ORLANDO – The Washington Nationals can look back at last winter, at the roots of why they went from a 98-win juggernaut to an 86-win runner-up, and rue the moves that never happened. In the bullpen, they gave Zach Duke a major league deal and trusted he could serve as the entirety of their left-handed relief corps. On the bench, they trusted a unit that was excellent in 2012 would repeat its performance.
Splashy signings and a blockbuster trade shaped the complexion of their offseason, but during the year the edges of their roster frayed. Strengthened by a new closer, the bullpen wilted as the lack of a proven lefty shifted roles and enhanced vulnerability. A huge factor in their division title, the Nationals’ bench — “a joke,” one American League executive called it — contributed to their regression.
At the general manager meetings here, Mike Rizzo had plenty of conversations and scheduled sit-down meetings with agents and teams for Wednesday night. The Nationals plan to ensure their mistakes are not repeated, focusing on upgrades to the bench and bullpen.
The Nationals have already reached out to several free agent lefty relievers, including Boone Logan of the New York Yankees and the San Francisco Giants’ Javier Lopez.
Rizzo sent Lopez’s agent Barry Meister a text message a week ago, and the sides have a “mutual level of interest,” Meister said. The sides have not been in touch since the initial communication, but they plan to reconvene.
A key cog in the Giants’ 2012 World Series run and an 11-year veteran, Lopez has been one of the game’s most reliable lefty specialists. Lopez made $4.25 million in 2013, the final season of a two-year, $8.5 million deal.
Lopez, 36, has appeared in 72 games per season over the past four years, striking out 6.9 batters per nine innings with a 2.37 ERA. Last year, left-handed batters hit .156 with a .208 on-base percentage and .222 slugging percentage against his deceptive, sidewinding delivery. Over the last three years, remarkably, Lopez has allowed one home run to a left-handed hitter in 299 plate appearances.
Meister said playing for a team that has a chance to win the World Series would be the “overriding factor” in Lopez’s decision on his 2014 destination. Location may be in the Nationals’ favor, too. Lopez was born in Puerto Rico, but he grew up in Fairfax, attended Robinson High and played college ball at Virginia. His sister and other family members still live in the area.
Lefties Manny Parra and J.P. Howell, free agents the Nationals had interest in last season, could also be targets.
While they have shown early interest in lefty relievers, Rizzo said he believes the Nationals are “in a much better position with left-handed relievers this year than we were last year,” listing the Ian Krol, Fernando Abad and Xavier Cedeno as viable options.
He also raised the idea of breaking in left-handed pitching prospects, namely Sammy Solis, as another option to beef up the left side of the Nationals’ bullpen. The St. Louis Cardinals have enjoyed success with a similar plan for several of their young prospects in recent seasons.
The Nationals will also retool their bench. Scott Hairston, a midseason trade acquisition, will return for the final year of his contract and serve as a right-handed threat off the bench. The Nationals may look at a reserve catcher, but Rizzo called Jhonatan Solano “competent” and would be comfortable bringing him back as Wilson Ramos’s backup.
Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi will return as well and vie for playing time. With Chad Tracy heading to free agency, the Nationals will be open to any bench improvement but seek a better left-handed hitter.
Depending how the offseason unfolds, the Nationals could count a former starter among their reserves. Once a stalwart at second base, Danny Espinosa will be asked to compete in order to work his way back after a dismal offensive year and midseason demotion. Rizzo has no plans to deal Espinosa now, while his value has sunk.
Espinosa will have a chance to challenge Anthony Rendon at second. The Nationals also need a backup behind shortstop Ian Desmond, and Espinosa’s strong defense would allow him to perform that role if the Nationals cannot find one elsewhere.
Other teams “know about him and like him, and he’s got the ability to play shortstop, so that’s attractive to a lot of people,” Rizzo said. “People mention his name. But at this point, you’re selling low. We think too much of the player to sell after the offensive season that he had, because he’s better than that.”