Washington Nationals: D.C. GM Mike Rizzo On The Nats' Starter Search, Stephen Strasburg And The Winter So Far.

While new Nat Adam LaRoche was doing a round of tv and radio interviews this past Friday immediately following the press conference to introduce the 31-year-old left-handed hitting first baseman to the nation's capital, Washington Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo fielded questions from the D.C. press corps about LaRoche, the search for a starting pitcher and the status of several injured, new and recovering Nationals...

The starter search was the first topic discussed. Mr. Rizzo, who made the acquisition of a top-of-the-rotation arm the no.1 goal of the team's offseason, expressed interest in Cliff Lee, but clearly stated that he wasn't, "...going to put all my eggs in the Cliff Lee basket," as he put it in an interview on Sirius/XM's MLB Network Radio earlier this winter, knowing that the team's chances of landing the left-hander, who ended up back in Philadephia, were slim. The Nats reportedly made a "significant" offer to soon-to-be-30-year-old lefty Jorge De La Rosa, but he chose to remain in Colorado. The Nationals' GM then made a run at the now-former Kansas City Royals' ace and Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke, but the 27-year-old right-hander blocked a trade to Washington using a partial no-trade clause to keep Royals' GM Dayton Moore from accepting what the Nationals were willing to offer. Greinke ended up getting traded to Milwaukee. Mr. Rizzo was asked if that non-trade in particular was disappointing or tough to take because of the circumstances?

"I don't want to talk about Greinke specifically," Mr. Rizzo said, "But for every trade that we make, there's a hundred trades that we don't make, and you work just as hard on the ones you don't make as the ones you do make, so I'll leave it at that."

"We've addressed a lot of the issues that we wanted to address coming into the winter," the Nats' GM responded when asked to assess the team's success in working to improve the roster, "We're far better defensively, we're far more athletic, we're far more balanced then we were at the end of the season this year. So I think that we've taken great strides in improving the ballclub...Am I satisfied with where we're at? I'm not satisfied, but I am happy [with] what we've acquired so far."

"Are you ever satisfied?" Mr. Rizzo was asked. "No, I never am," he responded. 

Would the Nationals continue to search for a top-of-the-rotation arm? "I will say that we're going to keep attempting to do so," Mr. Rizzo said, "but again, they're few and far between and very difficult to obtain." From the start it was clear that Cliff Lee was the only free agent pitcher who fit the description of what the Nationals were looking for in a no.1-starter-type, and the other arms they'd attempt to acquire in trades, Greinke or possibily Matt Garza, or via free agency like De La Rosa, all ended up elsewhwere. "Are there pitchers remaining on the free agent market that fit the description of the sort of starter you've been after?" Mr. Rizzo was asked. "I don't want to put a blanket statement on it, but I think I made it clear at the beginning of the offseason that I felt there was one elite pitcher in the free agent class." 

The Nationals might still have been in the market for a top-of-the-rotation arm if Stephen Strasburg was healthy, but with the '09 no.1 overall pick and potential future ace sidelined and completely out of the picture at the Major League level til at least late August or September the need for a front-end starter was clear. As the Nats' GM explained at the start of the search, however, as Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore quoted Mr. Rizzo saying this past November in an article entitled, "The Nationals' search for a top starter won't be easy":

"...if it's obtainable to get a front-of-the-rotation guy in [2011], then we're going to go every avenue to get that player. But if we have to wait until [2012] to obtain it, and Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann become that 1 and 2 and supplement it in 2012."

Zimmermann's back, healthy and expected to compete for a spot at the top of the rotation this Spring. Strasburg's rehabbing and reports last week had the right-hander "ready to throw off a mound" in three or four weeks, though the articles on the subject contained no direct quotes I've read that have actually said "mound" but only that he was set to start throwing in that time frame. Mr. Rizzo was asked about the reports and responded simply that, "Stephen will throw off the mound when the doctors tell him he will throw off a mound and not a moment sooner." "When might that be?" Mr. Rizzo was asked in a follow-up question, "I really don't know," Mr. Rizzo said, "We'll look into that information, we'll talk to our doctors and our rehab coordinator and have that information for you next time." 

