Nats' general manager Mike Rizzo spent fifteen minutes with Sirius/XM MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Duquette and Kevin Kennedy on "Power Alley" yesterday talking about what the Washington Nationals are doing this winter to attempt to improve on last season's 69-93 finish. When the interview was over the D.C. GM was quoted throughout the baseball world discussing the state of negotiations with Adam Dunn, the team's pursuit of Cliff Lee and the potential replacements for Dunn should the Nats and their 31-year-old big middle-of-the-order bat fail to come to terms on a deal to keep the modern-day-Hondo in the nation's capital. Once the interview ended, Mr. Duquette, a former baseball executive, commented to Mr. Kennedy that it seemed like Mr. Rizzo may have been preparing Nats fans for Dunn's departure with some of the comments he made. I had an opportunity last night to ask Mr. Rizzo if Mr. Duquette was correct in his reading of what the GM said. But before I get to his response, here's what the Nationals' G.M. had to say during the interview yesterday...(ed. note - "I've paraphrased the questions where necessary for brevity's sake):
• Is free agency different this time around with the quicker turn around following the official end of the season?
Mike Rizzo: "Us specifically, we've done a lot this year. We see that the time frames have moved up, there's much less downtime. That lull between the end of the World Series and starting to get your organization together is really, really short. We've been on the phone quite a bit. We've talked to free agents, we're talking trades. We've been quite busy here, so I think it's really expedited the process."
• Are the Nats still interested in Adam Dunn?
Mike Rizzo: "Our philosophy here has been clear since I've taken over. We believe and I believe wholeheartedly that championship teams are built on pitching, defense, speed and athleticism. We certainly recognize that offense plays a big part in it also, but I think that teams that pitch, starting pitching is the ultra-prize nowadays, picking the ball up, playing the game the right way...because defense never goes into slumps and offenses do, so I think you have to be consistent, pitch well, pick the ball up, have speed...especially in the National League as you guys both are well aware. It's a different game here with the pitcher hitting ninth in the National League it's certainly a pitching/defensive oriented league and that's been my philosophy, that's how our team was built in Arizona when we won the World Series in 2001 with Mark Grace at first base and have a few thumpers on the corners and that's how I think that our philosophy is going to be here.** We love Adam Dunn, he's had two terrific years here, he's a great guy in the clubhouse, he's a guy that drives in big runs for us, and he's a big part of our offense, protects Ryan Zimmerman and all that, we recognize that and we've certainly had interest throughout the year and he's a guy that we continue to have communications with."
• Other options at first base?
Mike Rizzo: "If you are looking for a first baseman it's a good year to look for one. There are several viable options out there at the position. All have different skill sets. There's some defense wizards. There are some offensive thumpers. As always we're looking for a guy to play "both sides of the ball", that can produce offensively and play good defense also."
• Kevin Kennedy: "I'm going to give you my own scouting report, Mike. It's free of charge. Carlos Pena is a phenomenal guy, great clubhouse [guy], you probably know him anyway, and he can flat out play defense. And you know he's going to get some strikeouts, but anyway, that's a name for you, that's all...he's going to hit you 40 bombs though too..."
Mike Rizzo: "I just wrote that name down, Kevin. Thank you...We've been Carlos Pena guys here, he fits kind of what we're doing, he's one of a handful of guys that would give us what we're looking for. And like I said, we're still in communication with Adam Dunn. He's been our first choice all along and like I said, I've had a great relationship with him the last for the last two years and he's just a wonderful guy also."
• What can you tell us about your interest in Cliff Lee?
Mike Rizzo: "I'd be a fool if I didn't like Cliff Lee or want Cliff Lee on our club. He's the prize pitching guy in this year's free agent market. But I'm not going to delude myself to the fact that we have a great chance of landing Cliff Lee. He's going to have enough takers and enough competition for us to pick and choose whatever ballclub he wants to go to. So, suffice it to say, I love Cliff Lee, I'd love to have him on the club. He's a number one starter in the major leagues. We have contacted his agent and begun discussions with him, but I'm certainly not going to put all my eggs in the Cliff Lee basket cause I think the chances of Cliff wanting to come to the Washington Nationals at this time in our franchise is small."
• Who's coming up in the organization? Tell us about the talent the Nats have...
Mike Rizzo: "Jordan Zimmermann is one of our prize prospects that has some major league experience. He's coming off Tommy John surgery. We think coming into the 2011 Spring Training he's going to be 100% ready to participate. We think that he's a front of the rotation guy, he's got plus stuff, he's got an arsenal of four pitches and he's got the competitive fire that the good ones have. We signed a Cuban pitcher named Yunesky Maya who had an abbreviated, quick Spring Training, if you will, throughout the middle of the season cause he was a late sign, hadn't pitched competitively since the World Baseball Classic, but he has gone to the Dominican Winter League and pitched extremely well there. We feel that he'll have an impact on our club when he has a full Spring Training to prepare and come in on the same footing as the rest of the players. So we have great expectations for him. John Lannan is a solid left-handed starter for us. He's logged 200.0 innings in his career in 2009, had a great second-half for us last year, he's going to be in the mix and we go with two veterans in the back end of it in Livan Hernandez, who had a magnificent season for us and a great comeback story for Livan. He came into Spring Training last year in the best shape of his career. We expect him to do the same this year and be an innings-eater for us and has been a great mentor for our young staff. And then of course Jason Marquis had the bone chips early on in the season and pitched well in the second half also when he was healthy.
