Nationals Prepare for Offseason Makeover
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
When the final game ended in the Washington Nationals' 2009 season, a fair portion of the team -- players and coaches alike -- transformed, almost immediately, from employees into job seekers. Veteran pitcher Liván Hernández, luggage already packed, walked through the middle of the Turner Field visitors' clubhouse and raised his arms, as if making a public declaration.
"All people, I love you guys," he said. "I hope to see you next year."
"If not," he continued, after a pause, "you know where to find me."
General Manager Mike Rizzo overheard the plea, walked over to Hernández, and said they'd be talking soon.
"We just have to get [agent] Barry Praver on board," Rizzo told his pitcher.
For many of those who contributed to Washington's 103-loss season, stepping into the offseason feels like springing from a diving board. Few who said their goodbyes Sunday know if they'll be with the team in February. In the next months, the organization must select its next permanent manager, restock its front office, establish a new scouting base in the Dominican Republic, find one or two veteran starting pitchers, sign or trade for a starting middle infielder and perhaps obtain a No. 1 catcher. Even as the Nationals improved during the season's second half, interim manager Jim Riggleman offered frequent reminders that modest advances shouldn't obscure the problems. The Nationals were the worst team in baseball. They would be foolish to bring back the same group in 2010 and expect anything different.
"You've got to figure out which parts are real keepers," Riggleman said. "You can't finish 35, 40 games out and keep everybody."
Rizzo, entering his first offseason as general manager, must orchestrate the overhaul, or at least carry out what's left of it. If a true overhaul has two parts -- removal and replacement -- phase one is already complete. Jim Bowden resigned as general manager in March. Randy St. Claire was fired as pitching coach in June. Manny Acta was fired as manager in July. And as for the Washington roster itself? Of the 30 pitchers used by the Nationals this season, only one, John Lannan, stayed with the team from wire to wire.
Now, the Nationals must restock. In a recent interview about his offseason plans, Rizzo detailed some of the steps his team will soon take. In the next few days, he will begin the search process to fill holes in the front office -- most notably assistant general manager, Rizzo's former role, and farm director. "That's the first order of business," Rizzo said.
He must also, of course, determine whether Riggleman -- who guided the Nationals' second-half improvement -- should become the long-term manager. Though Rizzo has emphasized that Riggleman is a strong candidate, he won't be the only one. Rizzo would prefer a swift managerial search, but he acknowledged that getting permission to interview outside candidates whose teams are in the playoffs could slow the process. Either way, Rizzo wants a manager with deep experience in the game -- and, preferably, some past experience as a manager.
"Um, yeah, I'd say it's important. It's a key," Rizzo said. "But it's not the end-all and be-all. There's good baseball guys who have been in the game their whole lives who just haven't had the manager's title or the managing job at the big league level."
While Rizzo looks at candidates, Riggleman will wait at home in Madeira Beach, Fla., trying not to fret about the uncertainty. He knows the ordeal, if only because of what happened one year ago, when he served for several months as Seattle's interim skipper, waited out a search process that led elsewhere, and eventually took a job in Washington as bench coach.
"I just really love to do it," Riggleman said, speaking about his current job. "I challenge anybody to say they like managing better than I do. I live for it. But, you know, I just -- I know that there's not really a lot you can do about it. I know we've worked very hard; I've done what I can do, and you have to be satisfied with that. Regardless of which way it goes, if I'm named manager I'm not gonna go, 'I knew I did a great job. I knew I'd get it.' If I don't get it, I'm not going to say, 'I guess I didn't do a very good job.' "
Washington's coaching staff, a group of newcomers for 2009, must wait even longer than Riggleman to learn its status. If a new skipper is chosen, the Nationals could replace some or all of the staff. If Riggleman returns, fewer changes are likely.
"I hope we're all here next year to keep going on that line [of improvement]," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "But we'll find out soon enough."
Rizzo, at several points since the trading deadline, has emphasized that the Nationals can become contenders without detonating their roster. He likes several of the team's building blocks -- especially Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and John Lannan. The Nationals have a surplus of young back-of-the-rotation starters, a few reliable bullpen arms, and (if he recovers from shoulder surgery) a potential all-star catcher, Jesús Flores. But of the 30 players who wrapped up their season on Sunday afternoon, the majority will have to fight for roster spots in 2010. No longer obligated to pay overpaid veterans such as Austin Kearns and Dmitri Young, Rizzo has the opportunity to go shopping.
"I think it helps that we're not locked into bad long-term contracts," Rizzo said. "Certainly it helps. It gives you the opportunity to kind of look over the landscape and do what's best in the long-term, big-view picture of what we're trying to do, not only in 2010 and beyond."