Washington Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo was on the MLB Network Radio show Power Alley this afternoon, talking to former Major League manager Kevin Kennedy and co-host Mike Ferrin about the 2011 Nats and what's happening in Space Coast Stadium in the first weeks of Spring. "In the four Spring Trainings since I've been here," the Nationals' general manager said when asked how the roster looks now that everyone's in Florida, "this is probably the most energetic and lively bunch of guys that we've had in at one time." "There's a good mixture," Mr. Rizzo said, "you've got the veterans such as the [Jayson] Werths, the [Jerry] Hairstons and the Alex Coras, the Livan Hernandezes and then sprinkled in with the youth of [Wilson] Ramos, [Ian] Desmond, [Danny] Espinosa, Jordan Zimmermann and those types of guys in camp. It's been a good mesh."
Asked about that mix, and the importance of having veterans around to help teach the players where the team is trying to get to as an organization, Rizzo said, "Leadership and experience only take you so far,":
Mike Rizzo: "The players you bring in have to be able to hit and play defense and run the bases too...I feel that we've got guys who have ability...Jayson [Werth], certainly, part of the reason we brought him in here was his leadership qualities, and his winning attitude and his postseason experience, but he was mostly brought in here to solidify the middle of the lineup, to be a two-way player for us and to be an impact guy on the team performance-wise. So you try to have that mixture of all the intangibles: good player, good person on and off the field, good teammate, rally the troops type of guy and a guy that can mentor the young players, but if the performance isn't there it kind of lessens the value of players."
With the size of the contract Werth received, there's often concern that a player will try too hard to live up to the deal and be "more than what they are," as Mr. Kennedy said, when all the team wants is the player they signed, but the Nats' GM said that he didn't think that would be the case with the Nats' new right fielder. "What I've learned from being around him so much this winter," Rizzo said, "is that I think there was more in there than he had to bring out in Philadelphia. I think one of the reasons that Washington interested him is I think he was ready to step up and be 'thee' guy instead of one of the guys."
"Is there pressure on him because of the contract?" Rizzo asked rhetorically, "I think it's almost impossible to look beyond that. Yeah I think there's going to be pressure on him, there's going to be expectations placed upon him, but we've stated to him all along that he's going to have to be himself. We signed him for the production that he's put up in the past. If he can reach that and exceed his numbers in maybe different realms of his game, that's all we can expect of him. To be himself, put his numbers up and help his teammates become better too."
The Nats' middle infield was the next topic, with Mr. Ferrin praising the duo ( known, at least to Charlie and Dave, as "Despinosa") of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa. What would the two young middle infielders have to do to make the transition from prospect to full-time player? Rizzo: "Ian needs to be more of a consistent major league player. I think he's passed the test in my mind of 'Is he a major league player?' I'm comfortable saying he's a major league shortstop. I think he's comfortable in his mind that he belongs in the major leagues. Which I think that's a big step in a player's development. When they can believe it themselves, truly believe that they belong...I think that's step one.
"I think Ian is there with that. He possesses terrific physical attributes as a shortstop. Range wise, he gets to balls that few shortstops get to. He can throw the ball from anywhere on the field and throw you out. He's got a cannon for an arm. He runs well. He's got some pop. He learned the strike zone much better as the year went on. He learned to how to put balls in his pocket and not make a silly error later on in the season. So I think he's going to take that and grow from that and I think take it to the next level. He's proven that he has the capability of leading. You know shortstop is the leader of the infield. And even as a rookie he took the responsibility of being a leader in the infield and really took some strides later on in the season of being a leader in the clubhouse."
"Danny Espinosa, in our minds, he's a front-line, everyday, defensive shortstop in the big leagues. We're fortunate enough in the organization to have Desmond where we think he fits better for us there right now. So we moved Danny, transformed him over to second base late last season, he took to it very very well. We think this guy has a chance to be a rangy, live-bodied, exciting middle infielder with some power. A switch-hitter that can run, steal bases and we believe that he has a chance to be a Gold-Glove-caliber middle infielder. We're excited about the two, there's going to be growing pains, we understand that, and we've told Espinosa exactly what I told Desmond at this time last year, 'You worry about your defense. You worry about preparation for the game, what you do on offense, we're going to be very, very patient with you and we know there's going to be growing pains and we're willing to grind through those.'"
• Henry Rodriguez, who's late to Spring Training with visa issues and expected in camp soon, what's Rizzo's scouting report on the former-A and potential future closer who is expected in camp soon?
Mike Rizzo: "Everybody saw the arm, I like the compact body. He's a big physical strong guy, stocky strong, that had two wipeout pitches. He's got a plus plus fastball and at times a wipeout unhittable slider. The thing with Henry was he needed to control the strike zone a little bit better.
"That's where the scouting part of this really, really came...we were fortunate that we saw Henry mid-season in the minor leagues last year, we saw him in the big leagues later in the season and we scouted him extensively in the Winter League, and our scouts have told me that this guy was starting to figure it out as a reliever, because...he'd been transferred from starting to relieving a year and a half ago, that transformation takes a little bit of an adjustment period, but this guy's stuff was always there, but his feel for pitch got better and better and better each time we saw him. His command was getting better and better and better, his consistent release point and his strike zone ability was really increasing and that was the reason that made me confident at this time to pull the trigger.
