By Tracee Hamilton
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Not since the buildup to the Great Baseball Draft of '09 has there been such excitement surrounding the Nationals. As always, it's off-field excitement -- the trade deadline is 10 days away -- but with the Nats, you take what you can get. Ownership has promised it remains committed to building a winning team. Fans expect some deft maneuvering from the front office. Anticipation is mounting . . .
What's that you say, interim manager Jim Riggleman?
"You know, I really don't give it that much thought."
Okay, please explain.
"It's not as much a factor anymore. July 31st used to be really a huge day and it's kind of exciting and it's a little bit like the draft, you know, there's a lot of interest in that day. But I think because of some of the people who get moved, there will be a lot of movement after the 31st anyway, so it doesn't quite, internally with the general managers and managers I think, it doesn't hold the same status, that date, as it did some years ago because now there's a lot of contracts out there that people will be put through waivers after the trade deadline who won't be claimed because of the dollars. I don't think the GMs are like 'I have to do this by the 31st.' But there will be some movement and I think it's exciting for fans to see and people speculate and all that."
So, the Monkees were wrong, and help is not on the way?
"We're going to be extremely active up until the trade deadline," interim general manager Mike Rizzo assures us, although he does agree with Riggleman's post-July 31 prediction, saying, "I think it's going to be active past the trade deadline." What you won't see is the Nationals -- owners of the worst record in baseball, losers of six straight and 11 of their past 12 after Monday night's 6-2 loss in the opener of a three-game homestand against the Mets -- trading away farm talent for an unsignable veteran who might be a Band-Aid, if not a tourniquet.
"I'm not averse to veteran players at all, but we're not going to bring in a veteran player that we don't have plans on signing beyond" the season, Rizzo said. "We wouldn't 'rent' a player for the rest of the season."
What Rizzo would like to do is a deal along the lines of last month's acquisition of center fielder Nyjer Morgan and pitcher Sean Burnett. Morgan is hitting .367 with 10 steals since arriving in D.C.; Burnett has pitched 8 1/3 innings with one walk, eight strikeouts, one hold and a 1.08 ERA. That's the kind of trade that fulfills both of Rizzo's mandates: short-term help, long-term benefits.
"They not only help us immediately when we put them in the lineup, but Morgan we control for five more years and Burnett we control for four more years," he said. "That's the most important part of any kind of trade that we make.
"In the short term and in the long term, we always have to be cognizant of building a club not only for the immediate gratification but for the future, because we . . . need players to grow with the franchise. That had a lot to do with getting Morgan and Burnett."
When you sift through the roster and eliminate the players the Nats won't trade -- Ryan Zimmerman, for instance -- and the players the Nats can't trade -- Austin Kearns springs to mind -- you aren't left with a ton of fodder. First baseman Nick Johnson, however, is the name most mentioned. After an injury-shortened 2008, Johnson, 30, is hitting .305 with a .414 on-base percentage, well above his career averages (.274, .399), although his slugging percentage has dropped.
The hitch: Johnson's heir apparent at first, Chris Marrero, isn't quite ready for the majors. Marrero, who just turned 21, is at high-Class A Potomac, where he's hitting .302 (.362 OBP, .489 SLG, .851 OPS) through Sunday.
"Chris Marrero is certainly the first baseman of the future for us," Rizzo said, adding that he's at Potomac for a second season only because he was slowed by an injury last year. "If he didn't sign with us out of high school he'd be a college junior right now and we'd be drafting him again, so he's come a long way since we took him. He's starting to take off with the bat offensively, he's learning a new position at first base and that's coming along very well. He's certainly the first baseman of the future.
"For the immediate future, this year, next year, Nick's our first baseman right now. The Lerner family . . . there's no mandate to move salaries, to move players just to clear space. We need to make good, prudent baseball deals. With Marrero in the background and knowing what we know of him I think he's going to be an outstanding major league player, and with that in mind, if we can make a good deal for any of our players, we certainly will."
With that in mind, is there pressure on the front office to make a splash of some kind at, or even after, the deadline in order to appease the increasingly restless -- and absent -- fan base?
"I talk with ownership all the time and I think the fans have been extremely patient with us in the three years since '06 when the Lerners took over," Rizzo said. "This is a long process. There are no shortcuts when it comes to a championship-quality ballclub. I think the fan base has to trust in the front office executives like myself that we're going to do what's in the best interests of the ballclub. You cannot make a deal just to make a deal, because it will come back and bite you. We have to make good, prudent deals and figure out what our roster is going to be this year, next year and beyond, and always strive to improve the ballclub in every deal you make."
No conversation with Rizzo would be complete without a mention of Stephen Strasburg. The club has a month to sign the phenom-slash-top draft pick and Strasburg recently said he hadn't talked with the Nationals. Rizzo preaches calm.
"There are a lot of things that are happening behind the scenes that nobody is going to know about because we're not going to talk about it," said Rizzo, adding that the team will not be negotiating "through the media." "People in the front office, we know what Stephen Strasburg means to our major league ballclub."