Rizzo's checklist for Nationals is halfway there

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By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Unlike Jim Bowden, Mike Rizzo is a man of few quotes. Unlike Stan Kasten, Rizzo never talks a grand plan. But Rizzo acts.

In the last four months, the Nats' new GM has been in constant, steady motion. He signed Stephen Strasburg, a Scott Boras mega-client, seconds before a deadline. Rizzo also drafted 10th overall pick Drew Storen, a reliever who lit up the minors immediately.

In November, Rizzo raided foes of 17 scouts and front office execs -- adding 10 full-time slots -- within two weeks of the date when they became de facto free agents. That'll be Davey Johnson in his golf cart in spring training, whispering in his ear, and Braves draft guru Roy Clark as his new right-hand man.

This offseason, without a rumor arising, Rizzo picked the brains of his new front office brain trust and, secretively, began reconstructing a shattered team. So far, the new Nats GM struck to sign a 15-game winner and all-star (Jason Marquis) as the $15 million free agent ace of his staff. The durable Marquis has as many wins the last six years (80) as Andy Pettitte. Rizzo still needs another starter to rehab a grotesque rotation that had only one man with more than five wins in '09. But his stocking is now half full.

Rizzo has also partially rebuilt his bullpen with a free agent closer (Matt Capps) for $3.5 million and a trade for a set-up man (Brian Bruney). They are stat clones of Chad Cordero and Luis Ayala, the last quality Nats bullpen. The burly Capps has a three-year, 83.5 save percentage as a closer. Cordero was 84.2. Like the Chief, Capps has control, attacks, can get lit up but usually win.

Rizzo's also spent $6 million to bolster the Nats' defense and depth (future Hall of Fame catcher Pudge Rodríguez). For inventory depth, he's given minor league contracts to reliever (Everyday) Eddie Guardado and infielder Eric Bruntlett.

Here's the good news. Rizzo thinks he's only half finished.

"We're still in the middle. We're working on stuff every day," Kasten said. "But our name hasn't popped up [in rumors] until we got who we wanted. Mike finds that approach very useful.

"I don't know if our next move will be in two days or two months," Kasten said before adding, " 'You shake and shake the ketchup bottle. First none comes out and then a lot'll.' " The Nats need a lot more shaking. Their offseason would be excellent for a normal team. But they're nowhere near normal.

First, they've been horrid for two years and, without massive improvement, fans will keep voting with their feet. Second, their '10 budget was a tiny $40 million when Rizzo started spending. Third, while this winter's free agent crop is not splashy, it is ideal for the pitching-and-defense challenged Nats, who are in heaven sorting through mid-rotation stalwarts like Marquis for $7.5 million a year and solid roster additions like Capps and Pudge in the $3 million range -- merely the average MLB salary.

In this hard-times free agent market and with their low payroll, the Nats have at least another $10 million to spend and $15 million for the right moves. In other words, just what Marquis, Capps, Pudge and Bruney already cost, minus the contracts of closer Mike MacDougal and catcher Josh Bard, whom they haven't kept.

So, could the Nats still sign Jon Garland (4.01 ERA), Doug Davis (4.12), Jarrod Washburn (3.78, 11th in the AL), Joel Pineiro (15-12, 3.49) or Vicente Padilla (12-6) -- all in the Marquis price range, give or take a bit? Yes. And they should.

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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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