Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo didn’t pull any punches during his weekly visit with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies on Wednesday. Before the Nats dropped their third straight on the road in Milwaukee and fifth in six on the current road trip, Rizzo summed things up by telling the Junkies, “we’ve played bad baseball, just in general,” over the first month-plus of the 2019 campaign.
“First and foremost,” Rizzo explained, “... there’s nobody more upset, and disappointed and frustrated with this season than I am. This isn’t a typical Washington Nationals’ start. We all know the numbers, we’re one of the most successful teams in the last seven seasons. We’re one of the few teams over the last seven years that have played at a .500 or better level.
“We’ve averaged 94-95 wins over the last seven years, and won some championships, some division championships, so there’s nobody more upset and disappointed than I am.”
Providing a silver lining after all that gloom, Rizzo talked briefly about what has gone right early this season, for a team that’s 14-22 on the year and 7.0 games back in the division.
“I think the one bright spot: Our big three starters have given us a chance to win each and every time out out,” Rizzo said. “They’ve pitched well, they’ve deserved better fates, but beyond that, the bullpen, obviously it’s been poor, the offense, after the injuries, has been practically non-existent, and most importantly to me, which impacts the starting pitching, the bullpen pitching, is our defense. Our defense has been as bad as I’ve seen it since I’ve come to Washington, and beyond the ERA, you talk about metrics that measure — “
Rizzo’s call dropped at that point, E:106.7, but he picked up where he left off when they got him back on the line...
“... [bad defense] affects the pitching. The stat for fielding independent pitching, which is a calculation [which] adds the defensive element into the pitching, our FIP is middle of the pack, and our ERA is the worst, so it shows the impact that defense has on pitching and not only starting pitching but bullpen. There’s been a collective underperformance in a lot of different areas and there’s a lot of blame to go around and we just have to right this ship.”
Going into the finale in Milwaukee, Washington’s pitchers, as a group, actually had the 7th- highest ERA in the majors (4.94) and the 3rd-lowest FIP (3.70), while the starter’s combined ERA (4.14) was the 17th of 30 major league teams, with their FIP (3.28) again the 3rd-lowest, while the bullpen’s ERA (6.57) was the highest, and their FIP (4.56) 12th-highest among big league relief corps.
The good news... there’s time to turn things around, and there is a lot of talent on the team, according to the man who assembled it.
“We’ve got about 22% of the season is gone, so we’ve got 80% — 78-80% of the season to right this thing,” Rizzo told the Junkies, “... and I’m just not going to stop believing in this team that has Max Scherzer and [Stephen] Strasburg and [Patrick] Corbin and [Kurt] Suzuki and [Yan] Gomes and [Anthony] Rendon and [Trea] Turner and [Juan] Soto and [Victor] Robles and [Adam] Eaton. This team is just too good, too talented to give up on with 80% of the season left, so although disappointed and upset, I still have optimism that we’re going to turn this thing around.”
With all the injuries they’ve dealt with, however, it’s not too surprising that the defense has struggled with players out of position, unfamiliar with one another, and playing under a bit of pressure as things get worse and worse.
Turner, Rendon, Soto, Ryan Zimmerman, Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Adams, and more have missed time with injuries and the IL stints overlapping has made it that much tougher.
“It’s hard to prepare for those type of scenarios when so many players at so many critical positions get hurt at the same time,” Rizzo said.
“Nobody has the depth to account for four or five starting players out of your eight to go down and think that you’ll have not only the same offensive capabilities, but often lost in the shuffle is the defensive capabilities, and I think that’s a big aspect of it.”
While the actions of the Nationals’ second-year skipper are receiving more scrutiny, the GM, as he did in a recent Washington Post article, has called for blame to be placed on him and not Davey Martinez.
“There’s blame to go around when you’re playing this poorly,” he explained.
“There’s blame on me, there’s blame on the players, there’s blame on the coaches, there’s blame on everybody, it’s — certainly there’s enough to go around. Like I said, I told Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post the other day, the players are acquired — I acquire the players, I’m responsible for the players on the field, so if they’re underperforming, they’re not performing, that’s on me. If the bullpen is not capable of performing, that’s on me.
“I take that very, very seriously. It’s the same context when we win 98, 97 games, these players are acquired by me, I’m responsible for them, and ultimately they have to perform.
“Now, the manager’s role is to manage the team, to manage the clubhouse, to manage 35 personalities, and to put them in the best position to succeed. I think Davey [Martinez] has great control of the clubhouse. I think the players play hard for him and I think that it’s very, very hard to make a critique about anybody with the amount of injuries that we’ve had this season and the importance of the players that we have had out of the lineup for extended periods of time.”
In spite of where they find themselves after 36 games, Rizzo reiterated that there is time to turn it around when he was asked if there was pressure from above as the losses pile up.
“They get it,” Rizzo said of the Nationals’ ownership.
“They understand it, we just have to keep the communication open and have rationales for the decisions that we make and they have to be in the best interest of the team and trying to help us win.
“Our goal, their goal, my goal is to win a championship for Washington D.C. area and we never waver on that mile marker and that goal. That’s our goal, we’re going to keep striving to do it, and I think the way the team looks now it does not look good, but hopefully in the next coming days and weeks we’ll get our guys back and we can start playing some baseball again.”