- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Your three-time Silver Slugger award-winning shortstop and your ace no-hitter pitcher are one season away from saying goodbye.

Oh my God, what do we do? Panic? Back up the Brinks truck and pay them? Let them go and instead use the money to overpay a free agent to save yourself?

Desperation? Anxiety?

Mike Rizzo speaks Aaron Rodgers’ language — relax.



The Nationals’ general manager did it again — coming off the ropes before anyone laid a glove on him.

Rizzo got in on a three-way deal with the Tampa Bay Rays and the San Diego Padres that moves outfield prospect Steven Souza, along with minor league pitcher Travis Ott, to Tampa Bay in exchange for two top Padres prospects — shortstop Trea Turner and right-handed pitcher Joe Ross.

Advantage, Rizzo.

The player that drove the whole deal is Wil Myers, heading to San Diego from Tampa Bay. But Rizzo got in on the deal by offering up Souza, Washington’s senior-citizen outfield prospect who, at the ripe old Triple-A age of 25, batted .345 with 18 home runs and 28 stolen bases and was named the International League Most Valuable Player.

Souza may truly be a late bloomer, and could wind up a good major-league player. But in case you haven’t noticed, outfield is not a position of need for this team.

Bryce Harper — despite the inevitable exit — can’t leave until after the 2018 season (I can’t wait for “BryceFest”). Jayson Werth won’t leave until after the 2017 season. Denard Span is on the clock, as the team has picked up his option for 2015. But all-world center field prospect Michael Taylor is waiting in the wings to take over when Span departs.

Shortstop, though, was a problem for the Nationals — at least until Wednesday.

Desmond is entering the final season of a two-year, $17.5 million deal. He reportedly turned down a $90 million contract extension last season. He has a chance to earn substantially more than that as a free agent next season.

He professed his desire to stay in Washington to reporters at NatsFest on Saturday. “I’ve got family in this organization,” he said. “I’ve got guys that I consider dad in this organization. I’ve got guys that are just like my brothers. I was 18 when I signed. I had like four armpit hairs. Now, I’ve got three kids. [Nationals bench coach] Randy Knorr has seen that every step of the way. You know what I mean? I mean, [head clubhouse attendant] Mike Wallace was showing me the ropes when I was a kid.

“This is an organization I’ve been with for a long time,” Desmond said. “Obviously, I want to be here and play here. Like I said, this is a business. If I’ve got to go, it’s not going to affect the way I play. I’m still going to go out there and play as hard as I can, like I’ve been doing for the last 11 years.”

I would love to see Desmond play his entire career with the Nationals. He cares about this team, the fans and the community. He is the sort of player who should be a “core” player, but not everyone on the roster can sign a $100 million contract.

The Nationals spent $135 million last season on payroll. That’s a healthy amount, ninth in Major League Baseball. But the Lerners are not going to commit much more than that — even if the vault opens up and MASN money pours in.

So Rizzo is faced with the prospect of managing that reality and continuing to be competitive — to never be held hostage, or put in a situation of desperation, where you are faced with no answers to questions moving forward.

That’s what he does best — staying one step ahead of being the Chicago Cubs, who paid a free-agent pitcher $155 million over six years out of desperation to compete. And he does it behind closed doors. The CIA should take lessons from the way Rizzo plays his hands.

He stunned everyone in 2011 when he traded four prospects to the Oakland Athletics for lefthander Gio Gonzalez, who went on to win 21 games for the Nationals in their 2012 NL East title season. One of those prospects was top right-handed pitching prospect A.J. Cole — who Rizzo got back in a three-way deal in 2013.

Rizzo had another surprise last winter, when he acquired right-handed pitcher Doug Fister for infielder Steve Lombardozzi and pitching prospects Ian Krol and Robbie Ray. Fister went 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA — and, by the way, will also be a free agent at the end of this season.

Did Rizzo solve his problem with Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann — the ace right-hander also facing free agency at the end of this season — with this trade? We’re not there yet.

Turner, 21, was San Diego’s first-round pick this past season and immediately delivered, batting .323 with a .406 on-base percentage and 23 stolen bases in 69 games with short-season Single-A Eugene and low Single-A Fort Wayne.

There is a long road from Fort Wayne to Washington — he can’t even be officially traded until next summer, since he was drafted within the last 12 months — and no one is mistaking the 21-year-old Ross for Zimmermann yet.

But he was the Padres’ first-round pick in 2011, and last season went 10-6 with a 3.92 ERA in 23 games between Single-A and Double-A last season.

No one knows if either will fulfill expectations and the needs of this franchise. After all, both players are prospects San Diego was willing to trade — but now Rizzo has options.

Fox Sports reported that the industry reaction was that Rizzo had successfully stayed one step ahead of the payroll executioner. “I think the Nats must have pics on [Tampa Bay] and [San Diego],” Ken Rosenthal reported one baseball executive said. “They are the clear winner. Not even close.”

Relax.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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