Davey Johnson has made it his mission this season to fill the holes on the Nationals roster for 2012. He's tried, through much of his three-month tenure as Nationals manager, to put the organization in a position where their offseason needs are clear.
As the Nationals wrap up the second-most-successful season in their seven-year history in Washington, General Manager Mike Rizzo heads into the offseason with a specific list. The top two things on it are an everyday outfield bat and a front-line starting pitcher. Upgrading the bench is a close third.
"I think we're an outfield bat away and a starting pitcher away from really being a contender in the division," Rizzo said Sunday afternoon as he reflected on the 2011 season.
"I don't think we're going to have to be making dramatic moves over the winter," Johnson said. "The big move that we made this year is establishing the young guys. The lineup is much more efficient now that these guys have established themselves."
The Nationals will go into spring training with a starter at every infield position, at catcher and at two of their three outfield spots. The seasons of rookies Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos and Ian Desmond along with Michael Morse, in particular, have solidified that line of thinking.
"When you can contend," Johnson said, "you go into spring training and you've pretty much got a set lineup and there's one or two positions that are being competed for in the spring. I think we're rapidly approaching that criteria."
Rizzo also reiterated the organization's desire to add another top-of-the-rotation starter, despite the fact that they're anticipating having Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann in those top two spots.
Citing the September collapses of both the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves, Rizzo pointed out that despite the fact that the Nationals' young pitchers such as Tommy Milone, Ross Detwiler and Brad Peacock have made strong cases for next year, there's no such thing as too much quality starting pitching. The club also is working actively toward bringing Chien-Ming Wang back and considering whether or not there will be space for Livan Hernandez.
"(A top starter) puts everybody down a slot and makes everybody much more comfortable," Rizzo said. "This is a grind of a season, and when you play a month longer than everybody else into playoff baseball, it takes a lot of starting pitchers to get through the season."
Three of the Nationals' current outfielders will be free agents after the season as well, and Rizzo said the team is open to discussing bringing back Laynce Nix, Jonny Gomes and Rick Ankiel if the fit and the price are right. Gomes is projected as a Type-B free agent, as well, so the Nationals would get a draft pick from whichever team did sign him if he declined salary arbitration from Washington.
All of that, of course, will have to happen after Rizzo and his staff decide on a manager for the 2012 season. There has been no change in either Johnson's or the organization's stance on that matter. Johnson will be here, either as the team's manager or in an adviser's role, and the Nationals will interview their remaining candidates accordingly.
It's a list that most likely will include in-house candidates third-base coach Bo Porter and Triple-A manager Randy Knorr, both of whom Rizzo was instrumental in bringing into the organization in the roles they currently hold. But it will not be limited to within the organization. Rizzo does have a timeline for making the decision but declined to share it publicly, though admitted he doesn't anticipate it being a lengthy period.
"Because we've done this exercise before, we've got a very streamlined group of high-quality candidates that we're going to talk to," Rizzo said. "I anticipate the process being much quicker because we've already identified a lot of the candidates that we're going to talk to."
The job will be an attractive one for whomever the Nationals do select to lead the team in 2012, as they look poised to finish the season in third place in the National League East and will end the year hovering around the .500 mark, if not above it.
"I'm happy with the progress," Rizzo said. "I think these ingrained attitudes, they die hard. We worked very, very hard in changing the mindset here and the culture in the clubhouse. We know we came from a very much a losing type of attitude and culture in the clubhouse, and we had to change that. I think we've made great steps in that progression.
"With the personnel that we have, I think you're seeing a very young team kind of maturing at the same time, and it looks good for the future."
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