While the season is still a ways off, during a cold, aggressively wintry week such as this, my thoughts couldn’t help but wander to baseball. In less than a month, beginning Feb. 18, pitchers and catchers will report to the beautiful, sunny states Florida and Arizona. We, however, will continue to wallow in the misery of a plodding winter that will probably end sometime in mid-April — after, of course, the first week of baseball, so we can all catch colds at freezing night games. Sooner than later, the lights will be back on Nationals Park and our lives will once again feel a little fuller.
For the Nationals, the offseason is certainly not over. Significant pieces continue to float around in the free agent market, and given General Manager Mike Rizzo’s propensity for working his way into somewhat unpredictable and intriguing trade and signing negotiations — so far he pulled one off for Ben Revere and fell through on Brandon Phillips, Yoenis Cespedes, and Jason Heyward among others, to say nothing of the managerial transition to Dusty Baker — there could still be a lot of action left in this offseason. But at this stage in the process, the Nats are looking like a complete Major League Baseball team. A run-through of the additions and subtractions shows a team that has hit or exceeded its offseason targets, as it has done consistently under the management of Rizzo and the willing contributions of ownership.
The makeover of the team began with the firing of Matt Williams amid frustration about lineup management and locker room issues. He was replaced by old veteran Dusty Baker after a somewhat embarrassing failed contract negotiation with the Nationals’ apparent first choice, former Padres manager Bud Black, in which the two sides could not reach an agreement on compensation.
Looking back, that was the low point of the Nationals’ offseason. The incident set off a flurry of frustrated, dejected commentary in the area, but the front office got back down to business in one of the most critical areas the club needed to improve: the bullpen. The bullpen was, concisely, not built to match the quality of the rest of the roster, and it showed. Relief pitchers consistently blew late-game leads, most importantly during September games with the division-leading Mets. The mid-season addition of closer Jonathan Papelbon, intended to shore up the pen, only sent the jilted previous closer, Drew Storen, into a horrendous tailspin and got Bryce Harper choked in the dugout.
The popular line on the Nationals was that the team needed to ditch Papelbon and Storen and rebuild the bullpen from scratch in the process. Unsurprisingly, other clubs were not too interested in a player prone to dugout assaults, and Storen’s up-and-down history hurt his value. The signings started to come in, however, and included names like Shawn Kelley, a former Padre, and Yusmeiro Petit, a former Giant. Storen was finally moved to Toronto for outfielder Ben Revere, freeing him to what I honestly hope is a more consistent closing career there.
The addition of Revere brings us to bats, where the Nationals were also searching for answers after a somewhat frustrating campaign. Injuries to center fielder Denard Span and left fielder Jayson Werth forced Michael Taylor into a starting role, where he didn’t look ready. With Span gone and Werth’s health still questionable, the addition of the speedy, contact-hitting and left-handed Revere to the lineup checks off a few critical boxes for the Nats. The departure of quasi-homegrown Ian Desmond, the last player on the roster with a concrete connection to the Expos — they drafted him in 2004 — left a hole in the middle infield, which was filled by the addition of Mets postseason hero Daniel Murphy, another consistent bat with more pop than Revere that could help the Nats find some rhythm at the plate.
With Murphy at second, the current situation still leaves an open shortstop position, which for now seems slated for Danny Espinosa but could theoretically be grabbed by recent signee INF Stephen Drew, the former Yankee, or top prospect Trea Turner if his development progresses during the early part of the season.
Overall, the Nationals roster transactions have made the best of necessity and prudency. The failure to move Papelbon seems a little worrying, but Harper and Papelbon have publicly made amends, and Harper seems to be willing to build a winning dugout, as opposed to getting rid of people he doesn’t like. Getting the best market value for Papelbon would have been difficult for the Nats, considering the extra baggage attached to him. Runs at Jason Heyward, Brandon Phillips and Yoenis Cespedes failed, but they showed that Rizzo was willing to consider a variety of moves that meant more value for the team. Keep your eyes on Florida and a couple more moves before opening day, but the Nationals so far have built a stronger roster to start the season with.