An unexpected offseason plan for the Nationals has now become a clear probability. Entering Davey Johnson’s last year as a manager — his “World Series or bust” swan song — it will seem like a downer. But it may also be smart.
Do nothing major. Stand pat. Abstain.
The Nats need to sign a back-of-the-rotation starter to replace Edwin Jackson. There are about 10 of them available. They’ll get one. And they’ll probably grab a lefty reliever to replace free agents Sean Burnett and Mike Gonzalez. That’s not hard.
But on the big issues — re-sign free agent Adam LaRoche, sign Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton, go after star starter Zach Greinke — don’t do any of it.
Okay, make one exception. If the Nats can somehow get LaRoche to sign a two-year deal, that’d be sweet. Otherwise, know when to hold ’em.
Most years, I’m the guy who wants to spend the owner’s money. But every time I find a way to spend $50 million to $150 million of Ted Lerner’s cash in one big coup, I end up thinking it’s a stupid idea. What’s the fun in that?
So, on Sunday, I called Johnson and Mike Rizzo to help me snap out of it. Managers and general managers have been known to enjoy spending an owner’s money, too. It does wonders for job security.
Instead, Johnson said: “I’m not pushing for anything. I don’t have a wish list. There’s nothing I think we have to go hog wild about this winter. We’re going to be strong next year. If we don’t do anything, we’ll be fine.
“Our payroll might go down,” he said, half-joking.
Rizzo calls himself “the crazy guy who usually wants to sign a free agent or make a trade.” Not this time. “In past winters, we’ve jumped out quickly” with signings, he said. “This time around, we don’t have any pressing needs. We’ll probably see where the landscape is after the winter meetings.
“Davey and I like our players a lot. If money were free, we’d get Greinke, Bourn and two more closers,” said Rizzo, naming two players that, when you hear them rumored with the Nats, are probably non-starters. “But when the rubber hits the road in ’14-’15-’16, you’re going to have to pay your own players. Sometimes, you’re better with known commodities.”
A baseball offseason has a zillion moving parts. Nobody passes up an opportunity. But here’s my best guess on how the Nats’ plans may evolve:
They already have pennant-contending talent, some of it just beginning to blossom, like Bryce Harper and Tyler Moore, and other pieces, like Anthony Rendon, Matt Skole and Brian Goodwin, who tore up the Arizona Fall League, perhaps a year from bursting on the big league radar.
Why would you sign LaRoche, 33, for three or four years or Bourn, about to turn 30, or the erratic Upton for five-plus seasons at astronomical cost when you have multiple players who may have the same kind of futures? They aren’t all going to fail. Why jam up first base or center field for a baseball eternity? Someday, Ryan Zimmerman may need to play first base.
The Nats need flexibility to develop young players more than they need to add new expensive parts — all of whom have their own question marks.
Let Jayson Werth keep batting leadoff. He’s a natural for it. Maybe move Harper directly to cleanup and shift your switch-hitting second basemen, Danny Espinosa and Steve Lombardozzi, to the No. 2 hole, the spot they prepared for in the minors. Put Michael Morse on first base where he thrived in 2011. Give Moore the playing time he’s earned in left field.
Don’t go adding big contracts. Worry about doing Gio Gonzalez-like deals with your own stars like Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann. And save some cash for that guy Stephen Strasburg when the time comes, too.
Signing Greinke would cripple multiple future moves. And Bourn, a speed and defense center fielder, isn’t worth a $75 million-or-more risk.
Leave some roster elbow room. Let Christian Garcia get a shot as a starting pitcher in spring training. Allow flexibility for Rendon or Skole, a 230-pound lefty hitter with 119 RBI in ’12, to push their way into the big leagues like Moore did last year. Don’t block youth.
All this seems sensible. But everybody has fantasies. The Nats’ dream is that LaRoche actually re-signs — but for the two-year deal that is almost certainly as far as they’ll go. Davey and wife Susan just sent the last of their 40 Thanksgiving relatives packing, including “nine rug rats.” The Boog Powell Weber grill is finally at rest. Now, all Davey wants for Christmas is a “yes” from LaRoche.
“Adam’s a cowboy. I just bought a quarter of a steer from him. My house is full of LaRoche beef from Kansas,” Johnson said. “Ranchers don’t need a whole lot of money. He’s got his own corn and grass to feed ’em. I know cattle can jump fences, so that might need fixing. But he’s slaughtering ’em so fast that fences won’t cost much.
“How much feed do you need to buy? Another $25 million ought to do it. What does he need three or four years [on a contract] for? Let’s go, man.”
If the Nats’ willingness to do less than many expected has a familiar ring, it should. It’s of a piece with the Strasburg shutdown: The Nats operate on the rock-solid, or stubborn, belief that their long-term player development strategy will pan out. They think ’12 provided 98 reasons not to change.
So, Johnson is already planning for a possible LaRoche-less future with no other blockbuster moves. Werth “has the leadoff mentality. He’s into it,” Johnson said. “Besides, he always likes to see lots of pitches.”
As for a new cleanup man, “trust me, Harper thinks he should hit fourth and bat .400,” Johnson said. “That’s the best stroke I’ve seen in a long time.”
Davey expects a couple of Rizzo surprises before Viera. But, regardless, he’s planning “to ride off into the sunset and all that” with the horses he has now. “We made a giant leap but inexperience got us at the end. We’ll be better because of it next year. We’ve still got some goin’ to do.”
If hindsight shows that Johnson’s sunset trip actually needed the help of a $100 million free agent, then his ’13 ride may not be so pleasant. But, after having Lasik surgery on his left eye in a few days, he plans to see it all 20/20.
“For my last year at least I’ll be able to see it when these umpires screw up,” he said.
Or maybe he wants a crystal-clear view of one last October.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.