Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Mike Rizzo's incredible offseason
By Jim Bowden
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo had his eyes on Denard Span two years prior to trading for him.
One of the most difficult things to do in baseball is keep a good team intact. Any number of factors from finances to free agency can fracture a team. To actually improve it and upgrade it at several key positions in one offseason can prove most difficult.
Heading into the offseason, Rizzo had several objectives:
1. Find a center fielder/leadoff hitter
2. Find a starting pitcher to replace right-hander Edwin Jackson 3. Re-sign his free agents
4. Improve the back end of the bullpen
5. Replenish a thinned-out farm system
To achieve these objectives, Rizzo certainly had enough funds to make both the trade and free-agent markets available to him. But he also remained patient and shrewd, eventually acquiring all the parts necessary for the Nationals to actually improve a 98-win club. They should be heavily favored to reach and win the 2013 World Series.
Let’s take a look at how Rizzo accomplished these goals:
Using the trade market It was a long courtship, but eventually Rizzo got his center fielder/leadoff man in Denard Span. Determined to fill the team’s most glaring need, Rizzo had targeted Span as far back as 2010. He wanted to upgrade the position with a less expensive alternative that would fit the team’s budget and its character.
Rizzo almost had Span last season, as he and Twins general manager Terry Ryan discussed a deal that would have sent Nationals closer Drew Storen to the Twins for Span. However, both Span and Storen suffered injuries, and the deal was never consummated. Instead, Rizzo waited.
So when a desperate Ryan knew he had to make drastic trades in order to improve his team’s starting rotation for the long haul, he sent Span to Washington in exchange for 2011 first-round pick and top pitching prospect Alex Meyer. Span, who turned 29 last week, was a significant acquisition because of his club-friendly contract ($4.75 million in 2013, $6.5 million in 2014 and $9 million in 2015). Span is a clear bargain when you realize that Angel Pagan, Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton all will make between $10 and $15 million per season for the next four years. When Span’s contract is up, the Nationals’ top center field prospect, Brian Goodwin, should be ready to take over the position.
Using the free-agent market The Nationals had no interest in committing anything close to the four-year, $52 million deal the Chicago Cubs gave Jackson this past offseason. However, they knew they still had to somehow replace Jackson in the rotation. They were looking for quality while avoiding any long-term deal. As former GM Andy MacPhail used to say: “There’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract in baseball.”
Enter right-hander Dan Haren, who signed with Washington for a one-year deal worth $13 million. Haren won 12 games last season in the AL West, which should easily translate to at the least the same in the NL East with a team like the Nationals behind him. His past hip and back problems make him an injuy risk, but the Nationals boast one of the best medical staffs in baseball, and Haren’s one-year "prove it" deal will help motivate him to stay injury free. Some criticized his $13 million salary, but based on the market it was certainly a fair contract for the club and player.
Retaining personnel Manager Davey Johnson made it very clear when the 2012 season ended that the club would be ready to win the World Series in 2013 if it could just re-sign first baseman Adam LaRoche.
Adam LaRoche had a monster season in 2012, hitting 33 homers with 100 RBIs.
In perhaps the most important move of his offseason, Rizzo signed LaRoche to a two-year, $24 million deal in early January. This after LaRoche’s representatives drew a proverbial line the sand, entering the offseason hell-bent on getting at least a three-year deal for LaRoche.
Indeed, LaRoche had a terrific 2012, hitting .271 with 33 home runs. He also won both Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. However, Rizzo is known around the industry for being one of the best negotiators in the game. And while reports surfaced that several teams were kicking the tires on LaRoche, Rizzo continued to negotiate, and there were times that a third year looked necessary. That wasn't the case, and eventually LaRoche relented.
Truth is, the Nationals needed LaRoche more than he needed them because his left-handed bat in the middle of the order gives them proper left/right balance. The new CBA rules tying LaRoche to a draft pick certainly hurt his market and had a lot to do with him re-signing with the Nationals without a third year. But Rizzo and the Nationals’ patience definitely paid off, as they refused to bid against themselves.
Replenish the farm system The Nationals will always be an organization built through scouting and development first. Having to trade so many prospects over the past couple of years was difficult but necessary. With added depth on the corners after re-signing LaRoche and trading for Span, Rizzo sent Michael Morse to the Seattle Mariners in a three-way deal that included the Oakland Athletics, and reacquired top pitching prospect A.J. Cole from the A's, whom Rizzo had included in the Gio Gonzalez trade the year before. The Nationals' scouting department feels Cole’s upside is the same as Meyer's and essentially replaces him as their No. 1 pitching prospect.
An extra closer never hurts The Nationals didn't "need" a new closer, but Storen's meltdown in Game 5 of the NLDS certainly raised some questions about the back of the bullpen. Furthermore, Tyler Clippard has thrown more innings (252) than any other reliever over the past three years, so he could use someone else to lessen the load. With former New York Yankees closer Rafael Soriano lingering on the free-agent market into January, Rizzo scooped him up with a two-year, $28 million deal.
After the deal was made, Johnson quipped: “I didn’t know we needed a closer.”
But credit this one to the Lerner family ownership group as well as Rizzo. They know with no innings-pitched limits on Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann this team is good enough to win the World Series.
This move was about an ownership and GM pushing their chips to the middle of the table. While the Detroit Tigers have decided to try to get by with rookie Bruce Rondon at closer, the Nationals went out and got the best reliever on the market. It's not hard to imagine an October scenario in which Soriano is the difference in a Detroit-Washington World Series.