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Nationals Q&A: Manager search, Drew Storen’s future, starting rotation and more

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

First of all, thanks to everyone who contributed questions to our inaugural Q&A. We were thrilled with the feedback. Please keep them coming and we hope to tackle more of them soon. We chose 10 of the best and most interesting questions and took a stab at them below.

dkdc1: Do you guys have any sense of Rizzo’s inclination to fortify the bullpen with some lefthanded pitching? Im not saying we should ahve kept gorzelanny or Burnett, but feel we really missed the 100+ productive lefty innings they gave in 2012. Abad and Krol got figured out pretty quick.

Kilgore: Mike Rizzo admitted midway through the season he had erred in the Nationals’ bullpen construction, and so I would expect them to scour the lefty relief market this offseason. Ian Krol and Fernando Abad are still under team control for 2013; Krol will definitely be back and Abad probably will. Krol is a great talent who underwent some growing pains at the end of the last season, but he seems like he’ll be a fixture. Abad showed little effectiveness against lefties down the stretch.

The Nationals should look to bolster the left side of their bullpen in free agency. J.P. Howell, who talked with the Nationals last winter, had a good season for the Dodgers and will be a free agent again. Oliver Perez, who got his career on track as a Nationals farmhand in 2011, is also a free agent after a solid year. Other lefty relievers on the free agent market include Boone Logan, Eric O’Flaherty and old friend Michael Gonzalez, who had a tough year in Milwaukee but is a favorite of everyone in baseball – teammates, coaches, managers, writers (especially Wagner).

I could see the Nationals making a run at O’Flaherty with an incentive-heavy, two-year deal. He’s coming off Tommy John surgery, and the Nationals have done creative stuff like that before with pitchers coming off injury.

If the Nationals add to their bullpen, they may look to trade one of their current relievers. Tyler Clippard seems too important to deal, and may be too expensive after a well-earned raise in arbitration to hold a ton of value. Since the Nationals sent Drew Storen to the minors, I’ve thought it might be best for both parties to move on. As he showed in a dominant final month, Storen is still talented enough that he ought to have the chance to compete for a closer’s job. And, that being the case, the Nationals could get a nice return for him. I don’t think the Nationals are by any means desperate to trade Storen, but I expect them to explore that option.

MrClean3: Can the Nationals finally free themselves from the chains of MASN?

Wagner: We get this question often, via email, Twitter and in person. There are key factors to remember when considering the current MASN deal but none more important than this basic one: In order for the Nationals to even exist (read: move to Washington) an agreement needed to be reached with the Orioles and owner Peter Angelos. The Washington market belonged to the Orioles and MLB wanted to move a team into it. So without the current MASN deal, there probably wouldn’t be a baseball team in Washington.

And as we’ve reported, the current deal has no termination date. It is a contract. Any change to a contract would likely involve complicated legal maneuvering, negotiating and, again, an agreement by both sides. MLB negotiated the original deal that brought the Nationals to Washington in 2005 and the Lerners knew what they were inheriting when they bought the team a year later. The television landscape, however, has changed since then.

MLB and both parties have been in talks about a resolution to the current dispute over the “reset rights fees” for two seasons now. It is complicated and sensitive. They’ve explored creative solutions but that hasn’t amounted to anything yet. (And we’ve heard nothing about any new movement on it.)

skputer: What must Danny Espinosa do to resuscitate his career? Is he receiving good advice on what he needs to do?

Kilgore: The first thing he needs to do is make sure he’s healthy. James is planning to delve into this deeper in a future post, but so long as the nature of Espinosa’s shoulder injury has been properly diagnosed, there’s reason to believe the small tear in his rotator cuff is not primarily responsible for his poor hitting. If it’s not that, then it’s confluence of factors. Opponents found the hole in his swing, he struggled to adjust and he lost what made him successful in the first place.

Espinosa works hard and listens to everyone, and I think he got himself into a rut hearing too many different voices about his hitting and approach, both within the team and outside it. He felt good about his work at the end of the year with Class AAA hitting coach Troy Gingrich, so hopefully that’s a start. (Gingrich, by the way, might be a big league hitting coach very soon. Seems like every hitter who comes up from Syracuse raves about him.)

I still think Espinosa is a wicked talent. He’s an elite defender at second base; his value there alone made him playable even as he produced the worst offensive numbers in the National League. He’s an excellent base runner (or at least he was when he still, you know, reached base.) This sounds crazy, but if I had to bet on Espinosa making an all-star team or not before his career ends, I think he makes at least one.

rh951: Where will spring training be next year? The year after?

Wagner: Another ongoing saga involving the Nationals. The next spring training, 2014 in other words, will still be at Space Coast Stadium in Viera in Brevard County (on the east coast of Florida). Beyond that, however, the spring training site is still being determined.