"Josh [Willingham] was a great player for us, but he was a guy who was having trouble staying on the field for us. He wasn't the defensive player that we're trying to get here, and we thought that the guys that we had in-house either in a platoon system or a young player taking over full-time would compensate for his offensive numbers, we'd be stronger [defensively] and we'd get a good prospect in Corey Brown, who's an athletic four-tool player and a power 23-year-old 100 mph-type of arm that we could place in the bullpen right now."
• Adam LaRoche at first? Roger Bernadina and Morse in left? Werth's addition, the new middle infield, certainly improving the defense was the goal this winter, but how much so?
"We had a plan in place of how to construct this thing," Rizzo said, with strong defense, "always in the forefront of my mind. Sometimes it takes a year or two years to implement a plan because of contracts that you have and personnel that you have on the books already, but we love LaRoche defensively, we think he's an above average defender, he's got smooth range, he's got great hands, ability to pick the ball. A left-handed throwing first baseman, which in a perfect world I really like, and a guy that's going to aid the rest of the infield in playing defense.
"It's been kind of a marker of mine, I believe pitching and defense go hand in hand. I think improving the defense like we have, infield defense, outfield defense and behind the plate, that alone is gonna improve our pitching and our starting rotation, because with the rotation we have right now, with a few exceptions of [Jordan] Zimmermann and maybe [Tom] Gorzelanny who can strike people out, it's a pitch-to-contact rotation, so giving the Philadelphia Phillies and the Mets and the Marlins and the Braves extra outs is not a recipe for success in the National League East.
"So we figured that if we do the little things, pick the ball up, limit the outs, stop guys from going first to third, second to home, and us ourselves with the ability to first to third, second to home, is going to make us a markedly better team and a team that's going to be much more difficult to play long-term."
• Scouting report on Wilson Ramos?
Mike Rizzo: "The Wilson Ramos trade...we feel really good about the trade. We gave up a terrific player in Matt Capps who was to me, one of the more outstanding teammates that I've ever been associated with, a class guy who went out and really performed remarkably for us. You don't pull the wool over the Minnesota Twins' eyes. Billy Smith is as sharp a baseball guy and [VP of Player Personell Mike] Radcliffe over there, they're as sharp a baseball organization as there is and I think it was a trade that worked well for both teams. The Twins were in a position that they needed to get a back of the [bullpen] guy to help them through the playoffs and a guy that they can control for a few years down the road.
"They had signed [Joe] Mauer to a long-term deal, they had a good backup guy in [Drew] Butera, and Ramos was kind of a luxury for them to have around. So they parlayed Ramos into a closer that got them the division title and into the playoffs and a guy that will probably help them do the same this year and we got ourselves a young guy that we believe is going to be a front of the line, catch and throw guy with power and offensive capabilities. I think that [Ramos'] upside is tremendous...he handles a pitching staff tremendously, he's wise beyond his years and he's a guy that the pitchers love to throw to...he gives a great target, he catches and throws and blocks and this guy is extremely strong, and he's going to be a gifted offensive guy.
"[Ramos is] coming off being the Winter Player of the Year last winter, this year he had 11 HR's and 50 RBI's, I think, in the Winter League and he's taken that and brought that to Spring Training right now. He's a guy with a huge upside. We're fortunate that we have great depth there. That's one of the positions that we have great depth at with a veteran in Pudge [Rodriguez], we've got Ramos, we've got Jesus Flores, who's a terrific young player who's finally healthy after a year and a half of not playing and one of our best prospects is Derek Norris who's going to be a really, really talented front-line catching prospect down the road."
• What about Bryce Harper saying he wants to win a job on the big league roster?
Mike Rizzo: "I'd be shocked if he said something other than that. It's tremendous. He's an extremely talented player. He's got a great attitude. He's smiling and bouncing around every time he comes out to the ballpark. He's a guy that's going to be a big part of this organization, this club in the very, very near future. He will not be in the big leagues this year, because we don't feel he's ready to be in the big leagues. There's more that goes into being able to get to the big leagues and stay in the big leagues and to be an impact guy in the big leagues, more so than hitting, throwing, running and learning how to play the outfield. He needs to learn how to be a professional player first. The everyday-ness of the game is something that I think young players, that's the first problem that they have to overcome, and we're going to develop him at his pace. We're certainly not going to hold him back, but we're certainly not going to rush him to the big leagues.
"He's got freakish ability. Davey Johnson said he generates club head speed that Tiger Woods we be proud of, so he's a unique talent, he's taken to the outfield extremely well, we're going to split his time in center field and right field. He takes all aspects of the game very, very seriously. He's front of the line when we're doing baserunning drills and come-ups and relays and that type of thing and of course in BP he's really working hard with Rick Eckstein, our hitting coach, to be a better hitter all around, and when he lets out the shaft he can really propel the baseball."
• How about Stephen Strasburg?
Mike Rizzo: "He is doing quite well. He took the offseason when he was unable to throw a baseball, he took the offseason as a competitive type of situation where he got himself...every other part of his body but his arm he could work on, so he got every other part of his body in tip-top shape. He's got a six-pack for a stomach now, he's lost about 11lbs of weight and he's really redistributed his muscle mass. He worked on core and lower body all winter. He looks great, he's got full range of motion, and full strenght in the affected areas. He's right now on his throwing program, he's going to be extended out to seventy-five feet in the next day or so and I would describe him as on or a little bit ahead of schedule. He's a guy that is kind of on the same routine that we had Jordan Zimmermann last year. His surgery was a month later than Jordan's was. Jordan got six or seven starts for us last year and depending on where Stras is at, we're certainly going to take his case individually and not rush him, but we're very happy and very excited with where he's at in his rehab."