Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo knows a thing or two about building a winning team. Look at where he left the Arizona Diamondbacks before coming to the nation's capital. Since becoming the GM in 2009, Rizzo has transformed a losing club into the reigning NL East champs. With draft picks with names like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon to name a few, it is obvious he didn't intend to build an overnight contender; its a process that takes time. Finally, Rizzo made a step in the right direction in 2010 by signing free agent OF Jayson Werth to a mammoth 8 yr/$126 million deal showing that the Nationals were not afraid to spend money. He followed this up by signing 1B Adam LaRoche to a 2 yr deal in which LaRoche spent the 2011 season on the DL. With the young raw talent of pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, Rizzo was on the verge of building greatness following a lackluster, yet impressive 2011 campaign season. In the 2011/12 offseason Rizzo made his mark. With the blockbuster trade for then Atheltics south paw Gio Gonzalez for question mark prospects Tommy Milone, Derek Norris, and 2 others and the signing of journeyman fireballer Edwin Jackson, the Washington Nationals had a formidable pitching staff to match its bipolar offense.
Following the 2012 season in which the Nationals finished a MLB best 98-64 with the help of break out seasons for rookie Bryce Harper, SS Ian Desmond, and the whole pitching staff, there were no question marks as to the teams ability to compete. However, like all off seasons, contracts expire and decisions need to be made. The first, free agent 1B Adam LaRoche, the power house to the Nats offense. Coming off a career best 33 homers and a team high 100 RBI's there was no doubt the Nationals needed him back. His demands of a 3 yr deal however made GM Mike Rizzo weary. The Nationals had options at first base, either play Morse or sign LaRoche. When it came down to the nitty gritty, LaRoche needed the Nats as much as the Nats needed him and the 2 yr/$24 million deal makes sense for both teams.
A gutsy call I cannot wrap my mind around was letting a good chunk of your successful bullpen walk away, especially left handed relievers Sean Burnett (Angels) and Tom Gorzelanny (Brewers) walk via free agency. Currently the Nationals have LHP Zach Duke a journeyman from Pittsburgh to the 'Stros and now the Nats, and Fernando Abad (also from the Astros) who is trying to earn his keep in the pen. With Ryan Mattheus, Craig Stammen (2 yr extension deal this offseason), Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and new closer Rafael Soriano in the pen with the 2 leftys, the Nationals bring in talent to add on their already stellar bullpen. Rizzo made the right moves letting the money commanders walk and bringing in fresh talent, an almost "Billy Beane-esque" move. The bullpen will be more effective this year than last with three closers in the pen.
Speaking of letting money walk, Rizzo used his crystal ball and saw that Edwin Jackson and Mike Morse were going to make money. He predicted right. Jackson signed a 4 yr deal with the Cubs and Morse is in the last year of his contract. Traded to Seattle, the Nats received A.J. Cole from the A's (part of the Gio Gonzalez trade) and received their solid minor league prospect back. By clearing space, Rizzo earlier on added P Dan Haren on a 1 yr deal and CF Denard Span via trade. The Nationals have been seeking a CF for years and Haren will be the #4 or 5 starter in an already perennial rotation. Span brings them defense, speed, and a lead off bat while Haren adds veteran presence to a very young rotation and becomes an innings eater.
All in all, my grade for the Nationals offseason is a B+. The Nationals added all the pieces they needed for success, however neglected their left handed relievers. I would look for Abad to take the final LHP spot in the 'pen. As well, don't be surprised if either Nathan Karns or Anthony Rendon get called up midseason due to injury. Karns has an Edwin Jackson like windup with a nasty off-speed pitch and Rendon has been raking this spring (.438 2 HR 7 RBI). The talent is there, the Nationals have now been to the playoffs and have shown resilience. I would look for a repeat.