What is the Washington Nationals’ No. 1 priority this winter? GM Mike Rizzo and Co. in the front office in D.C. have been hard at work for months now, they’ve made what Rizzo said, during a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday, are moves that have, “... attacked the fringes of the roster,” but, he added, the, “... guts of what we’re going to do this offseason will come in the next couple of months.”
“We’ve attacked the fringes of the roster a little bit, gave ourselves some bullpen depth and some roster flexibility with some younger starting pitchers. The fact that we came into the offseason with a 30-man, 40-man roster it allowed us to utilize the waiver wire and to make some major league contracts that in the past might have been non-roster minor league contracts to get the players that we wanted.”
And the No. 1 priority? “I think our top priority in our search is — via the free agent market and even the trade market — is trying to get a bat to fill in the middle of the lineup,” Rizzo said, “... and trying to complement the rest of our middle-of-the-lineup bats.
“It’s no secret that we’re a pitching-oriented team. We’ve got three great strong starting pitchers coming back, we’ve got a bullpen that we feel is built with a lot of depth and versatility. We’ve got some good veteran guys back there and some good young arms, more on the come, so we felt that our best bet would be to kind of surround the guys we have in the middle of the lineup already with some more bats and make offensive production a little bit more of a priority this offseason.”
With a World Series championship in 2019, and a disappointing 26-34 follow-up in this past summer’s 60-game COVID campaign, a reboot rather than a rebuild appears to be the way forward in the nation’s capital.
“I’ve talked to Rizzo quite a bit,” manager Davey Martinez said in his own “Winter Meetings” Zoom call yesterday.
“And what’s funny is every winter, you reach out to every team and you try to figure out what their needs are, and they’re trying to figure out what our needs are, and hopefully, whether it’s free agency or trade or something, [Rizzo] — he’s on it.
“He’s talking to people every day, we communicate every day about different players.
“So, one thing this year is there’s a lot of big names out there. Lot of good bats out there, a lot of non-tender guys actually too that could be helpful.”
Rumors this winter had the Nationals interested in first baseman Carlos Santana before he got a 2-year/$17.5M deal from the Royals.
A former Cub, Kyle Schwarber, who was non-tendered by Chicago, is reportedly of interest in Washington as well.
“We’re looking at all different avenues,” Martinez said, though he wasn’t referring to those two rumored targets in particular.
“We’re going to — our plans going forward are to get the best bat we can,” Rizzo said as he continued to talk about the search for a middle-of-the-order hitter.
“The perfect fit would be at first base or one of the corner outfielders,” he explained.
“There was a method to Davey’s madness last year when he put [Juan Soto] into right field for the last couple of games of the season to see how he would adhere to that.
“[It’s a] position he’s played in the past. I think we’re versatile in the fact that it doesn’t have to be strictly a right fielder or strictly a left fielder, but a corner outfielder that complements the lineup or a first baseman would be the smoothest transition because those are positions of need, but with that said you can get creative and get a bat in all sorts of different ways, and with a little maneuvering we’d feel comfortable doing it in all sorts of different creative ways.”
Martinez, who, of course, was the bench coach in Chicago from 2015-17 for the first three seasons of Kris Bryant’s career, over which the third baseman put up a .288/.388/.527 line and helped the Cubs break the city’s 108-year World Series drought (in 2016), was asked if his new club is interested in the corner infielder if he is actually going to be dealt over the next few months?
“Very good player, like him a lot,” Martinez said. “For me, right now, unfortunately, he is a Cub, but his name has definitely come up in conversations.
“He’s an unbelievable player. I’ve known him. He’s definitely a premier player in this league.”
About a half an hour later... Rizzo was asked about Bryant’s name coming up this winter as the manager said, with the now-28-year-old, (who struggled to a .206/.293/.351 finish in 34 games last season, has one year of team control left before free agency, and is arbitration-eligible this winter), expected to earn around $18.6M in 2021.
“We haven’t had a serious conversation about Kris Bryant in probably two years,” Rizzo said.
“He was not a big guy on our radar last year or this year, so that — he’s a great player, but at this point in time, with where we’re at — and what we have with our farm system and where we’re going, we think we can allocate our dollars and prospect capital in a different way.”
If the bat they add is a first baseman, will it be a platoon partner for Ryan Zimmerman, who opted out of playing last season, but has expressed a desire to go out swinging rather than with a summer off? Would Zim come back as a bat off the bench behind an everyday hitter?
“There’s a couple of different ways to attack that position or any position,” Rizzo said.
“You can kind of split the position up like we’ve done at catcher the last couple of years successfully, and attack the first base position that way, or go out and get yourself a legitimate 158-game, everyday first baseman and do it that way. It depends on the supply and the demand of that position and the players with those skill sets.
“So we’re looking at a bunch of different ways to attack that position and when we figure out what the best way is then we’ll be aggressive and try to get that done.”
Though he hasn’t “talked” to Zimmerman recently, Rizzo said he texts frequently with the organization’s first first-round pick.
Zimmerman, Eric Thames, and Howie Kendrick were the planned mix at first base in 2020, but Zim did not play, Thames struggled to produce at the plate, and Kendrick struggled to stay on the field, with hamstring injuries an issue, and all three are now free agents. So it’s an obvious area of need. The possibility of a reunion with Kendrick?
“I had two early conversations in the offseason with Howie specifically and I talked to Larry Reynolds, his agent, a couple of times on a couple of different subjects,” Rizzo said.
“But Howie’s name always comes up. And I believe Howie recently has committed to and decided to play next year and we haven’t had any conversations since then, but he’s a guy that’s dear to everyone’s heart and if there’s the right role and the right situations I’d love to have him back.”
How involved is Martinez in the process of building the roster? He was asked if his role has changed at all since he signed on long-term this past September (shortly after Rizzo got a long-term extension of his own).
“I’m constantly in communication with Rizzo and his staff, [Assistant General Manager, Baseball Operations] Mike Debartolo, [Assistant General Manager, Player Development] Mark Scialabba, all those guys. We talk quite a bit,” Martinez said.
“They inform me all the time about players and I inform them about guys that I like, and we bang our heads together and see what fits best not only on the field, but also in our clubhouse. I’m a big believer in culture and I want to get guys that are the right fit.”
Will the skipper, who’s headed into his fourth season as a manager in D.C., be surprised if Rizzo and Co. don’t find a free agent or two over the next few months?
“We want to win, we want to compete,” Martinez said.
“You look at our starting pitching, I believe we have one of the best starting rotations in the game, so we have an opportunity to compete and an opportunity to win again, so with that being said, I know Rizzo is on board, I know the Lerner family, they’re on board, they like to win.
“So like I said, we’ve had conversations, and we’re going to do everything we can to put a team out there to compete and win in 2021.”