There aren’t many questions when it comes to the Washington Nationals’ Opening Day roster for 2019. Will it be Wander Suero or Austen Williams in the Nats’ bullpen? Adrían Sanchez, Wilmer Difo, and Jake Noll: Two of three will likely make the roster early with Howie Kendrick expected to start the season on the Injured List. Andrew Stevenson is expected to be up as a fourth outfielder until Michael A. Taylor is back to 100%.
However those final decisions play out, there will be a significantly different team on the field when things get started on Thursday.
With 10 additions made over the winter via free agency or trade, the Nationals, as GM Mike Rizzo put it, actually ended up turning over 40% of the roster, with additions to the bullpen, the rotation, infield, and catching corps.
In an interview with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies earlier this month, Rizzo talked about all the changes, which were focused on improving the defense and athleticism overall in the hope that it will help the Nationals in close games, which they struggled to win in 2018, with a disappointing 18-24 record in one-run games overall on the season.
“We wanted to be really strong,” Rizzo said when asked about the goals this offseason and the thinking behind the additions.
“My philosophy is pitching, defense, speed, and athleticism, and we felt that defensively we struggled last year. I think that was the most disappointing part of our season. Defense and baserunning to me was the reason that we had that one-run record last year. You cannot give — in this league, 28, 29 outs and run into two or three outs a game. We [ran into] a lot of outs. It was something we had to address.”
Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals front office added two catchers (Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes), signed two starters (Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez), brought both right-hander Jeremy Hellickson and bench bat/backup first baseman Matt Adams back, traded for reliever Kyle Barraclough, signed Trevor Rosenthal and Tony Sipp, and signed veteran second baseman Brian Dozier, adding them to the core of players who were already on the roster in D.C.
“We’ve got Trea Turner up the middle,” Rizzo said, “who’s a stalwart. He’s one of the best defensive shortstops in the game and getting better. We went out and got the 2017 Gold Glover in Dozier, who brings you leadership, power at the position, and a good, steady glove who can turn double plays, and then we took our focus towards leadership and defense at the catching position, and as we were working on the Yan Gomes deal, which is — he’s a supreme leader, he’s handled big staffs, he’s played on the biggest stage that there is, really commands the pitching staff and has worked with Cy Young award-winners and great staffs there in Cleveland in the World Series. We felt that we had our All-Star catcher in Yan Gomes, and as we were doing that deal, we went out and signed Kurt Suzuki, who’s one of my favorites from when we had him in 2012, helped us get that first division title in 2012, was a key component there, and is a guy that’s had a renaissance offensively in the last couple of years, changed his hitting approach and has really become an offensive threat.
“But what these guys bring us is, we’ve got a two-headed monster behind the plate because it takes a village on the rosters, and it’s tough to go with that one catcher and then the backup plan these days unless you’ve got yourself that main guy. You can count on one hand the guys that catch 140 games anymore. So we’ve got ourselves a good plan, we’ve got ourselves a two-headed leadership monster who can handle staffs defensively, offensively. Over this winter we’ve added four All-Stars onto the roster and we feel that we’re in a good position.”
While they’ve added players who can hit it out, Rizzo acknowledged that with the likes of Bryce Harper moving on, the Nationals might have to score runs in different ways this season, which is where the speed, athleticism, and attention to detail on the basepaths come into play.
“We lost a big power bat [in Harper],” manager Davey Martinez said in an MLB Network Radio interview this month, “... but I think we make up for it all the way around with our defense, and our baserunning, and the speed that we have.”
“We’re going to have to be more efficient offensively,” the GM explained.
“Last year we were not efficient. If you look up our statistics offensively, we’re in the top 3-4 in almost every category, so analytically, statistically, we had a terrific offensive season last year, but when you watch the games every day like I do, to me we were inconsistent.”
The 2018 Nationals had the 5th-most home runs in the NL (191), the 3rd-most runs scored (771), 4th-highest AVG (.254), highest OBP (.335), 4th-highest SLG (.424), the 2nd-highest wOBA (.325), and 2nd-highest wRC+ (101).
“We have to be more consistent,” Rizzo reiterated. “We have to be more efficient. We have to, again — it sounds like we keep beating this drum — we have to play more fundamental, defensively, baserunning-wise, offensively. Man on second, nobody out, that guy has to get to third, I don’t care how you do it, just get him over there and then we drive him in. That’s how good teams play. That’s how the Red Sox were so great offensively last year. And those are important things that you’re going to see a huge concentration on.”
“I stayed in Washington last year and watched a lot of video and kind of did my homework of what can get better,” Martinez said early this Spring, “... and one of the things that really stuck out is that — we were really bad with runners on first and second and getting guys in, and if that means we have to bunt a little more to get them to second and third, whatever the case may be, we’re going to do it. We can do it now because of the guys we have. It’s not about — we talked about this all the time, yeah we still want to hit home runs and hit doubles and slug and all that stuff, but yet, we’re going to play the game, and whatever the game dictates for us to do, we’re going to try to do it.”
The fact that they could lose a player like Harper, turn over a significant percentage of their roster, and after a disappointing 82-80 second-place finish in the NL East, once again find themselves projected (by Fangraphs.com at least) to win their fifth division title in the past eight years, says a lot about the entire organization, Rizzo said.
“We think that realistically we like the team we have. Analytically they placed a value on the type of season that we may have, and the games aren’t played on paper, but on paper we look pretty good,” Rizzo told the Junkies.
“It’s a testament to the players that we have,” he added.
“We have a lot of good players and we have a great core to we start with, and to mix and match and to do our business in the offseason is what we targeted.”
“A bunch of new guys obviously,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said on MASN over the weekend, “maybe the most turnover we’ve had in a while around here.
“We did some good things with that good, core group of guys that we had before, but didn’t ultimately do what we set out to do, so we kind of made some changes and this group is off to a good start.”