Last winter it was Gio Gonzalez that Washington Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo brought in to improve the Nats' rotation. This year the big move was to get Denard Span to play center in 2013. Can Rizzo and the Nationals bring the nation's capital its first World Series Championship since 1924.
December 23, 2011: Washington Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo has just dealt pitching prospects A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, Tom Milone and catcher Derek Norris to the Oakland A's for a then-26-year-old Gio Gonzalez. The left-hander finished his fourth season in the majors at a career-high +3.6 fWAR with a 3.12 ERA, 3.64 FIP, 4.05 BB/9 and 8.78 K/9 in 32 starts and 202.0 IP. Gonzalez, Rizzo told reporters at the time, had, "All the prerequisites that we had to have for a deal of this magnitude." The Nats' then-50-year-old Executive Vice President and General Manager described the Nationals' new starter as a, ".. young power-throwing left-hander," with, "plus, plus stuff." The fact that Gonzalez was, "... a left-hander was really a key to this," Rizzo said, "We feel that he matches up very nicely between our two power right-handers [Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann]."
The Nationals paid a heavy price to get Gonzalez, giving up two pitchers who'd debuted in the majors in 2011, a young, highly-regarded prospect given an above slot deal so that he would sign and a hard-hitting young catcher with impressive patience. "To get a 26-year-old controllable, affordable left-handed pitcher that's pitched in All-Star games at the peak of his career," Rizzo explained, "it takes a bundle of good, talented players." And the four players they traded were especially tough to part with, the GM said, describing Peacock, Milone, Cole and Norris as, "... four players that are near and dear to our hearts because we scouted them, drafted them, signed them and developed them and they were long-standing members of our organization, and they'll be sorely missed."
The depth in terms of major-league-ready pitchers at the upper levels in the organization took a hit with the deal, but the Nationals had three spots in the rotation set with a mix of pitchers including Ross Detwiler, Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan competing for the final two spots and Tom Gorzelanny and Craig Stammen capable of starting if needed. (They would later add Edwin Jackson on a 1-year deal). With Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann atop the rotation, the Nationals' GM said the deal for Gonzalez gave them, "... a young core of starting pitchers at the major league level that really is in the realm of something that we've never had here before."
As for pitching prospects, even after the trade Rizzo said, "I like our depth," reminding reporters, "we've got another wave of prospects coming, that I think will at least equal and possibly surpass the package of guys that we've given up in this trade. With the [Matt] Purkes and the [Sammy] Solises and the [Alex] Meyers of the world. Then we also have a wave behind them of the [Robbie] Rays and the [Paul] Demnys and those type of guys behind them. So, we feel that we're set up very, very well for the long haul."
The trade for Gonzalez gave the Nationals a young core of starting pitchers that were under team control for the near future at a relatively affordable price. In Strasburg, Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann that the Nats' GM thought he had a rotation that would allow the Nats to compete in a tough division. "Those guys are young," Rizzo said, "they're not going anywhere and Ross Detwiler is also 25-years-old, so our core rotation is very, very young and we've got great depth behind them on the major league level, major-league-ready. We've got a wave of pitchers coming behind them and even a further wave beyond that and I put the onus on [Asst. GM] Roy Clark and [Scouting Director] Kris Kline and Doug Harris our farm director to keep identifying, signing and developing good, young, power starting pitching."
Having found the pitcher they were after, the Nationals' GM said that they were still in the market for a center fielder if one was out there that made sense. "We feel that if the right fit for us for a center fielder," Rizzo said, "a long-term center field piece came to us, we would certainly be aggressive and address it and go after it either via the free agent market or the trade market." Washington didn't find the center fielder they were after last winter, but 2010 no.1 overall pick Bryce Harper was up before long and he took over in center and helped the Nationals to 98 wins in his first pro season, though the Nats reportedly continued to look for a prototypical center fielder/leadoff man throughout the summer.
The core group of pitchers (with E-Jax in the mix and Detwiler in and out but eventually part of the starting rotation on a regular basis) that Rizzo assembled last winter led the Nationals to the NL East crown and the first postseason appearance by a team from the nation's capital in 79 years.
November 2012: This winter the Nats finally added the center fielder/leadoff man they have been after for several years in a trade with the Minnesota Twins that got them Denard Span. In order to acquire the 28-year-old outfielder who finished his fifth major league season in 2012 with a .283/.342/.395 line, 38 doubles, four triples, four home runs and 17 steals in a +3.9 fWAR campaign, Rizzo parted with one of the pitchers he cited as being part of the depth in the organization that allowed the team to deal the likes of Peacock and Milone last December. Alex Meyer, a 2011 1st Round pick was the top-rated arm in the organization before he was dealt to the Twins.
"To get a good, established major league player at Denard's age, with the contract that he has," Rizzo told reporters after the trade, "you're going to have to give up a good quality player." As the Nationals' GM explained after the trade with the A's for Gio Gonzalez, even after another deal that cost them a high-end pitching prospect he was happy with the depth in the organization and his front office's ability to find and development more talent. "You have to give to get," Rizzo said, "And we feel that we have great depth in our minor league system. We continue to call upon our scouts and player development to add to that system each and every year and to give up an Alex Meyer for a Denard Span is always a difficult decision to make, but one that we felt fit our time frame, fit our skill set and was something that the front office and ownership was willing to do."
As Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell noted in a chat with readers today, the deal for Span was a risky one for the Nationals since it's forcing them to make tough decisions about other pieces of the roster including the big one that remains unresolved this winter involving Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche:
"Span BETTER be a good idea. Because you passed up an outfield of Werth/Harper CF/Moore-Bernadina and Morse at 1st base. Or, of course, the same with LaRoche at 1st base and Morse back in LF."
In Rizzo's mind, as he explained after the deal for Span, the move gave the Nationals something they've been looking for and had previously been unable to find. Rizzo described the outfielder as, "... the first guy with this type of skill set that's an established major league player." The Nats' GM said he thought the team had future center fielders in the organization, but none that were MLB-ready right now. "We think we've got guys in the system that fill this role," Rizzo explained, "But they're years away. They're in the pipeline and we're looking for big things from them down the road. But as far as an established guy, at his age... he's a 28-year-old guy, still just reaching the prime of his career, with his skill set, I really think that his game is going to translate to the National League very, very well."
The Nationals' General Manager was right about Gio Gonzalez last winter and he seems to believe he found the one thing the defending NL East Champions needed this time around in Denard Span at the cost of pitching depth the GM believes his scouts and coaches can identify and develop. Though the depth took another hit with the deal, a trade involving Michael Morse, if one has to be made, could bring some pitching prospects back or the Nats could keep Morse, take the draft pick they'd get for LaRoche signing elsewhere and then go through the same process with Morse next winter if he too moves on. With Tyler Moore and a prospect like Matt Skole already in the organization, the team seems comfortable with their future at first base regardless of how the situation sorts itself out this winter and in the coming season.
Four years later, the decision to make Mike Rizzo the Nationals' GM and then allow him to restructure the Nats' front office and organization seems to be one of the best moves that the Washington Nationals' owners made to get the franchise moving in the right direction. They're able to trade from depth with the confidence that they can identify and develop players to replace what they've lost. Can the roster Rizzo's assembled get the Nats back to the postseason and maybe even further next October?