The Nationals have already told Brevard County that they intend to break their lease after the 2014 season, three years before the agreement expires in 2017. The bond payments for the stadium are already paid off, so the penalty for the Nationals leaving early is minimal. Brevard County is trying to entice the Nationals to stay so they are proposing $29 million in renovations to Space Coast Stadium, but are realistic and are sending information packets out to the other 29 major league teams about the facility.

The Nationals have always contended — and rightfully so — that being in the relatively remote location of Viera is an inconvenience.  The shortest bus trips the Nationals take during Grapefruit League play — to Kissimmee and Lake Buena Vista — require at least an hour and 15 minutes each way. So, logically, the Nationals want to be in a more centrally located place. They are considering their options, including the Kissimmee and Fort Myers.

Osceola County, home to Kissimmee, balked in late August at committing so much money to build a -new $98-million spring training complex. (But, really, how would that site have alleviated their transportation problems?) After being previously dead, Fort Myers re-emerged as a possibility at the same time this summer. A private developer has stepped in and is interested in being involved with costly renovations to the empty City of Palms Park in financially-strapped Lee County. This may solve the financial portion of the deal and being on the west coast of Florida would alleviate the Nationals’ transportation problems. This will be interesting to watch.

redskinsfan5: At the start of the season, RIzzo explained that he built the roster based in part on expectations of stellar defense. Though the defense stabilized in August and September, it performed at a level far below expectations. What should the expectations be for defense next season? What can the players and staff do to make sure their defense meets a higher standard next season?

Kilgore: This is a good question. The Nationals’ defense was definitely an overlooked cause of their underachievement. The infield should improve if Ryan Zimmerman can play like he did over the last six weeks for a full season. Zimmerman looked finished for the first half of the season, but as he moved further away from November shoulder surgery and rebuilt arm strength and confidence, he looked like his old self again. Assuming Anthony Rendon is the second baseman again, he should improve based purely on experience. He is a second baseman now; last year he was a guy playing second base.

The Nationals can and should be more creative with infield shifts. The Pirates elevated their season with them, as explained in this great story. The A’s and Rays and a lot of smart teams employ constant shifts. Davey Johnson didn’t like them, and only or two teams shifted less than the Nationals. It probably cost them a bunch of runs. This, to me, will be one of the most compelling questions for the Nationals’ next manager. The next frontier in baseball seems to be how teams improve their defensive efficiency. How does he plan on making the sure the Nationals keep up or, better yet, stay ahead of the curve?

Sunderland: In 2013, the Nationals ranked dead last in defending the stolen base, 17% CS.  In 2012, only by the grace of the Pittsburgh Pirates did we manage to climb to 29th, but also at 17% CS.  In 2011, the Nats were actually very good defending the steal, ranking 4th in MLB with 34% CS. Yes, we had Pudge in 2011, but he only played 44 games, Flores played 30 and Ramos played 113. So I guess I need to ask a question. Why are the recent Nats so lousy at defending the SB? In 2011, with Ramos playing the majority of the time, we were very good.  In 2012 and 2013, we stunk it up. Why so bad, and who influences fixing it the most? Ramos? Manager TBH?

Wagner: The Nationals were indeed bad at nabbing baserunners this season but that is mostly the fault of the pitchers. Wilson Ramos had a strong throwing arm, and Kurt Suzuki had a good one, but they looked a little helpless sometimes.

Some pitchers were so focused on the batter and pitching (see: Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen before his demotion) that they paid less attention to the runners. Some of them have slower times to the plate but that’s not the end of the world. So the best way to combat that is by varying the times to the plate. Maybe the pitcher can hold the ball longer before delivering the ball to home plate to throw the runner’s timing off. Or, the pitcher can just step off the rubber and force the runner back and make him guess. Some pitchers improved this season (see: Tyler Clippard and Gio Gonzalez) and others didn’t do enough.

Davey Johnson had a more relaxed attitude when it came to this subject, arguing that he didn’t want to mess too much with deliveries that worked and because he believed his pitching staff with swing-and-miss stuff would escape from the jams. A new manager could bring a renewed focus on improving this aspect. Randy Knorr, who oversaw the catchers, has vowed to be tougher about this area of the game.

KeithW2: Shouldn’t the Nats try to get Michael Morse? After his year last year he’ll be undervalued, right? Won’t the magic return for him and us if he just returns to South Capitol St? (And feel free to pretend Scott Hairston doesn’t exist.)

