Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo is a hands-on GM. In past seasons, the scout turned scouting director turned Assistant GM, General Manager, and finally President of Baseball Operations in D.C. has always been in and out of the clubhouse and manager’s office every day and he’s traveled with the team, and is often spotted in the stands behind home plate while the club is on the road.
So how is all that going to change as Major League Baseball tries to play a 60-game season amidst an ongoing pandemic with strict protocols aimed at keeping everyone healthy?
“My plan is to be with the team and to travel with the team,” Rizzo told reporters on a Zoom call during the first workouts of Spring Training 2.0 in Nationals Park on Friday afternoon.
“I think it will be a little more effort taken into being there but also being socially distant. I think that we’ll figure all those things out as we go.”
Rizzo’s ability to travel and interact with the team is a secondary concern, of course, since the GM is focused on keeping everyone involved with the team healthy and on the field.
“My primary job is to make sure that protocols are in place,” Rizzo explained.
“[Make sure] players are safe, their families are safe, so that’s my number one job right now and I think the team that does that best and is most efficient at staying healthy and being a cohesive unit where we follow the rules and take care of each other will be the teams that are the most successful.”
Just to get to this point, of course, took a lot of work after MLB and the MLBPA negotiated in private and in the press for weeks over how to go about putting together the schedule after the start of the 2020 campaign was postponed by concerns over the coronavirus in back in mid-March, but once MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred made the call on a 60-game season, Nationals’ officials started in on the hard work of combing through the details of the plan to find ways to make it work and then choose which players would be included in the 60-Man Player Pool.
“It was a crazy time, I’m telling you,” Rizzo acknowledged. “With all the Zoom calls we had with the Commissioner’s office and with our own guys in our front office. Tip of my hat to all our Assistant General Managers, who went through each and every protocol and read everything along with myself and tried to figure out how do we put these pages and pages of protocols into practice. And I thought we did a great job of streamlining it for the staff and for the players, and then the baseball end of it, we put a lot of time and real painstaking detail into who should make the 60 and what’s the balance of it, and who can help the team this year, with a lot of input from the minor league staff and the major league staff, we kind of agreed on a 60-man staff that gives us the best chance to win this year and the most depth that could help take us through this season.”
Given that so many players were limited in what they could do while they were quarantined over the past months while baseball shut down out of concern for the coronavirus’s spread, Rizzo said he was happy everyone arrived at Nationals Park for Spring Training 2.0 in such good shape for what will be a sprint of a season versus the usual 162-game marathon.
“We’ve got guys — first day of camp Max [Scherzer] is throwing a simulated game. Stephen [Strasburg] is in full bullpen mode. So is Patrick Corbin, I saw him today. Will Harris and some of the guys that I saw today on the first day look like they have been pitching quite a bit on their own under the guidance of [Pitching Coach] Paul Menhart.
“We feel that they are much closer to game-ready than they would have been coming into a normal Spring Training because of the trouble that we had, the game plan that we had during this absence, so we feel good about that.”
With several players (Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross, and Welington Castillo so far) opting out of participating in the 2020 season, the Nationals have some decisions to make.
Replacing those players on the 60-Man will be the first step, though Rizzo said he felt that there were options at first — where Zimmerman was set to play (in his 16th MLB season) and get at bats as the designated hitter since both leagues will be using one this year — and in the starting rotation, where Ross was a candidate for the fifth spot.
“We’ll sit down — we like the roster we have,” Rizzo said. “We think it gives [Manager] Davey [Martinez] and his staff a lot of options, including Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames.
“We’ve got many, many candidates to be an effective first baseman and designated hitter. Of course it doesn’t help to lose a right-handed bat like Zim.
“We’ve got good options to fill that spot, and I’m sure Davey will pull the right strings and play the guy who he feels gives us a chance to win that game that day.
“We’ve got a lot of different people we can put over there and a lot of players that have done it before. We feel good about that position and we feel good about the roster.”
Martinez talked about filling out the rotation behind Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, and Aníbal Sánchez.
“Without Joe Ross,” Martinez said, “we feel like we have two guys that can fill in with [Erick] Fedde and [Austin] Voth and we’ve also got some younger guys in camp that we’re going to take a look at, but I’ve got a lot of confidence in both those guys to come in and win a fifth starter job, so I’m looking forward to watching them throughout this Spring.”
“We’re just trying to get guys ready,” Rizzo added, “... get guys focused back on playing baseball, and in the back of our minds we have to be healthy and safe to get through this thing to the finish line, and again, I think the team that does the best job of that has got a good chance of playing deep this season.”