In an MLB Network Radio interview earlier this month, Washington Nationals' General Manager Mike Rizzo was asked if he could sum up what went wrong in 2015? As he explained it, the biggest problem was the injury issues that plagued the Nats from the start.
Denard Span, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Aaron Barrett, Craig Stammen and more all dealt with injuries and missed significant time.
"When those type of things happen," Rizzo said, "a lot of things have to come into play for you to play as poorly as we did. First of all we started the season off in a bad spot.
"Four guys in Spring Training that couldn't perform in Spring Training, that didn't get any at bats, so now they're catching up, and you know how hard it is catching up throughout the season, you never really catch up -- so you're taking your six weeks of Spring Training, but it's in playoff atmosphere baseball, against guys who have had full Spring Training, so we started off slow.
"I give credit to our extra players and our bench players and the depth that we've amassed here that kept us afloat. We had a 3 1/2 game lead in the division with four or five of our everyday players on the disabled list, two starting pitchers gone, two relief pitchers that were done for the season. So, they kept us afloat, and then we just couldn't get a synergy, we couldn't get a rhythm, not only with our rotation, but with our lineup and guys were in and out of the disabled list multiple times during the season. And just couldn't get a rhythm and then things just started deteriorating and performances went down and we just couldn't recover."
Dusty Baker was asked this week at the Winter Meetings how he would balance wanting to keep his veterans in the lineup as much as possible and keeping them healthy enough that they're available throughout the 2016 campaign?
"The best way to do that is to ensure you have a good bench, that you don't lose a whole lot when you do give them days off," the veteran skipper explained.
"I know how to run this race. I know what it takes as a player and a coach and a manager, and it's a long race. It starts before you even get to Spring Training. You've got to train for the race. That's what we're in the process of doing."
The Nationals hired Paul Lessard, a trainer with the Reds when Baker managed in Cincinnati and the Nats rebuilt their medical staff with Rizzo explaining that they've assembled, "... a cutting edge, expansive, innovative health system that's going to be in place that's going to be all-inclusive and hopefully will reap benefits. We think that that's the next frontier."
"Maybe the next Moneyball," Rizzo said in introducing the medical staff last month, "keeping players on the field."
Baker said he's had plenty of experience working to keep everyone on the field throughout the season.
"There's a fine line between when you overplay them in the Spring and when you underplay them in the Spring, to not have them ready or under ready. I've got to see -- I heard our travel is a little tough in Florida. So we just have to see. We have like a mini camp there, see how much -- see, when I had Barry Bonds with the Giants, I had to like sit Barry down because he was ready in like two weeks, and it might take this other guy -- and then Barry would go stale for the last two weeks, where another guy needed extra at bats. So it just depends on my assessment per person and how much I work with them."
"I think we've got to get some guys hopefully have better fortune with injuries than we've had the last couple of years," Baker said. "And some of that's luck, and some of that's hopefully we can start training them early or training them differently in order to stay healthy because, let's face it, if I can keep my front line guys on the field more than yours, there's a good chance of our team winning."
With all the injuries last season, Baker explained, some players were forced to play new positions and it made a big difference.
"I look at their infield defense," he said, "they had everybody on the infield out of position, and that's tough to do."
"I think it affected our defense for sure," Rizzo agreed in a separate interview at the Winter Meetings. "And defense affects pitching so I thought it had a direct effect on the rotation and the bullpen.
"When you're a pitching, defensive organization and you've got guys playing out of position for the first time, it was difficult to overcome that."
So... how exactly do you avoid a repeat of what happened?
"I think you avoid injuries," Rizzo deadpanned. "Because you have players playing in their positions that they're supposed play in and it's not a 9-1-1 to get a guy to play a position with a week's notice in Spring Training.
"[Yunel] Escobar learned two positions that he never played before in a crash course in two weeks of Spring Training and having him play out of position and Anthony Rendon and [Zimmerman] being a first-time first baseman, [Bryce] Harper moving across the diamond to right field, there was a lot of different -- as you know on defense there are different angles on the way the ball comes off it and certainly when you're a pitching and defensive organization it affected us."
Will the new medical staff, Baker's judgement and the new analytical approach to health care keep the Nationals on the field in 2016?