Kilgore: Like you said, Scott Hairston is already filling that role to some extent, and he’s under contract for 2014. Rizzo felt Morse was more of an American League player, and that was before he aged another year and had a disappointing, injury-filled season. Morse is still a legitimate threat at the plate and could be a good bounce-back candidate. It’s not going to happen in Washington.

natsfan89: What do the Nats do for the 4th and 5th starters? I’d rather see them go with Detwiler (if healthy) and then either Roark or Taylor.

Wagner: This is one of the biggest questions of the winter and, of course, next spring. Do the Nationals turn to Ross Detwiler, presuming he is fully past the herniated disk in his lower back, and young arms such as Tanner Roark or Taylor Jordan? Or do they use the combination of Detwiler and a free agent (and stash Roark and Jordan in the minors for insurance and depth)? Or do they pull off a trade for a starter who has a year or two of control beyond 2014? There are several possibilities.

Mike Rizzo indicated late in the season that the strong showings of rookies Roark and Jordan meant that he didn’t feel a dire need to sign a free agent starter and could see either of the youngsters in the rotation next season. Strictly on their performances, Roark would seem to have the slight edge over Jordan heading into spring training, although scouts may grade Jordan higher.

Consider the crop of impending free agent pitchers. It’s not a particularly overwhelming group, but there are a few who could work: Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett, Scott Feldman, Matt Garza, Josh Johnson, Scott Kazmir, Hiroki Kuroda, Jake Westbrook, Ervin Santana and Paul Maholm. (James Shields, Wandy Rodriguez and Ubaldo Jimenez have options for next season.) Maybe an incentive laden deal for the oft-injured Johnson? If Burnett doesn’t retire or return to Pittsburgh, could he be enticed on a one-year deal? Would the Nationals consider a multi-year deal for a starter like Arroyo, knowing that other young arms in the system would be blocked by that?

Or, maybe scrap all of that and Rizzo could get creative and pull off a trade for a starter. David Price, who is under Tampa Bay’s control through 2015 and would command a large haul in return, would be the top starter likely available on the trading block.

I expect Rizzo to explore all options. The fall-back option, which hinges on the health of Detwiler and the continued development of young pitchers, isn’t all that bad. But wouldn’t the Nationals, in a position to win now, want to push for an established starter to help put them over the top, as they thought Dan Haren would in 2013?

From HistoryBoy: Two words. Bora$ client. Free agent. Jacoby Ellsbury. Any chance?

Kilgore: Hard to see how he fits in. Denard Span is under contract for two more years. The Nationals’ top position player prospect by consensus (Brian Goodwin) plays center field. And the corners are clogged (in a good way) for years by Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth. The Nationals have liked Ellsbury for a long time, but based on his cost and their needs, it’s not a fit.

GeoPoto: Don’t you think the Nats need to add a 1B (preferably one that can also play OF) as an option if LaRoche and Moore carry their 2013 struggles over into 2014? If so, who is available that might fit? I’m assuming talk of moving Zim over is dead for now, as his value is much greater at 3B.

Wagner: Ryan Zimmerman will be playing third base next season, not first base. He looked his best in the field and at the plate in September. The rehab from his shoulder surgery lasts up to a full year, and by the time the strength was fully back he looked every bit the part of a cornerstone third baseman.

Mike Rizzo believes LaRoche’s 2013 season was an anomaly. LaRoche’s lost strength thanks to his ADD medicine didn’t help and he vowed to address that in the offseason and report to camp with the same strength he had in his career 2012 season. But the reality is that LaRoche will be 34 next season, already on the downside of the traditional peak years. Bat speed slows down with age.

The worst case scenario is that both he and Tyler Moore struggle again in 2014. Moore has hit right-handers, oddly enough, better in the majors than left-handers. The best case scenario is that both play well, but with LaRoche as the every day first baseman and with Moore as the back-up first baseman and improved pinch hitter. A potential third scenario, one down the middle, involves a platoon between the two players. Scott Hairston hits left-handed pitching well and late in the season was pushed by Davey Johnson to take reps at first base.

If the first or the third scenarios occur, maybe the Nationals would be better served signing a veteran right-handed hitter who hits left-handers and can play the outfield and first base. In a casual perusal of names, one player seems to fit the bill: Jeff Baker. He played 21 games in left field for the Rangers this season, 21 at first, 10 at third, and one at second and in right. He made $1.75 million last season in a one-year deal. He is 32. He went to Garfield High in Woodbridge. He is presented by Scott Boras. And he hit .314 with a 1.073 OPS against left-handed pitching in 2013 and has a career slash line of .298/.353/.522 against them. Just an idea.

From Uncle_Teddy: Do you like gladiator movies? If so, which is your favorite? I like gladiator movies. I wish I had a trident and a net. I could capture all kinds of bad guys then.

Wagner: Not particularly, sorry. Ben-Hur and Gladiator are fine movies, though.