Mike Rizzo won’t talk about his plans until the job is done. But once the deeds and deals are complete, the Washington Nationals general manager will. Few are more secretive before they act but more expansive after they are finished.
That candor may have bitten the Nats last season because they were so (“World Series or bust”) enthusiastic about their offseason moves. Every team loves its decisions and the reasons for them at the time they are made. The mistakes don’t show up until later.
Nonetheless, the Nats are fairly pleased with their winter. And probably done, too. The midpoint of the offseason comes Sunday, halfway from the last pitch of the Series to the arrival of pitchers and catchers in spring training. “Everybody’s been grinding since the day the season ended,” Rizzo said. “Sure feels like more than halfway.”
Unless value drops in the Nats’ path, perhaps in the form of another left-handed reliever or a better backup catcher, the Nats can digest and evaluate. They “don’t plan to be a player” in the competition for Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka, Rizzo says, even though the Nats’ guesstimate his total cost might be $120 million, a range at which they could compete.
Instead, they prefer to concentrate on “taking care of our own guys,” trying to get extensions done for Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond. That’s smart. Unless you miss with them and lose any shot at Tanaka, too.
Now the back stories of the decisions that did get done can come out. The most important long-term: Matt Williams as new manager.
The Nats also interviewed Brad Ausmus, now the new Tigers manager, and Toronto coach DeMarlo Hale, as well as strong internal candidates Randy Knorr and Trent Jewett. Another potential manager from outside who intrigued the team was Dave Martinez from Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay staff.
“That managerial search is more work than I ever want to have to do again,” Rizzo said. “Why Martinez doesn’t have a managing job with a rebuilding team is beyond me. He’s smart and he has all his ideas mapped out about how he wants things run.”
Rizzo tries to contain himself, aware of how optimistic he sounded after signing Dan Haren (10-14) last year. But the Nats’ trade for Doug Fister gets him rolling. The Nats statistical analysts consider Fister (14-9) a virtual duplicate of Zimmermann right down to “average velocity off the bat.”
“They do it differently, Zimmermann with velocity, Fister with movement. But they get the same results,” Rizzo said. “Fister’s groundball ratio is ridiculously good.” The Nats’ defensive range may help him.
In the past three years, Fister had 91 starts with 5862 / 3 innings, a 3.30 ERA, a 3.23 Fielder Independent Pitching mark and homer, walk and strikeout ratios per nine innings of 0.6, 1.8 and 6.8. In 90 starts and 5701 / 3 innings, Zimmermann had a 3.12 ERA, 3.34 FIP and ratios of 0.8, 1.8 and 6.9.
“Fister can bunt, be a threat as a hitter, even pinch run. And no one shuts down the running game better. Really quick feet, accurate [to first base],” said Rizzo, aware that such agility is rare in 6-foot-8 pitchers, “We think he’ll age well. He touches 92 mph now. He can probably lose some speed and stay effective. He was the key for our ’14 season but for ’15, too.”
If Fister pitches, he’s a possible alternative if other Nats starters eventually end up as free agents. The Nats will bypass a Tanaka in part to keep money free for Zimmermann. But they will also get a Fister in case such a deal never works. Both are free agents after ’15. It’s business.
The past two winters, the Nats were too optimistic about Edwin Jackson becoming more than a .500 pitcher and Dan Haren having a bounce-back year. Will Fister, who doesn’t have to improve, be the third-time charm?
Rizzo addressed other issues as well. The past three years, injuries have forced the Nationals to start a fourth outfielder an average of 81 games a season. So they signed free agent Nate McLouth, who played in 144 games for the Orioles. Even if his presence provides Jayson Werth or Denard Span a few days off, will Bryce Harper take kindly to voluntary days on the bench? And will McLouth get enough at-bats to stay sharp?
There’s an unspoken subtext when a team goes hard for a high-quality fourth starter and fourth outfielder. It can mean that, internally, they are planning for as many as 182 games, not just 162. They want their starting outfielders fresh in October, and in Fister, who has a 2.06 ERA in seven postseason starts for the Tigers, they have a weapon for the playoffs.
The Nats did not get all their top choices this winter. Fister and McLouth, yes. But Rizzo had a tight budget for a lefty reliever and backup catcher. The Nats couldn’t — or wouldn’t — go for more than a one-year deal.
That ruled out southpaws Javier Lopez, J.P. Howell, Scott Downs and Matt Thornton, as well as catcher Jose Molina — all Nats targets and preferences — who got multiyear deals. Washington wanted to trade for Jerry Blevins on his merits (2.81 ERA in his past 156 relief games) but wanted a second lefty, too. The Nats still tried to get Thornton after Blevins was in hand. They hoped to deal for then-Reds backup catcher Ryan Hanigan but would not give up a young pitcher such as Taylor Jordan or Sammy Solis.
“For every deal that gets done, there are 10 that didn’t,” Rizzo said. “But you prepare just as hard for all of them.”
Winter grades, especially when you give them to yourself, don’t count. The Nats learned that last year. But when a club completes its entire checklist before Christmas, the new year often looks bright.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.