The temptation for change must have existed for Mike Rizzo. After the Washington Nationals sputtered through last season, grand expectations always well out of reach, the thought of an overhaul surely crossed the mind of the team’s president of baseball operations. If so, he never showed it with action.
But rather than aiming for major transactions to rebound from an 86-win season that began with World Series aspirations, the Nationals have identified their shortcomings and chosen to improve at the margins. As baseball’s winter meetings are set to begin Monday in Orlando, it seems clear the bulk of Washington’s roster, including all eight regular position players, will return intact.
The Nationals’ biggest splash of the winter, a trade for starting pitcher Doug Fister that was perceived throughout the sport as a coup, is behind them. They do not plan on pursuing any big-ticket free agents who would cost them a draft pick in compensation. They want to tweak their bullpen and improve their bench, a task they started on Friday by agreeing to a two-year, $10.75 million deal with outfielder Nate McLouth.
Rizzo sees a team that, with a few small but significant tweaks, could again be a top contender in 2014.
“Everyone thinks we had such a terrible year last year,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said last week. “We were 10 games over .500. Of course it was disappointing — we had high hopes for ourselves as much as everyone had high hopes for us. Not making the playoffs was a huge disappointment. You got to kind of put it in perspective. We didn’t have a terrible year. We have a good team. We have a really good group of core guys. I think [Rizzo] has done a good job of not letting all the media [saying] we were such a failure last year make him panic and change up a lot of things. Because I really don’t think we’re far away.”
At the moment, the Nationals’ bench would consist of outfielders McLouth and Scott Hairston, first baseman-outfielder Tyler Moore, infielder Danny Espinosa and catcher Jhonatan Solano. The Nationals would feel comfortable entering the season with those five, but they could also upgrade.
They may add a more seasoned backup catcher, such as free agent John Buck. They could target another infielder in case Espinosa cannot adjust to a bench role. And they may want a more adept fielder and consistent right-handed bat in place of Moore, who may be better served to receive everyday at-bats in the minors.
The Nationals, though, filled their largest bench need with McLouth. Their next move is acquiring a left-handed reliever. Last season, the Nationals entered the season with only Zach Duke as a lefty reliever, which Rizzo has acknowledged was a mistake. They still have Xavier Cedeno and could break in prospect Sammy Solis out of the bullpen, but the Nationals would prefer to give first-year Manager Matt Williams more firepower late in games.
“We think that’s one of the things we have to address,” Rizzo said. “We have in-house options there. I think we’re better suited going into spring training with our left-handed bullpen than we did last year. But it’s something that we’re looking into the free agent market or the trade market and trying to upgrade. It’s a spot that we feel that we have to upgrade at. That said, I think we have some in-house options that can perform at a high level for us.”
Eric O’Flaherty, a dominant Braves reliever coming off elbow reconstruction surgery, is the latest name to pique the Nationals’ interest, according to a person familiar with the situation. The Nationals have yet to give him an offer, but they have maintained a dialogue with O’Flaherty, who has been one of the best relievers in baseball for the Nationals’ preeminent NL East rival. The Nationals are one of six teams to have shown interest in O’Flaherty.
O’Flaherty, who will turn 29 in February, would come with nontrivial injury risk. Last May, he underwent Tommy John surgery on his left elbow and would not be available to pitch until May.
Even if O’Flaherty will miss a month, his signing could represent great value. If not for the surgery, O’Flaherty may have drawn interest as a closer on the free agent market. Now, though, he is seeking only a one-year deal to reestablish himself as a back-end reliever.
Over the past four seasons, O’Flaherty has a 1.68 ERA over 193 innings, averaging 54 appearances despite not pitching after May 17 in 2013. He has steamrolled the Nationals, allowing them to hit .181 against him over his career, and has not allowed a single earned run in 21 appearances against Washington over the past three years.
The Nationals have also maintained a dialogue with free agents Boone Logan (Yankees), Oliver Perez, J.P. Howell and Scott Downs, whom the Braves acquired last summer to replace O’Flaherty. It is possible the Nationals could sign more than one free agent, particularly if O’Flaherty, who would be available for only part of the season, fits into their plans.
“The left-handed arm — or arms — out of the ’pen is a big deal,” Zimmerman said. “You got to be able to match up in the sixth, seventh, eighth inning, especially in our division against some of the teams that have those big left-handed hitters. That’s one part of our team we can improve on. It’s nothing too drastic that we have to go out and get, or we’re going to have to make a huge trade and lose a lot of our pieces to get.”