Offseason Winners: Washington Nationals
As the 2012-2013 season came to a disappointing close, Washington Nationals GM and President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo already had his mind set on how he could improve the team this offseason. Sure, the team could have stood pat with the group they had and simply hoped that last season was an anomaly riddled with injuries, poor situational hitting, and below average team defense. Instead, the Washington Nationals quietly made several ripples in the MLB free agency pond, along with one big splash.
People would likely assume that the Doug Fister trade was the biggest move of the offseason for the Washington Nationals and it’s tough to argue with the logic. Fister (4.1 pWAR) essentially replaces the departed Dan Haren (0.0 pWAR) in the fourth slot in the rotation, making this pitching staff even more impressive than it already was. Not only does Fister bring a more reliable and younger arm to D.C., he also has proven playoff experience as well as the advantage of shifting from the American League to the National League. What makes this move even more impressive is the fact that Fister is under team control for another two years and will likely only make between $15 and $18 million combined after arbitration, thus making him a bargain. When you also consider the pieces Rizzo let go for the lanky right-hander, the deal becomes even more intriguing.
The Washington Nationals parted ways with a utility infielder (Steve Lombardozzi), a middle reliever (Ian Krol), and a solid pitching prospect (Robbie Ray) who is several years away from the show for a potential #2 starter on most teams. Arguably one of the better moves around baseball all offseason. What else could reinforce the Washington Nationals solidification of its rotation? Look no further than the signing of new manager Matt Williams. This will surprise a great deal of people, but I feel this move could legitimately go just as far in getting this team to the Fall Classic as the signing of a stud starting pitcher like Fister.
There is nobody who will argue with the fact that ‘on paper’ the Washington Nationals are one of the most talented teams in baseball. We all know that games are not played on paper and this is where Williams comes into the mix. Without dissing former manager Davey Johnson, it is fairly safe to say that the future Hall of Famer lost the dugout to a certain extent at some point last season.
A team like the Washington Nationals that is somewhat devoid of vocal leaders needs a manager who can relate to them and find the best way to motivate them to play their hearts out for 162 games. Half the battle for a manager is his relationships with players and being able to understand all of their unique personalities in such a way as to create an environment that promotes teamwork, fun, and consistent hard work. Matt Williams has been praised for his ability to communicate and properly motivate players. Couple that with the fact that he brings a new perspective on infield defense and you have a match made in heaven.
Last season the Washington Nationals finished slightly below the league average in defensive efficiency by posting a .691 with 107 errors. In comparison, Williams led his Arizona Diamondbacks defense to a .697 defensive efficiency rating while only committing 75 errors. During his offseason press conferences and Winter Meeting’s interview Williams emphasized his belief in defensive positioning and infield shifts, something the Washington Nationals have shied away from with an old-school manager like Davey Johnson at the helm. With players likely being in better positions to make plays around the diamond, not only will the defensive efficiency rise, but the errors will fall significantly. With a team as loaded on the mound as the Washington Nationals even a slight uptick in their defensive performance could do wonders for this club.
After the moves to get Fister and Williams, Mike Rizzo addressed two of his other key needs: a reliable left-handed reliever and a solid fourth outfielder. With the signing of Nate McLouth to a 2-year, $10.75 million deal, the Washington Nationals GM locked down the outfield discussion for good. Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth have been injury-prone and Denard Span‘s ability at the plate is up in the air. Bringing in a spark plug like McLouth who can play solid defense, hit the ball out of the ball park, and steal some bases was a no-brainer.
The left-handed bullpen situation was addressed at the Winter Meetings when the Washington Nationals acquired 30-year-old Jerry Blevins from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Minor League Player of the Year Billy Burns. Not only did this deal fill the team’s biggest need, but it also cost them a player who is nowhere near ready to hit Major League pitching and also played a position where the big league club was stacked. On top of that, Rizzo successfully found his guy for chump change compared to the other lefties who were on the market this winter. Blevins will likely make $1.5 million after arbitration and is under team control through 2015. In comparison, Boone Logan signed a 3-year, $16.5 million deal with the Colorado Rockies and J.P. Howell inked a 2-year, $11.25 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Not only have the Washington Nationals addressed all of their ‘dire’ needs, but they did it without giving up any of their top farm system guys like Lucas Giolito, Brian Goodwin, A.J. Cole, and Matthew Skole. All that is really left for this team is to lock down a back-up catcher and possibly another utility guy, depending on what happens with Danny Espinosa. Outside of who will win the fifth starter job, Spring Training and the process of setting the 25-man roster appears to be a mere formality.