Clayton Kershaw finished off the Washington Nationals in the early-morning hours of Oct. 14, a Friday. Mike Rizzo took the rest of that Friday off and most of the weekend that followed, enough time to process another 95-win season that ended in the division series. But Rizzo, fidgety and fiery, often struggles to sit still, let alone stand idle. He went back to work that Monday.
So began the start of another baseball cycle. The Nationals do not have many gaping holes in their roster, just one big hole on their organizational résumé. They have been one of baseball’s most successful organizations from April through September, one of baseball’s more haunted franchises in October. Twelve months before the Nationals could get their next chance at redemption, Rizzo and his staff began figuring out how to get it.
The process continues this week in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the annual general managers’ meetings. Rizzo and his colleagues will trickle in Monday, begin meetings Tuesday and wrap up official proceedings Thursday morning.
The biggest move of last year’s meetings happened late on the final day, when the Braves traded Andrelton Simmons to the Angels, and that timing is fitting: These meetings are often more about establishing groundwork for trades than executing them, about beginning conversations that can continue throughout the month and perhaps yield results at the winter meetings in early December.
This year’s meetings might be quieter than usual. The collective bargaining agreement expires Dec. 1, and negotiations between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association continue.
A new CBA could include changes to the qualifying offer, the current system that compensates teams for the loss of top-tier free agents with a draft pick. That system has caused teams to shy away from a few notable free agents in recent years, costing stars such as Dexter Fowler and Ian Desmond time and money, and has therefore emerged as a central issue of this CBA cycle.
Some within the industry speculate that the uncertain future of the free agent system might temper activity early in the offseason as teams wait to see what rules will govern their transactions moving forward. But Rizzo will still have decisions to make.
For example, he has until 3 p.m. Scottsdale time Monday (5 p.m. Eastern) to offer Wilson Ramos the qualifying offer of $17.2 million. It seems unlikely the Nationals would commit so much to Ramos, who is unlikely to be ready for Opening Day after having surgery on a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in October.
But as of late last week, the Nationals had not told Ramos’s camp whether they would be making the offer. Early last week, Rizzo said he and his staff would collect as much information on Ramos’s health as possible before the deadline, at which point they could make a more informed decision.
If they do not make Ramos a qualifying offer, the Nationals will not be compensated with a draft pick if he signs with another team. If they do make one, he might take it, meaning the Nationals would owe $17.2 million to a player who might not be ready until May or June — and even then, by his own admission, might not be able to catch every day anymore.
On Tuesday, all free agents become eligible to sign with any other team. The Nationals have had five days to negotiate exclusively with their eight free agents, but that window expires this week.
Perhaps the most notable National hitting the market is closer Mark Melancon, whom the Nationals acquired at the trade deadline and who made 30 appearances for them after that. Melancon will be one of the more coveted prizes in a loaded relief market this winter, though not the most coveted.
While Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen seem likely to best Jonathan Papelbon’s four-year, $50 million deal with the Phillies from before the 2012 season — the benchmark for closers — Melancon might come at a more reasonable price at a more comfortable length. As Rizzo said last week, the Nationals found Melancon to be a high-character, low-drama clubhouse presence and a gritty on-field competitor.
Center field, shortstop, closer and catcher are decision points this offseason. The process of deciding who will play where has begun internally and likely will continue this week in Scottsdale. Should Trea Turner go back to his natural position of shortstop or remain in center field? Should the Nationals pursue a catcher externally or hand the starting job to Pedro Severino? Should they spend top dollar for a top-tier closer? Could they trade Gio Gonzalez or Danny Espinosa?
The answers to those questions likely will depend on what players are available in free agency or via trade. That availability must be judged through conversations like the ones Rizzo and the rest have this week in Scottsdale. Perhaps the Nationals will make a move in the next few days. Perhaps Rizzo will have conversations that lead to other moves later. Whatever happens, he seems unlikely to sit still. Rizzo has never been much good at doing that.