As for Spring Training, "[Strasburg will] be in Florida when pitchers and catchers arrive," Rizzo said, "and he'll begin his throwing program, not unlike what you saw with Jordan Zimmermann last year at this time." Another potential member of the starting rotation, Yunesky Maya, was named the Dominican Winter League's pitcher of the year, and has reportedly looked stronger than he did in a few outings this past September. Mr. Rizzo was asked about the 29-year-old right-hander's strong showing, and said, "We assess him going into Spring Training as we saw him at the time that we signed him. We think that he's a very capable starting pitcher in the major leagues. He was the no.1 starter on a really good Cuban national club, has proven that he can compete at the highest level." 

"As far as how I handled him last year," Mr. Rizzo continued, "it probably wasn't the best way to handle Yunesky Maya last year, but he was very driven and impatient to get to the big leagues and [we] probably put him in a position that was difficult for him to succeed, so I'll take that one on my back. But we won't make that mistake this year, he's going to be ready for Spring Training and I expect to see really good things out of him."

Asked about some of the other injured and recovering Nationals who might have an impact on the Nats' roster in 2011, Mr. Rizzo said Jesus Flores, "had a terrific Venezuelan Winter League, was happy, healthy, and swinging the bat and catching the ball. He'll be 100% ready for Spring Training." Garrett Mock? J.D. Martin? "Garrett Mock, first of all, had neck surgery last season and rehabbed it most of the season. He should be 100% ready to go at the beginning of Spring Training. He's going to compete for a rotation spot, and J.D. Martin had a lower back problem, which should be, as far as I know, 100% ready to go at the beginning of Spring Training also."

While Adam LaRoche continued to talk to the press elsewhere in the room, Mr. Rizzo was asked about questions from the then-just-completed press conference with LaRoche about the Nats' new first baseman feeling pressure to replace what the outgoing slugger Adam Dunn had provided to the Nats' lineup. "I think you're talking about two of the most consistent players that there are," Rizzo said of the new and old first basemen, "You can look at their numbers consistently and you can more or less draw a conclusion of what [LaRoche] is going to bring offensively to the table. Defensively, he's going to bring run prevention and I think that's going to help balance our club much more. I think we're going to score runs, but we're going to score runs maybe in a different manner than we did last year. We've got the personnel now to go first to third, second to home, scoring from first base and manufacturing some runs where I don't think we did last year." 

How undervalued is the ability to create runs? "As a team we didn't go first-to-third, second-to-home, and it was a kind of a by-product of we had some older veteran players at second base at the time," Mr. Rizzo said, "and so it's a point of emphasis for me as a National League club, it's hugely important to be athletic and be able to advance on the bases, because it's hard to string together two, three, four, five hits in a row to score multiple runs in an inning."

Danny Espinosa's expected to start at second in place of the "older veteran players" as Mr. Rizzo described them, that the Nats had last year, but the 23-year-old '08 3rd Round pick's winter was cut short when he injured his wrist and had to undergo surgery to remove the hook of the hamate bone from his right hand. The Nats' GM was asked if he'd be ready for Spring Training, and if the Nationals needed to add a veteran infielder in case he wouldn't be ready? "Danny will have no issue with the hamate surgery, he'll be 100% ready to go in Spring Training," Rizzo said, "We expect him to be our Opening Day second baseman. He's a young player, but what he gives to us defensively range-wise, energy level, and speed on the bases, we can absorb a little bit of poor rookie at bats, if you will, until he gets comfortable in the batter's box from both sides of the plate." 

