INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — When baseball’s general managers gather each year for their annual meetings, it’s often much more of a reunion than it is an introduction. Perhaps no one best understands what the GMs go through on a daily basis better than their peers and most of the men in the group have known one another for years.
So it was no surprise to Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo that his fellow GMs were offering plenty of congratulations and support for the impressive season the Nationals had, despite its sour ending.
“I think it’s good for baseball that the Washington Nationals are a team on the rise and a good team,” Rizzo said. “I’ve known all these guys for a long, long time. Worked with some, battled against some, it’s been a very supportive first day… I think they seem to be happy for us.”
So as Day Two of the GM Meetings gets underway out here in California, here are a few odds, ends and rumblings…
– The Nationals are getting close to finalizing Davey Johnson’s managerial contract for next season with news expected to come down fairly soon about the finalist for the BBWAA National League Manager of the Year award.
And once that’s finalized it’s expected that Johnson’s coaching staff will be announced shortly thereafter. The Nationals aren’t expecting many changes in that regard, though obviously they need to fill the vacancy left when third base coach Bo Porter became the manager of the Houston Astros.
In that regard, it sounds like the club is leaning toward moving first base coach Trent Jewett to third base and then filling the spot at first base. MLB.com reported Wednesday that roving outfield instructor Tony Tarasco may be the choice there as Tarasco could assume Porter’s responsibility of working with the outfielders.
– Rizzo said “pretty authoritatively” that the team was not “down the road” on anything at this point in the offseason but the Nationals are aware they have plenty of options available to them.
As a result of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the offseason is structured a little differently this year with the dates for certain decisions moved up and while Rizzo said that hasn’t necessarily changed the team’s approach to their plans, it has changed how quickly they need to make them.
“It has changed the amount of hours we put in right after the end of the season,” Rizzo said. “There was a time we’d kind of take a deep breath and sort things out. And especially for playoff teams, and if you went deep into the playoffs, it’s time to jump right back into it.”
For the Nationals it appears they have plenty of flexibility to be players both in the trade and the free agent market, depending on how things unfold. Rizzo declined to discuss specifics when it comes to payroll, but it does sound as though he’ll be given the room to make an impact move if they feel it’s the right course for the team long-term.
“The Lerners have been very fair with the payroll the way they dealt with us,” Rizzo said. “We make plans, we present it to them, if it makes sense to us in dollars we go for it and if it doesn’t make sense, then we won’t. And it’s really too early in the free agent season to be putting numbers out there because it’s kind of a fluid target.”
– If the Nationals do end up re-signing first baseman Adam LaRoche, it would seem to give them some leeway to trade outfielder Michael Morse and perhaps get a quality return. Since Morse was in the midst of his breakout season in 2011, teams are always interested in bandying his name about in potential trade talks.
Morse is an affordable (he’ll make $6.75 million next season) middle-of-the-order bat who hit .303 with 31 home runs just two seasons ago. And he hit 18 homers with a .291 average in 2012 in roughly three-quarters of the at-bats he’d had in 2012.
Those are also all the reasons he’s important to and valued by the Nationals.
– Speaking of the outfield, Rizzo said he’s comfortable with two important aspects of the Nationals’ current configuration: Bryce Harper remaining in center field and Jayson Werth remaining at the leadoff spot in the lineup.
There are some big name (and big money) center field free agents on the market this season in Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton and the like, but the Nationals don’t feel the same type of urgency that they once did to fill specific needs — like a leadoff-hitting center fielder — because they’ve found other ways to fill them.
“Good, impact players are attractive to us,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got the flexibility that we’re not keyholed into center field, leadoff, first base. We’ve got a team that’s versatile enough that we can look at a broader picture and get an impact player for us if his skill set fits our club.
“We don’t necessarily have to look at a leadoff center fielder like we did a couple years ago because we can move Harper to the corner, get a guy in center, keep Harper in center, get a corner guy, keep guys in the corner, stay with the team we have. There’s a lot of (options).”
For what it’s worth, the Nationals were extremely impressed with Harper’s adjustments in center field, particularly by the end of the season. Porter and Johnson noted toward the end of the year that it was evident Harper was “gliding” more than running in his routes to balls.
There’s certainly the thought that eventually he’ll find his way to a corner position but for now there’s no issues with him in center.
“I thought he played terrific center field especially toward the end of the season,” Rizzo said. “I thought he really got the feel for his angles and his routes. I thought he was running a lot lighter on his feet than he did at the beginning of the year. You could see the 20-year-old legs. I think this year he’ll be stronger toward the end of the season because he’ll have done it for a full extra month than he’s every done it before.”
And then comes the word eventually again, as there’s always the fear with center field and power hitters that the demands the position puts on their legs could hurt them at the plate. Right now that’s not a concern for the Nationals with Harper.
“The word eventually is key there,” Rizzo said. “He’s a 20-year-old kid. He’s got great energy and great stamina and strength, so I’m not worried about tiring him out at 20 years old just from playing in center field. He’s going to play everyday somewhere and he’s going to play at 110-miles an hour wherever he’s at.”
As for Werth at leadoff, the right fielder fit the role well for the Nationals when he returned in early August from a broken left wrist. Werth’s history is, of course, more as a middle-of-the-lineup hitter, but Rizzo again said he wouldn’t have an issue if the 33-year-old being the Nationals’ leadoff hitter.
Werth hit .309 with a .388 on-base percentage in 38 games as the Nationals’ leadoff hitter (170 plate appearances).
“I think if you just looked at him in a vacuum and didn’t know who he was he had a very successful leadoff man season, for the short time he was a leadoff man,” Rizzo said. “I think you’re going to see a guy who can hit in the middle of the lineup because I think he’s going to revert back to his normal power numbers (with a fully healthy wrist) and a guy who always took a lot of pitches, always had a good OBP and has a good, unselfish attitude that he can leadoff or hit fifth or play center, play right, wherever.”
– Rizzo was fairly straightforward when it came to his explanation for the team not extending a qualifying offer to free agent right-hander Edwin Jackson. By not doing so, the Nationals assured that they would not receive draft pick compensation if Jackson declined the one-year, $13.3 million offer and signed elsewhere.
Rizzo said it was a simple evaluation of the player and how he fit on the team.
“Those are decisions that you talk about internally,” Rizzo said. “We felt with the depth we had at the major league level and the depth of free agents that we had out there that we had as good or better options.”