Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo spent a good deal of his visit with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies on Monday talking about a deal that didn’t happen this winter (first name Bryce, last name Harper), but he also discussed what the Nationals did do as they tried to build a roster that can compete in what’s looking like it will be one of, if not the toughest divisions in baseball for 2019.
[ed. note - “Rizzo did get off a good line when asked about facing Harper in the first week of the upcoming season after the Nationals’ 2010 No. 1 overall pick signed a huge-ish 13-year/$330M deal with the Philadelphia Phillies this past weekend. Harper turned down a 10-year/$300M offer from Washington at the end of the last homestand of 2018, (which did include a lot of deferred money, though how much was deferred depends on who you are reading for that information. All Rizzo would say was, ‘It was a $300 million deal over 10 years and there was some money deferred. I’m not going to get into the specifics of it, but it was a real aggressive opening offer to a great player...’).
“Anyway, here’s what Rizzo said when asked about Harper and the Phillies’ first visit to D.C. in 2019, which takes place on April 2nd/3rd:
“He’s one of our own. We drafted him, signed him, developed him, and watched him turn into a star with Washington on his chest. I will high-five him or hug him when I see him, and then I’m going to want to beat his a--, and he’s going to want to do the same to me.
“That’s how I look at it. He’s a great competitor, so it’s going to be fun. I can’t wait to tackle this National League East. It’s no joke, man.”]
While they didn’t end up signing Harper, the Nationals were one of the most active teams this winter.
Rizzo and Co. in the front office addressed their rotation needs by signing Patrick Corbin to a 6-year/$140M deal, veteran Aníbal Sánchez to a 2-year/$19M deal, and Jeremy Hellickson to a 1-year/$1.3M deal.
Then they added to the bullpen mix with right-handers Kyle Barraclough (who was acquired in a trade with the Miami Marlins in return for international slot value) and former St. Louis Cardinals’ closer Trevor Rosenthal (1-year/$7M) who is coming off Tommy John surgery, they solidified the catching corps by signing veteran Kurt Suzuki (2-years/$10M) and trading for Yan Gomes, and even brought back Matt Adams to back up at first base (1-year/$4M), and they signed Brian Dozier (1-year/$9M) to play second base.
“We [put] a lot of time into constructing the roster and kind of fixing the places that we thought that we needed fixing,” Rizzo told the Junkies.
“We lost a lot of free agents over the season, so we had a lot of holes to fill and we went out and had a plan together and ownership gave us the resources and I think that we went out and targeted certain players — not certain positions, but certain players — and when we went out heavy to get Patrick [Corbin] and acquired him, I think everything else fell into place after that.”
With the moves they did end up making the Nationals are currently projected to win around 90 games and take the NL East again, by Fangraphs at least, with the Phillies (who have an 86-win projection), the Mets (84 wins), and the Braves (83), all expected to contend for the division title this time around in the East.
The fact that they’re projected to win the East in spite of the fact that they lost a player like Harper wasn’t lost on Rizzo.
“We’re at this time we talked about earlier, we’re all in first place, we’re all optimistic, but you have to be realistic about it,” he 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.
“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.”
Rizzo went so far as to say that he thinks, at least on paper, they have a better team going into 2019 than they had last Spring.
“I think that we’re more balanced,” he explained. “I think that we’re deeper than we were last year, and we’re anticipating having more wins at the end of the season, so I’m going to say, ‘Yes,’ we’re going to win more games this year than last year.”
Davey Martinez is hoping for better results in his second season in D.C. as well, and Rizzo said his manager looks more confident at the start of his second campaign.
“I think he’s way more comfortable,” the GM told the Junkies. “I think that it’s tough coming in there when you don’t know 25 of the players. You can see them from the other side of the field, but what makes them tick, putting them in the best situation to succeed, is difficult for a person coming in here for the first year that doesn’t know the roster.
“I think he’s got a real feel for the guys,” Rizzo continued. “Last year he was terrific about handling the clubhouse and handling the players, and you saw last year even with all the trials and tribulations they played extremely hard for him up until the last out of the season, so I was proud of him for the way he handled that. I thought he had a great season last year for a first time manager in a place for the first year, and he’s a quick learner and a guy that has complete control and respect in the clubhouse.”
“Does it sound like it?” Martinez asked rhetorically earlier this Spring when he was asked if he was more comfortable heading into his second season on the bench. “It is very relaxed.
“I spent all winter in Washington with Mike and everybody, and we addressed what we needed to address, the issues that we wanted to fix.”
Martinez started his second Spring Training stressing a return to fundamentals and a focus on playing a smart, clean game, not giving away baserunners, outs, or opportunities, which should help them win in close games, which they struggled in in 2018, with an 18-24 record in one-run games on the year.
How will he keep his team focused over the course of not only the Spring, but also the 162-game season?
“I think they got the gist of how serious we are about it, and they get it,” Martinez said last month.
“We’ve got to get better. You talk about winning one-run games, that’s part of it, and I think they understand that, and I can hear them amongst each other talking and chirping a little bit, and they get it. They understand, and they want to win and they want to be consistent with it, and I told them that’s part of it. Everybody talks about pitching. You know what makes good pitching? Really good defense. If you can play defense behind pitching, turn double plays, get 27 quick outs, our pitching is going to be really good.”
“A lot of the minutiae that is Spring Training is going to be something that we’re going to focus on,” Rizzo said in his interview last week.
“And it’s extremely important, because if you turn around that one-run win/loss record, it’s a whole different light that would have been brought on us last year.”
“I know the media loves to talk about the Bryce thing,” Rizzo said at another point, “... but this division is going to be fun to play, and we respect all those teams. We fear none of them, and our job is to win the division and go deep into the playoffs.
“Our expectations haven’t changed in the last eight years, and we’re going to continue to plug away to win a championship.”