The Nationals traded another veteran slugger and outfielder this winter, sending Josh Willingham to the Oakland Athletics for outfield prospect Corey Brown, 25, and potential future closer Henry Rodriguez, a right-hander with a 100 mph fastball and the usual location issues which accompany that sort of heat. Rodriguez, with no options remaining, would have to make the Opening Day roster, or clear waivers so he could assigned elsewhere within the organization, but the Nats' GM said, when asked, that he didn't see that as a problem. "We fully expect Henry to make the club," Rizzo said, "He's been scouted extensively by us. We think that he's a power arm that's going to fit in somewhere in the middle of the bullpen somewhere." 

In introducing free agent outfielder Jayson Werth to the nation's capital in a press conference earlier this winter, the Nationals' General Manager discussed how the Front Office worked to build up the Nats' system in previous years, in what was described as Phase I of the plan to rebuild the entire organization from the ground up, and how they had moved on to Phase II which would see the team now focus on supplementing the talent they've produced and acquired through the draft and trades with free agent talent when it was available and obtainable.

It was necessary, however, to build a strong foundation first, so that the team could consider dealing the sort of package they were willing to offer Kansas City for Zack Greinke for example, (whether or not you agree they could have absorbed such a blow...I'm on the fence), while remaining comfortable in the knowledge that the organization could afford to part with that sort of talent and in theory replace it. Asked about independent organizations that have begun to recognize the work the Nats have done, Mr. Rizzo said, "I take that with a grain of salt. I've seen the improvement in our minor league system with my own eyes, so I kind of view that as really exciting and something that we're extremely proud of. You know, when periodicals say we're doing a good job, that's a good thing, but we don't put a lot of weight on that. We see that we're doing it the right way, we've seen a constant improvement in the organization on the minor league side. Obviously that was a huge point of emphasis for us, and I think at least the last two or three drafts have been extremely important for us and impactful for us, and I think it goes hand-in-hand with Kris Klein becoming the scouting director, Roy Clark becoming Assistant GM, these guys are baseball afficionados, they know the game, they know the draft game very well, and it's a unique skill set that they have and it's no coincidence that when those guys were brought in that we've taken off." 

With the last question of the GM's briefing, Mr. Rizzo was asked about the importance of signing LaRoche and Werth to multi-year deals so that they could establish this lineup and not have the turnover they've had in the past. "Adam is a guy that we want around for the long-term. Two [years] plus a reasonable mutual option made sense for both parties and we have an opportunity to keep him around here for the long-term and to get some cohesion and some consistency not only in the lineup, but in the clubhouse and in the community. It's really important for us." 

With that, Adam LaRoche was done with the TV and radio interviews, and ready for another round of questions from the D.C. press corps, as reported here at Federal Baseball.com yesterday in a post entitled, "Washington Nationals: Adam LaRoche On Free Agency, Phase II And The Nats' Infield." LaRoche later appeared with LaVar Arrington and Chad Dukes on 106.7 the FAN D.C. Sports Radio, where he said (though he thought he was being set up for something) that he believed Ryan Zimmerman was probably the biggest name in D.C. Sports. 

• Some random quotes not included in previous reports: 

I overheard Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman saying that the Nationals were, "Getting to the point where we're well above average at every position defensively." 

I asked Adam LaRoche about his relationship with Roy Clark, who's now with the Nats, as Mr. Rizzo mentioned above, but was the Braves' scouting director when Atlanta drafted LaRoche, and if his past with Mr. Clark had influenced his decision to join the Nationals: 

Adam LaRoche: "You know I haven't talked to Roy. I talked to him last year, and I haven't talked to him this winter. I'm looking forward to it. I always enjoy sitting down with him. We had some good times there in Atlanta there, obviously, coming up when he was down on the field a lot more, especially throughout the minor league stuff...and yeah, it will be good to catch up with him." 

If you missed Adam LaRoche's press conference on Friday, you can read about it here in Federal Baseball's report entitled, "Washington Nationals Introduce Adam LaRoche To NatsTown", or watch it at MASNSports.com.

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