The work of this offseason has yet to finish, but Rizzo believes the Nationals’ roster is mostly set. He wants to “tweak” the roster and, while he did not rule out any significant transactions, head to spring training with basically what the Nationals already have.
“We feel good about ourselves,” Rizzo said Wednesday. “We feel confident that we’re going to be a competitive club in a real tough division. We like all six of our rotation guys. We love the top three guys. We feel comfortable that we have depth in the rotation. We like our 4 and 5 guys and there’s going to be good competition at several spots. We feel comfortable with our bullpen. We’re not done with our bullpen. We’re trying to improve ourselves in the rotation and in the bullpen and any other way we can, and we’re certainly open-minded and we’ll not stop working. We’re still trying to turn over every rock to get things done.”
It is interesting that Rizzo mentioned the rotation as an area he still wants to improve. The Nationals seem set, if not overly so, with their six starters – Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan and Ross Detwiler.
The Nationals shifted their focus to Roy Oswalt after they missed out on Mark Buehrle, but that seemed to die down once they traded for Gonzalez. Wednesday night, Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com reported there’s still some interest there. That seems an unlikely fit, but something to keep in mind. “Too much pitching” is an oxymoron. A surplus of starters would also allow the Nationals to trade for a key piece.
Their bench remains thin right now, too. If Bryce Harper does not make the opening day roster, it seems likely that non-roster invitee would land the final reserve spot – a player like Xavier Paul or Chad Tracy. Rick Ankiel remains available, and he could certainly contend for the starting spot in center field if Harper starts the year at Class AAA. The Nationals and Ankiel’s camp have been talking.
The Nationals, of course, wanted to land a center fielder they can plug in as a long-term solution this offseason. Barring a trade materializing between now and opening day, which appears unlikely, they will head into spring training with a smattering of candidates, including Roger Bernadina, Mike Cameron and Jayson Werth.
“I think we have candidates in-house that we’ll go to spring training with,” Rizzo said. “That’s not to say that we’ve abandoned the search for the right fit for us, but we like the options that we have going into spring training, and we do have multiple options of what to play, be it Jayson Werth moving to center or a platoon in center field, that type of thing. Not satisfied with not getting the long-term solution that we had hoped for, but we’re satisfied with the in-house candidates and we feel that we’re going to field the right type of team going into spring training.”
The center field situation will be shaped by the decision the Nationals make on Harper. If he begins the season in the majors, then Werth will probably play center, with Michael Morse in left and Harper in right. If Harper starts in the minors, then Bernadina, Cameron and maybe others will have a crack at the position.
It still seems likely for Harper to begin the year at Syracuse, since the motivation to delay his free agency by one season seems too strong to offset the advantage of having Harper on the team for an extra month at the start of the year, even if he is the best candidate. Also, don’t forget he’s 19 with less than 600 professional plate appearances.
But Manager Davey Johnson has been an advocate for Harper starting 2012 in the majors, and Rizzo reiterated his stance that Harper will have every chance to make the club.
“We’re going to bring the best 25 north,” Rizzo said. “If that includes Harper, it’s Harper. When I believe Harper is ready to play in the big leagues, he’ll be in the big leagues. We’re not going to hinder his progress, but we’re not going to accelerate it to a point where I think it endangers his development and curtails his overall performance.”
At the outset of the offseason, Rizzo detailed adding one starting pitcher and one big bat as his priorities. He got his pitcher in Gonzalez, but missed out on the big bat when Fielder signed with Detroit and they couldn’t land their desired center fielder. Still, Rizzo expressed confidence with the offense, including Harper as a reason why.
“I think that other bat may be a healthy Adam LaRoche, a healthy, full season of Ryan Zimmerman and a back-to-Jayson Werth Jayson Werth,” Rizzo said. “I think with the maturation of our young core getting better just by maturing and playing another season and with the continued success of Morse, LaRoche, Zim playing a full season and Jayson coming back to his career norms, I think we have addressed the offensive part. And we do have a power left-handed bat by the name of Bryce Harper waiting in the wings to be fully developed and help us on the big league level.”