When the Washington Nationals announced that they'd signed right-handed sinker-baller Chien-Ming Wang to a 1-year/$4M dollar+ deal in early November, Nats' GM Mike Rizzo told reporters on a conference call that the team was happy with the pitchers they had but always looking to upgrade the rotation. Rizzo said then he believed that the depth in the rotation could allow Washington to trade for what they wanted this winter. "I think that we have enough pitching depth that we could trade off our pitching depth," Rizzo told reporters, but having overseen the rebuilding of the organization Washington inherited from Montreal, the general manager knew the value of what the Nationals had built.
"It's taken us a long time to assemble a deep farm system that we can be proud of, and that is contributing on the major league level consistently" he said, "and we certainly don't want to rid ourselves of that. It's important to keep the depth. We're going to make trades when trades are prudent." A series of discussions with Oakland over the last month led to Thursday's six-player deal which brought the A's Gio Gonzalez to Washington, giving the Nationals a strong top of the rotation the GM believes can compete with the best in the NL East.
In responding to a question about having enough depth to cover the starts Strasburg will miss when he reaches his innings limit in his first full-year back from Tommy John, Rizzo told reporters in the November interview, "We feel that we have at least six or seven quality guys that we can call upon to start in the major leagues. We feel that we're about eight or nine deep as far as starting pitching depth in our organization, our system, so I think the Strasburg thing doesn't come into play that much for us now."
23-year-old right-hander Brad Peacock and the 24-year-old Tom Milone were presumably two of the eight or nine pitchers expected to play some role in the 2012 Nats' rotation. Friday night in a conference call with reporters, Rizzo was asked if he was comfortable with one less starter in the mix among the organization's major-league ready pitchers after the deal with Oakland which included both Peacock, Milone, 19-year-old right-hander A.J. Cole and 22-year-old backstop Derek Norris?
"We feel, even with this trade, we have great depth in the starting rotation," Rizzo said, "We've got [Stephen] Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, John Lannan. We also have guys who can start and compete for a starting job, there's Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen. This is because we know during the course of the season we're going to need more than five starting pitchers. Everybody does and we feel that we're still very deep in starting pitching and we like the talent level of our starting pitching and it's going to be a great competition to see who comes out of [Spring Training] as our final five."
After Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann, Wang, Detwiler and Lannan are going to have to decide this Spring which two of the three will start the season in the rotation. Rizzo acknowledged that things like Detwiler's lack of options could play a role in the decision, but the GM said all three would be in Washington in some role.
"They are three quality pitchers," Rizzo said, "so I don't see them not being on the big league club. But there's going to be competition so we'll see how that all pans out during Spring Training. But they're three quality pitchers, and if they're not three of our best twelve when we leave camp, we're doing pretty good because they're three quality major league pitchers."
"I like our depth," even after the trade, the GM said, "I thought we were protected there with major league caliber pitching immediately there at the major league level. Don't forget 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."
As for the present, or the future 2012 rotation, Rizzo said the Nats' starting pitching, "... is in the realm of something that we've never had here before."
"Don't forget," the general manager continued, "... we've got a [Stephen] Strasburg at 23, Gio Gonzalez at 26 and [Jordan] Zimmermann at 25. So those guys are young, 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 Roy Clark and Kris Kline and Doug Harris our farm director to keep identifying, signing and developing good, young, power starting pitching."
The Nationals aren't done trying to improve the ballclub this winter, however. As they've stated from the start, a pitcher and an outfield bat are the goals and the Nats' front office is still looking according to the GM. "We're always looking to improve our ballclub," Rizzo said, "We feel that if the right fit for us for a center fielder, 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."
"We still haven't gotten off that," Rizzo assured reporters, "We still feel that that's a need for us. We do feel that we have in-house candidates right now that can fill that position very effectively, being that Jayson Werth could move to center field and then we would open up a bigger pool of candidates for a corner outfield position. We feel that really that position and that spot hasn't changed this offseason so far. Like I said, we're still looking for a long-term, permanent fit for us and just haven't found that yet and we're still attacking all avenues to try [to] get one."
In spite of persistent rumblings about the Nationals' interest in a certain soon-to-be former Brewers' first baseman, when Rizzo was asked if it was correct to assume that Adam LaRoche was going to be the Nats' first baseman in 2012, Rizzo said simply, "That is correct."
With LaRoche, a full year of Ryan Zimmerman, an improved Jayson Werth, can the Nationals, as they're currently constructed, compete for the organization's first postseason appearance? Are they improved from last year's 80-81 third place finishers? "I think with the normal maturation of our good core young players, I think they're only going to get better," the GM explained, "I think that hopefully we have a healthier season out of the gate. Hopefully Ryan Zimmerman is there for the full complement of games. We hope that Adam LaRoche is there and has a typical Adam LaRoche season. We hope that Jayson Werth has a typical Jayson Werth season."
"We feel that there will be improvements in [Wilson] Ramos and [Ian Desmond] at short and [Danny Espinosa] at second base," Rizzo said, "We feel that we're going to get an uptick in offense just from those players improving and getting to their career norms. I like our rotation. I like our bullpen. I think that we're going to play better, smarter, more fundamental baseball. Davey [Johnson's] going to manage this team as good as any manager in baseball, so I feel good and I feel optimistic about where we're at. We're never satisfied. I always see places that need an improvement. But, with that said, we like our ballclub and our goal is to be playing meaningful games at the end of the season in September and beyond."
Asked what work remained to be done this winter, the Nats' GM said that the Nationals would, "... like to do some subtle things. We'd like to improve our bench. We'd like to improve our depth in the minor leagues to help us, if need be, on the major league level. Davey and I are going to put our heads together and see exactly what he needs as far as bench strength for him to manage his game effectively. So I think we're going to be looking at all aspects and if something bigger that's acquire-able is something that helps our ballclub and that fits for us in the long-term we'll certainly look into doing something like that... We're always looking, we're always going to be aggressive and we're going to always try to improve the ballclub, even though we think that we're vastly improved over last year, and we still think that we can get better."
(ed. note - " * = Rizzo on Sammy Solis - "The Sammy Solis thing has been sidetracked because he has strep throat, so we're waiting for that to be cured for him to go see Dr. Yocum and we'll have further information after that." Solis reportedly felt pain in his elbow after his last AFL start.")