And he can’t let the emotions of a miracle run cloud his vision.
“I don’t think you can create a roster with nostalgia,” Rizzo said at the annual general managers’ meetings in Scottsdale this week. “You’ve got to create a roster that will help us win in 2020.”
Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon are the Nationals’ top priorities. They are two of the best available free agents, two players Washington drafted and developed into stars and two big reasons they survived five elimination games and won it all. Re-signing those guys, however possible, is a no-brainer. But the list of departing players includes many supporting heroes. There is Howie Kendrick, MVP of the National League Championship Series, who hit the go-ahead homer in Game 7 of the World Series. There is Ryan Zimmerman, who has been with the Nationals since 2005, who weathered the sagging lows to finally reach this pinnacle. There is Daniel Hudson, who recorded the final out of Game 7, who chucked his glove at a crowd of teammates who were sprinting out to mob him.
There is Gerardo Parra, who lifted the Nationals’ culture when he was signed in May, who taught the team to loosen up and clap its hands to the children’s song “Baby Shark.” There is Yan Gomes, who was behind Kurt Suzuki as the second catcher, who is now a free agent after the Nationals declined his $9 million option for 2020. There is even Asdrúbal Cabrera, who earned the everyday second base job by September and, by October, was a semiregular starter notching huge hits.
They each leave a hole behind, which means they are logical options to fill them. Yet Rizzo has to balance the urge to run it back, to give this group another shot together, with practicality.
“If we feel that they fit our needs for 2020, we’ll have the advantage of knowing those players already, not having to do the research and that type of thing. Our due diligence is done on that part of it,” Rizzo said. “Now do they fit the roster that we currently are going to have in 2020? And if they do, then they’ll fit for us, and they’ll always have a spot in Nationals history.”
That last part is the consolation prize. You may not be needed for next season, you may wind up elsewhere, but you’ll always be welcome in Washington. Expect an ovation upon stepping on the mound or into the batter’s box. You earned it.
But beyond that, with the complications of money and long-term plans, Rizzo won’t make any promises. The Nationals’ needs include a catcher, two first basemen, maybe a second baseman, maybe a third baseman, help in the bullpen, help on the bench and possibly a front-line starter if Strasburg isn’t back. That list could shrink — and shrink quickly — if they spring for any of Kendrick, Zimmerman, Hudson or Cabrera. Parra, a 32-year-old outfielder, seems unlikely to return given Washington’s depth at the position. The others make varying levels of sense.
Zimmerman was bound for free agency considering his $18 million club option for 2020. The Nationals declined it, as expected, but remain interested in keeping Zimmerman on a cheap, short-term deal. The Nationals had not yet met with Zimmerman or his representation when Rizzo spoke with reporters Tuesday. If he does come back, after missing most of 2019 with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, he would have to share time at first base. The spot was mostly filled by a mixture of Zimmerman, Kendrick and Matt Adams this past season.
Retaining Kendrick is tricky because American League clubs will pursue him as a designated hitter. That could lead to a price the Nationals aren’t willing to meet for a part-time utility player, no matter how feared he is at the plate. Kendrick, 36, finished with a .966 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 370 plate appearances. He was Washington’s most consistent hitter throughout the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Rays are very interested, according to a person familiar with his free agency, and it’s likely more AL teams join the discussion.
Washington’s winter will be dictated by what ultimately happens with Rendon and Strasburg. But the bench and bullpen are exempt from that. Rizzo has a tendency to leave around $10 million to acquire relievers and reserves in-season. That happened in 2019 with Parra, Cabrera, Javy Guerra and Fernando Rodney off the scrap heap and when he dealt for Hudson, Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elías at the trade deadline. So while it’s not expected that Rizzo will build a full bench or bullpen in the coming months, he still has to pad the Nationals’ depth ahead of spring training. Hudson, 32, is a do-everything arm and shouldn’t cost too much. Cabrera, 34, can play three of the four infield positions, switch-hits and should be asking only for a one-year deal.
But do they fit into a blueprint beyond their forever connection with Washington? That’s the essential question in Rizzo’s head.
“You have to make prudent decisions, and roster construction is what we’ve been doing here for the last eight years,” Rizzo said. “We’ve been really good at it, and I don’t see us varying off that. Again, we’re going to put together a roster that we think can compete, and we’re going to try and put the best representatives on the field to try to win more championships.”