General Manager Mike Rizzo travels with the Washington Nationals to most road cities, and he often watches games from seats by the dugout. He strolls through the clubhouse before games, patting players on the back, chatting with trainers. He stations himself behind the batting cage, studying hitters and conversing with coaches. More than most big league general managers, he is present.
And yet Rizzo also remains detached in a manner he believes his job demands, a view that will be central to the Nationals’ approach to the July 31 trade deadline, now a week away.
In an unusually balanced (or perhaps weak) crop of National League contenders, the Nationals have one of the best records (55-44) and the best run differential by 30 runs (plus-71) entering Thursday. They stand one game ahead of the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, making every victory vitally important. Their current core of players can remain together for only so many seasons. The Nationals are good enough to win the World Series right now, this year, and the number of seasons that will remain true is inherently limited.
If ever a team could justify a trade that sacrifices the future for the present, especially after losing Ryan Zimmerman for an indeterminate stretch after he suffered a hamstring strain Tuesday night, it would be these Nationals. Even as he stays close to his team, though, Rizzo eschews urgency at the expense of a long-range plan.
“I think you really have to resist the temptation to do that,” Rizzo said. “I always have to have a global view. I have a very focused view on today’s game in 2014. But I have to have a global view of the team and the organization. We have to be cognizant of the fact that we have to think about the long term. We put ourselves in this position by doing that. I think that we’re going to continue to do that. You can’t panic. You can’t do things for short-term gains that are going to harm you long term.”
Manager Matt Williams conceded the Nationals at least would have to consider a deal to help mitigate the effect of losing Zimmerman. “We have to take a hard look at that,” Williams said Wednesday afternoon. Rizzo, though, said Zimmerman’s injury would not change his long-term outlook.
“We’ve got a third baseman,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got Zim signed for a long time. We’re not worried about filling Zim’s shoes, which would be almost impossible to fill in a trade scenario, anyways. We like the team we have. We got where we’re at with Danny [Espinosa] playing meaningful innings. We’re certainly comfortable with him out there.”
The argument for a splashy trade would focus on the Nationals’ position as a franchise. This season could be their strongest chance to win the World Series with their current core.
Adam LaRoche, Denard Span and Rafael Soriano could be eligible for free agency as soon as this offseason. Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Tyler Clippard and Doug Fister will be eligible for free agency after 2015. Jayson Werth has resisted baseball’s aging curve so far, but he will turn 36 next May. Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and Wilson Ramos are under contractual control through 2016. The Nationals face a series of difficult choices and the potential disintegration, or at least mild breakup, of their current roster.
“I don’t think there’s any difference in how we view our team,” Rizzo said. “We like our team. We think we’re deep. We think that the team’s been constructed in the right way for the long haul. We like where we’re at, but with that said, we always keep our options open. If there’s a deal to be made that makes us better this year and beyond, we certainly will think about it.”
The Nationals have a better reserve of minor leaguers than at any point since they dealt four prospects to the A’s for Gio Gonzalez in December 2011. They would not make their top prospect, right-hander Lucas Giolito, available. But they have ample lower-tier prospects they could bundle in a trade.
“We like our depth,” Rizzo said. “We think we’re a deep organization in a lot of spots. We’re not a perfect organization. We think we have depth. We continue to grow that, to build that. As we’ve shown in the past, we’re not afraid to package some prospects to get what we need. But getting what we need is always with a long-term, global view in mind.”
The Nationals have so far experienced a “normal” level of trade discussions, Rizzo said, only “exploratory” talks to this point, not yet focused to the stage of making a proposal.
According to one NL general manager familiar with the Nationals’ thinking, they have targeted relievers and young shortstops. The Nationals want to bolster their bullpen, even if it has been among the best in the majors, to avoid the fatigue that struck during the 2012 playoff race. They’ve also enjoyed remarkable health in their bullpen, a bit of good fortune they don’t take for granted or assume will continue. Youth at shortstop is a need not only because of Desmond’s pending free agency but also because it is their thinnest position in the minors.
The Nationals haven’t sought an everyday hitter or a starting pitcher. Before Zimmerman’s injury, the Nationals had no holes in their lineup or rotation. They could improve, but any upgrade only would be marginal while requiring a harmful acquisition cost.
“We’re not going to make a move to make a move,” Rizzo said. “We like the team we have. For us to make a move, it’s going to have to be an improvement on what we have. Those are hard to find. We’ve got a good, talented ballclub. To trade for guys that are better than we have, it’s very difficult. To do that, it either costs you a lot financially or in players. We’re going to do what’s right, but we’re going to be careful in what we do.”
The calculus could change if the Nationals learn Zimmerman’s hamstring strain will sideline him for more than four to six weeks. Because Anthony Rendon can play both second and third base, the Nationals could acquire an infielder who plays either position. They could potentially make such a player fit on next year’s roster, too — if LaRoche does not return on his $15 million mutual option for 2015, Zimmerman could slide to first and the rest of the infield, hypothetical new player included, could remain intact.
Martin Prado and Aaron Hill, both of whom Williams coached with the Arizona Diamondbacks, would fit the Nationals’ needs. An excellent defender and an all-star in 2009, Hill owns a paltry .664 OPS this season. But he’s also come out of the all-star break hot, going 9 for 23 with a homer and three doubles. Prado can play left field, third base and second base and is regarded as a hardworking, team-first player.
Both Prado and Hill have contracts that would make a deal difficult. Hill will make roughly $4.2 million the rest of the season and $12 million in both 2015 and 2016. Prado also will make about $4.2 million the remainder of this year and then $11 million in each of the next two seasons. The Nationals could decide Espinosa and Zach Walters will give them better production on the dollar.
“I trust every guy in this room and in our organization,” Zimmerman said. “I think a lot of guys on our Triple A team would be on a lot of big league teams. That’s basically like a trade, I guess you could say. We have talented guys down there that can make an impact on this level. We have talented guys on this team, too, that haven’t had a chance to play much lately because all of us have been healthy. I think they’ll take advantage of it.”
Given comments principal owner Mark Lerner made opening day, the acquisition of any contract could be untenable. Lerner said the Nationals were “beyond topped out” with an opening day payroll of roughly $135 million.
Rizzo deferred questions about financial flexibility to Lerner, saying: “Ownership has been very fair with me. They’ve given us all the tools we need to get where we’re at right now.”
Right now, the Nationals have emerged through injury as perhaps the National League’s top contender. With another key player on the disabled list, they have one more week to determine whether they’ll stand pat or make a trade.