We may think we know what Mike Rizzo will do this winter, but we don’t have a clue. The Washington Nationals general manager aims higher, breaks more rules of thumb and operates further outside baseball’s normal thought boxes than almost anyone in the game.
Former Nats president Stan Kasten preached at him that “money is fungible” — meaning you can spend it on anything, not just the players your home fans currently love. His dad, a lifelong scout, told him, “Don’t fall in love with your own players.” His years in player development taught him that adding a star in hand is worth three hot prospects in the bush. His whole track record yells, “Buy low, sell high.”
Mix it all together, and you get explosions every winter.
Rizzo’s mundane moves — such as adding a fifth starter, a middle-inning lefty or a bench player — are always anticipated. They almost act like a smoke screen, just as he now acknowledges the need to strengthen second base. Yawns accompanied the predicted arrivals of Adam LaRoche (2010), Edwin Jackson (’12), Dan Haren (’13) and, last year, Nate McLouth, Jerry Blevins and Jose Lobaton.
But every season since he got the job, Rizzo has dropped at least one bombshell: in 2011, Jayson Werth for $126 million; in ’12, Gio Gonzalez, 21 wins; in ’13 Denard Span and Rafael Soriano; and this past offseason, Doug Fister. Maybe the question isn’t “Will he pull a shocker?” Rather, it’s “What will it be?”
Right now, the Nats have the most locked-in-stone roster of any MLB team — if they want to play it that way. They could do nothing and, with fewer injuries than this past season, win 96 games again. Maybe more. They’re that good. As they got healthier, they finished 71-39. Their fifth starter won 15 games.
The obvious Plan A is to make team-friendly contract-extension offers to Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann and Fister, each of whom will be a free agent in a year. First one to sign gets the best deal. If two of them agree, celebrate. If not, San Francisco just let Pablo Sandoval play out his deal. How did that work out?
Just tweak the roster, upgrade second base, perhaps by signing free agent Asdrubal Cabrera, then try to win a World Series in one of those rare seasons when most of the monster payroll teams of recent times — the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies — don’t figure to be contenders. Even the Dodgers are shedding payroll and aging stars. Hanley Ramirez is gone. More will leave.
With the Braves a mess, the Giants probably net losers in free agency, the Marlins not yet ready to threaten within the division and the Cardinals a merely very good team, why wouldn’t the Nats play essentially the same hand and hope for a better October that leads to the World Series?
I would. But would Rizzo?
The reality: Rizzo has so many valuable pieces that he could do almost anything. The Nats could make a blockbuster deal involving Zimmermann, Desmond or even Stephen Strasburg (two years of team control) or Bryce Harper (four years). You’d get back a starting player and top prospects. And if any of those four leave, you know that you just saved $100 million to $200 million. What could that buy? Oh, Max Scherzer or Jon Lester. Or Sandoval. Or it might help you extend Fister’s contract.
Except for Anthony Rendon and maybe Tanner Roark, who are so cheap and under team control for five more years, there’s no one you might not at least consider trading. Why? Because after a three-year run in which Washington led MLB in wins, virtually everyone’s stock is high. Also, by 2016, the Nats think they may need a rotation spot for A.J. Cole or Lucas Giolito, MLB’s top pitching prospect.
Imagine that Zimmermann leaves after next season. What do you get back for losing him as a free agent? A first-round compensation pick. What’s that worth? You never know. In ’07, the Nats offered Alfonso Soriano $90 million after he’d had a 40-40 season. He turned it down and became a Cub for $118 million. The Nats got a compensation pick from the Cubs. They used it to select . . . Jordan Zimmermann.
October flops have hurt the Nats’ reputation as a team but not individual players’ market value. Not yet, anyway. If the Nats did not seem so close to a World Series trip, then Tyler Clippard and Denard Span, free agents after 2015, would scream “sell high.” When will Drew Storen (1.18 ERA) be worth more?
Your heads swim, doesn’t it? Mine does, too. Rizzo’s doesn’t. He loves imagining such things even though he knows few of them will happen. He calls them Plans B and C. Are there a Q and a Z, too?
Are the Nats actually going to trade Zimmermann or Desmond sometime before next season or by July 31, 2015? Maybe, though I doubt it. Will we wake up some random day and discover they’ve traded Strasburg (or Harper)? No, I doubt it very much.
But Rizzo and his staff have an opinion of every player. If they think just one big name is drastically overrated, injury-prone, will age fast — whatever flaw they see — then you have the makings of a cascade effect as a trade leads to other decisions.
Rizzo holds to his own vision. In 2010, Kasten argued the Nats had a 3-4-5 hitting identity for the future with Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn (.892 OPS, 38 homers) and Josh Willingham (.848 OPS). Why break up right-left-right power with high on-base percentage, too? Give extensions to Dunn and Willingham before they walk.
Rizzo differed. The White Sox signed Dunn for $56 million for four years. His Wins-Above-Replacement in Chicago: minus-1.5 wins. Rizzo then signed Werth, whose four contract years in D.C. so far have cost $59.6 million — just about the Dunn price. The Werewolf has been worth plus-12.3 wins, or $62.2 million in value, so far (according to FanGraphs).
Rizzo also replaced Willingham with LaRoche. Had the GM improved the Nats’ offense? No. He’d just maintained it, but with a huge improvement in defense.
The Nats have actually scored fewer runs in the past two years than they did in Dunn’s two seasons in D.C.! But the Nats, who allowed an average of 808 runs with Dunn and Willingham in their defense, also have allowed an average of just 592 runs the past three years. Better defense is a slice of it.
Four years ago, the Nats’ big-picture need was to slash their steaming pile of runs allowed. Now, after their miserable hitting against the Giants, the Nats may need to address their offense. But how? With everyday players lined up at almost every spot, how can you get much better? Is it too risky even to try?
We don’t know. But you can bet Rizzo is thinking. It makes winter seem shorter to wonder what might pop into his head.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.