Mike Rizzo is a self-described “list guy,” a trait that colors how the Washington Nationals’ general manager plans his offseason. In the executive offices on the third floor of Nationals Park, Rizzo hangs three boards with the names of available free agents — one ranked by scouting preference, another by sabermetric preference and the third by a hybrid of the two.
Rizzo likens the process to choosing sides in playground basketball, setting the order for which players he most wants on his team. But as the winter slowly unfolds, the game becomes less simple. The players receive more or less interest than expected. Teams make surprising choices. The order on Rizzo’s carefully prepared lists turns fluid.
“The market,” Rizzo said, “will change our preference.”
The market, starting Sunday at the winter meetings in Dallas, will begin to shift and develop more rapidly than ever. The Nationals have enjoyed a relatively quiet offseason thus far, having re-signed Chien-Ming Wang, met with free agents and scouted international players. That figures to change this week during baseball’s annual player movement spectacle.
The Nationals’ priorities have not changed this winter. They still want to add a veteran starting pitcher to match with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. They want to land a center fielder, preferably one who can lead off, and preferably through a trade. In less high-profile matters, they want to upgrade their bench, a weakness last year.
Their preliminary offseason work will be put into action when the Nationals’ contingent arrives in Dallas on Sunday. The meetings begin in earnest Monday and last until Thursday, closing with the Rule 5 draft.
Last year, the Nationals used the spotlight of the winter meetings to make their biggest splash since the franchise moved to Washington. On the Sunday before the meetings officially began, Rizzo stunned the industry when he signed Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract.
Several people familiar with the Nationals’ plans do not expect them to deliver a similar blockbuster this year, with the team preferring to complement its established young core rather than overhaul the roster. But, as the Werth signing showed, the Nationals cannot be counted out.
If the Nationals do make another splashy move, it likely would not come at first base. Though the Nationals have been connected through reports with slugging free agent first baseman Prince Fielder, people familiar with the team’s plans said they do not plan on targeting a high-profile first baseman. The plan is to let Adam LaRoche, who will make $8 million this year after recovering from shoulder surgery, take the position.
Instead, the Nationals’ statement signing this winter, if there is one, will likely be a veteran starting pitcher. At the start of the offseason, the Nationals’ main target was left-hander Mark Buehrle, an 11-year veteran who fulfills Rizzo’s qualifications — a reliably effective innings-eater. The Nationals showed their seriousness in Buehrle by flying to his home in St. Louis for a visit.
Buehrle, though, has become one of the most sought-after players on the free agent market, with about one-third of the teams in the league showing some level of interest. It could take a four-year deal worth upwards of $50 million to sign Buehrle — and that’s where Rizzo’s lists come into play.
While Buehrle was the Nationals’ No. 1 target, the shifting market could convince them to look elsewhere. They have also been in talks with Bob Garber, the agent for both C.J. Wilson and Roy Oswalt. Wilson came into the offseason regarded as the clear-cut best pitcher on the market. It still could take roughly $100 million to sign him, and the Nationals prefer Buehrle. But the seemingly tepid interest across the league in Wilson, combined with the heavy bidding on Buehrle, could convince the Nationals to consider making a run at Wilson.
For their center fielder, the Nationals believe acquiring one in a trade would be their “most logical” move. The Nationals and Tampa Bay Rays discussed B.J. Upton at the July trade deadline, and those talks could be reprised in Dallas. The Cleveland Indians removed one option from the free agent field when they re-signed Grady Sizemore.
This week, Rizzo was in the Dominican Republic scouting Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, a 26-year-old center fielder with a powerful bat who is probably ready to play in the majors immediately. But Cespedes may not be cleared to become a free agent until January. The Nationals would be hard-pressed to wait and risk missing out on a center fielder. Then again, they would feel comfortable putting Werth in center if need be, leaving him there until Bryce Harper reaches the majors.
These winter meetings should usher in at least one change for the Nationals: The quality of their young players, many of whom have finally graduated to the majors, allows them to be more selective with players they pursue. Last year, Livan Hernandez started on opening day. The Nationals now consider Hernandez an only-in-an-emergency option. Hernandez has four meetings scheduled at the winter meetings with other teams who view him as a starter — which the Nationals do not.
After the Nationals finished in third place last year, half a game shy of .500, they figure to make their first significant run at contention since 2005. Their success may hinge on what happens over the coming days, as the names on Rizzo’s list become more and more real.