The Washington Times - September 28, 2013, 07:34PM

PHOENIX — With the Washington Nationals set to play Game No. 161 on Saturday evening here at Chase Field, general manager Mike Rizzo discussed the organization’s plans heading into the offseason.

When the Nationals gathered in Viera, Fla., eight months ago, they did not expect this weekend to represent their end, so Rizzo and the rest of his front office will have plenty to figure out in their post-season evaluations. The sting of this season turning them into an also-ran is not one that has been brushed aside.

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“I think the most disappointing is that at the end of the year, we didn’t win enough games to get into the playoffs,” Rizzo said. “I think the highlight was the group of games we’ve played since August 9. We really turned our season around at that time and really played the way we expected ourselves to play the whole time. I think the brightest thing for us is the character of this club. Because there’s a lot of teams that played the way we played with the expectations we had that could have just folded it in and cashed it in for the season. But these guys pulled themselves up by the bootstraps when I think our low-water mark was about six games under .500 and played extremely well from there.

“To me, that shows the character and mettle of a champion. Although we didn’t play like a champion early enough in the season, I think that we finished with a flourish, and it’s going to set us up well going into the winter and into spring training.”

– The first thing the Nationals will have to do this offseason is find a new manager. Davey Johnson’s final game will be on Sunday and the Nationals will likely move quickly in assembling their list and beginning the process of setting up interviews during the month of October.

As for what they’re looking for in their next manager, and who they may target, Rizzo was mum on the details, preferring not to discuss it until the season has reached its official conclusion. 

Bench coach Randy Knorr and third base coach Trent Jewett are possible internal options, but the Nationals will certainly do a thorough search that includes external options as well. One thing is certain: they will have their pick. While the Nationals’ 2013 season didn’t go as expected, theirs is likely the most desirable managerial opening in the league given the talent on the roster already. 

Rizzo said he expected Johnson to have some input in the decision. “(He’d) be a resource I’d be foolish not to tap into.”

– When it comes to his roster, Rizzo said the team does not see a ton of holes with their core group of players, but there are upgrades they’ll seek, including on the bench and in the bullpen. Chad Tracy is a free agent after the season, and Johnson struggled with the configuration and personnel in the bullpen for a large part of the season.

All parties have acknowledged by now that the team faltered by going into the season with just one left-hander in the bullpen, and that lefty being a long reliever (Zach Duke) who’d been a starter for most of his career. 

“We’re going to look to obviously better ourselves in any way we can,” Rizzo said. “But just looking at an overview, we’ll probably look to improve the bullpen, see if we can improve the bench a little bit. And any other way that we can improve the everyday lineup, if there’s any way we can do that, we’ll certainly look into that also.”

The team does not view starting pitching as an area in which they must go out and get a free agent or make a big trade to bolster. With Ross Detwiler on a path to returning at full health in the spring, the Nationals have four starters already slotted into their rotation and the emergence of Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark as viable members of the rotation gives them far more depth than they entered the current season with. 

“I don’t think it’s a necessity to go outside the organization, either in the free agent market or in the trade market,” Rizzo said. “But we’re certainly not going to back away from looking at the free agent and the trade market to improve the club.”

The offense was an issue for the Nationals for most of the season’s first four months, and Rizzo said “offensive efficiency” is where the club was most disappointing. 

“It’s not doing the little things to create runs and manufacture runs,” Rizzo said. “We were more reliant on the longball, I think, than we should’ve been and I think it’s shown. We’ve created more runs, we’ve stolen more bases, we’ve hit with runners in scoring position much better recently, and that’s really the roster that we constructed all along, we just waited too long to get it going.”

– As far as offseason priorities go, trying to find an extension that works for both sides with shortstop Ian Desmond and right-hander Jordan Zimmermann are on Rizzo’s list this winter. The Nationals have been interested in extending both players in the past, but have gone to arbitration once with Desmond and twice now with Zimmermann, who was a Super 2 player. Both are under contract through at least the 2015 season.

“Desi is one of our core players,” Rizzo said. “He’s one of our leaders on the team. If there’s a deal out there that we can get done that keeps him here for the long-term, it would be certainly up there on the priority list. It’s going to be a deal that would have to work for both parties.

“(Zimmermann) is one of our own, too. We drafted, developed and signed him. He’s one of the really good pitchers in the league. We’d certainly like to keep him on our team.”

– Rizzo spoke highly of the season that Bryce Harper has put together, particularly as a 20-year-old hitting in the middle of the order. But he acknowledged that injuries impacted Harper’s productivity and learning to handle ailments is something the team expects Harper to improve on in the future.

Harper dealt with various injuries this season, most stemming from two collisions with right field walls in April and May, and most noticeably affecting his left knee and left hip. 

“Not playing 100 percent always affects your productivity, but that’s part of the learning process,” Rizzo said. “Bryce is going to be an everyday player and a middle of the lineup hitter, so he’s gonna have to get used to not playing at 100 percent fully healthy. With that said, he’s had as good a season as any 20-year-old has had in the history of the game, and I think he’s up there in the tops of OPS and he’s a guy that we rely on as a 20-year-old to carry a team that wins a lot of games.

“He’s going to fine-tune his entire game. He’s got work to do on stealing bases, we feel he’ll be a very productive base-stealer and baserunner. He’s got good speed and pretty good technique that needs to get a little bit better. Routes and angles in the outfield and that type of thing, but that all comes with repetition, and so that’s going to be a natural progression for him. His overall game is very good, and he’s a five-tool player that can do a lot of things for us. The more repetition, the more at-bats that he gets, the better he’s going to play.”

– Anthony Rendon has solidified himself as the Nationals’ starting second baseman, Rizzo said, but the team will enter spring training with an open competition between Rendon, Steve Lombardozzi and Danny Espinosa for the starting spot. 

Rizzo was effusive in his praise of Rendon, but despite his struggles this season the organization still sees a lot of potential in Espinosa and he is the most elite defensively of the three. 

“We’ve got a lot of good young players at that position,” Rizzo said. “Rendon has played remarkably well at that position for a guy who is learning defensively at the major league level and trying to hit for the first time at the major league level. Compound that with that he’s played more games than he’s ever played in his career and he’s had a remarkable rookie season.

“Let’s not forget about Danny Espinosa who hit 20 home runs and stolen 20 bases in the big leagues already and is a stalwart defensive player. And Lombo, who is one of the most steady players that we have on the ballclub. We’ve got a lot of good options over there and we’re going to roll them out there in spring training and see what happens.”

Asked a similar question earlier this week, Johnson noted that Lombardozzi’s value to the team as a utility player and pinch hitter is very high, so when it comes to deciding on a starting player his candidacy would have to be evaluated with that in mind.