We've got guys like Tom Milone, who's a USC pitcher who was a 10th Rounder a couple years back, has jetted through our system, he's got good stuff and he's got great pitch-ability and great feel [for] how to compete in the major leagues. We've got some good young players that are already in the big leagues such as Wilson Ramos [who's] going to get a lot of time catching this year. Ian Desmond at shortstop, we've got great expectations for him. Danny Espinosa as a shortstop/second baseman for us, and those are good 23-24-year-old players that are going to be core guys for us along with the seasoned veteran at 26-years-old, Ryan Zimmerman. So, we feel good about our core players, our good young guys. We have good guys coming in the system such as Derek Norris and of course Bryce Harper, who are both having great seasons in the Arizona Fall League."
• If you don't get Cliff Lee will you pursue another starter?
Mike Rizzo: "We're always looking at options to improve our ball club. We understand we definitely need to improve our starting pitching. Every team does, but we're no different. We'd like to improve our depth there and our quality, so via the free agent market or via the trade route, we certainly hope to improve ourselves in the rotation and in the bullpen also."
• How do you sell free agents on joining the Nationals?
Mike Rizzo: "We are going to sell where we're going, where the franchise is headed and how close we are to being a viable championship organization. We look at the core players that I just mentioned to you, we look at a farm system that's bringing big league players to the major league roster each and every year. The last two years we've put an everyday player into the major league team. We look at the last two drafts we had, we feel are extremely successful, spending record amounts of money on the last two drafts in '09 and '10, we feel that we got several impact players in those drafts that are going to get to the big leagues in a relatively quick manner. We are going to sell one of the most powerful cities in the world here in Washington, D.C. with a great fanbase and a great ballpark and like I said, a good core of young players that we believe are going to be viable championship caliber players in the very, very near future. We're certainly not looking past 2011, but we feel '11 is going to be a building block year for us with a chance to show that we've come from being a viable franchise to a competing franchise, and our next step will be to be a championship franchise in the very near future and with guys such as the Zimmermans, the Espinosas, the Desmonds and the Strasburgs and the Harpers in the future, we feel that our future is bright and we're going to sell it to free agents and to people that we're making the trades to that you can be one of the horses in one of the bigger markets or you can be thee horse here in Washington, D.C."
• Will we see a lot trades this winter?
Mike Rizzo: "I think the early take on it was it's going to be a very active trade market. There's some good young pitching arms that are out there in the trade market and it would be a good time for those teams to cash in that chip, because the free agent market is a little bit down after Cliff Lee and the starting pitching market. But once you've got those young, controllable starting pitchers, they're like gold and for a team to give up on some of those good young pitching arms, you're going to have to recoup a lot in a trade for those pitchers, so you're kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't because to get one of those good young controllable starters you're going to have to create holes because you're going to have be giving up good young players that you already have in your system and on your major league roster. So, it's a trade-off, I think it will be a fairly active trade season, I think it's going to be a direct correlation with how the free agent market goes and how quickly it moves, but I think there should be some activity sooner rather than later."
• Ryan Zimmerman? Any insight into him as a player?
Mike Rizzo: "Ryan Zimmerman, and I've seen him a lot, and first of all he's got the best hands I've ever seen on a defensive player. The majority of his errors are on throwing, when he's throwing off-balance and that type of thing. I very rarely see him miss a ball. He catches everything. He's got one of the stickiest gloves I've ever seen. He makes the play coming in on the ball better than anybody I've ever seen. I compare him to a young Scott Rolen when he was in his heyday defensively as far as coming in on the ball and he's got agility, range and balance when he plays defense like no other and you couple that with his offensive ability and to me, I always say he's one of the ten best players in the game today."
(ed. note - " ** = When the interview ended and the program resumed, Mr. Duquette mentioned Mr. Rizzo's comments on building a championship team based "on pitching, defense, speed and athleticism" and wondered if Adam Dunn fit into the sort of team or if the D.C. GM was preparing to move on from the Dunn era based on what he had said. Last night I have a moment to ask Mr. Rizzo what he thought of the host's post interview comments. Here's what he said):
Federal Baseball: "You were talking in the interview about improving the team's athleticism, and they said as soon as you were off the air, I don't know if you kept listening?
Mike Rizzo: "I did not."
Federal Baseball: "Jim Duquette said it kind of sounded like you were preparing everyone for moving on from Dunn? I assume you wouldn't think that's a fair statement?"
Mike Rizzo: "I don't think that's fair, cause I haven't come to that conclusion, so, I'm not going to say it's an unfair statement but it didn't express my feelings, that was his opinion."