position for a decade and deny yourself flexibility.

“You can get a little over-aggressive and try to put a championship team together right away. You can box yourself in. I don’t mind looking a year or two ahead. Make sure the pieces fit in the big picture,” Johnson said. “I’d rather have the cake all the way baked before you put the icing on it.”

What Johnson really wants from Santa Rizzo is a vastly better-hitting bench because, last year, the one he inherited “was horrendous.” The Nats endured 1,564 at-bats from players listed by baseball-reference.com as their bench; they hit a combined .203 with a pathetic 20 homers. A good bench would produce 100 extra hits and 20 more home runs in the same at-bats.

If you want to improve cheaply and fast, then get Johnson the “hairy-chested” group he wants so he can “put the fear of God in the other manager” and “control the late-game matchups.” A few extra wins worth of stars might cost $25 million in annual salaries. You can build a bench for a fraction.

Nats fans, and maybe even Rizzo, don’t know what a superior bench looks like, how it functions or the intimidation it can provide. The ’77 Phils had three bench vets who hit .329 in 605 at bats with 107 RBI, 75 extra-base hits and an otherworldly 148 OPS+. Their stats equaled a big year by Mike Schmidt. They were Tim McCarver, Bake McBride and, yes, Davey.

If the Nats can add Buehrle or Oswalt and fortify the bench, then one final huge decision may arrive in Viera: Harper, the teen who tore up the Arizona Fall League. Johnson loves big young talents and big personalities.

“Bryce has the same kind of makeup as Gooden,” Johnson said. “Dwight probably thought he was ready for the majors at 18. And Bryce probably thought he should have made the team last year at 18.

“Harper is going to be competing in the spring. That will speak volumes,” Johnson said. Shouldn’t Harper be brought up in midseason, like Stephen Strasburg, so he will become a free agent a full season later in his career?

“I never get involved with contracts. That’s their decision. I make my recommendation on what makes the best ball club,” Johnson said. “But you can shoot yourself in the foot making decisions just for contract reasons”

This has a chance to be a lot of fun. Rizzo is out hunting for heaven knows what player in who knows which country. The winter meeting fireworks start Monday. Johnson is speculating about a possible outfield combination with Harper, Werth in center field (“that’s one reason we looked at him out there in September”) and Morse.

With a second wild-card team now added to each league, the 80-win Nationals, with Strasburg and Harper perhaps on the field together sooner than expected, are suddenly a realistic part of playoff-race discussions. Let’s get this hot stove league smokin’.

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