The Nationals hosted their Hot Stove event on Saturday at Nats Park, and it was full of tidbits of coming attractions at the ballpark and some small nuggets that GM Mike Rizzo was willing to give up to the audience.
The Nats GM and new Nats’ manager Davey Martinez answered questions from MASN color announcer FP Santangelo, and then took questions from the audience. The start to the event for Mike Rizzo was about the rumored trade candidate whose first name was two initials (J.T. Realmuto). That was met with applause and some laughs.
“We’re looking (laughter and calls of J.T. from the crowd) we feel good where we are at and I don’t like talking about players on other teams because it’s illegal,” Mike Rizzo said. “But we’re never satisfied with where we are, we love the team we got and we feel really good about it. I’m going to Spring Training on Friday, and we will show up with the team we have right now. This is a team that I feel is capable to play deep into October. That’s the good thing. The great thing is we’re never satisfied here — I’m ultra-competitive. Davey is ultra-competitive. We’re going to want to get the best we can get out there. If there is a deal that makes sense free-agent-wise or trade-wise, you know, we are aggressive enough to pull the trigger and make a deal. So anything that improves us from this day forward we’re going to look into and explore it, and as we often do we do things that nobody is thinking about.”
F.P Santangelo said to chew on that for a moment,and Mike Rizzo’s finger movement when he slowed down to finish his point, “we do things that nobody is thinking about” had the finger waggle right from Beyonce.
“We didn’t have the parade that we wanted to or anticipated,” Mike Rizzo said. “But the majority of the cast is back. My expectation is we are going to be a very very good team this year. We are going to be the favorites, and there is going to be a bulls’ eye on our back in the National League East, and then in the National League, and then for World Series. We are going to have to play really really well. I like our ball club as a unit.
“We’re used to in this organization having one of the best rotations in the game. That isn’t going to change. We have Scherzer, Stras, Gio and Roark. Our number five starter, you know, is A.J. Cole which I’m really looking forward to seeing where he’s at this year. If you look at his numbers last year, his last seven starts were outstanding. He pitched in eleven games last year in the big leagues with eight starts and had a 3.81 ERA… Look at the other teams in our division. See where that ERA ranks on those other staffs. Probably in the top three or four in all of those other staffs. We are looking for great things for him. We have Erick Fedde, and Wil Crowe and Seth Romero down in the farm system. ”
Right off the bat, the question of the 5th starter was brought up, and in a rare conclusive statement, Rizzo indicated that AJ Cole had the job and we know that is for right now. Rizzo could still make a trade of free agent move or promote from within from the veterans on minor’s deals. There was no qualifier to this announcement. Nothing to indicate that it was his job to lose in spring training or that they would also be looking at Erick Fedde, Tommy Milone or Edwin Jackson to see if they could sneak in there with impressive performances in West Palm Beach. It is 100% AJ Cole’s job for now according to what Mike Rizzo said in that quote. So, for anyone who isn’t a fan of Cole, prepare yourself to see him every 5th day.
Speaking of pitching, Rizzo said he felt good with the depth we have in the organization at pitchers, despite not having a pitcher on the top 100 prospects list for the first time since 2013. “We’re solid for the near future,” he said. He also felt good with the organizational depth at other positions, saying “we’ll have 5 or 6 guys in the top 100 by midseason, guaranteed.” Right now, the Nats have Victor Robles, Juan Soto, and Carter Kieboom on the top 100 list, but Erick Fedde, Daniel Johnson, and Seth Romero are all lurking and Rizzo was clear when he said that in the mid-year prospects report that the Nationals would have “five prospects in the Top-1oo.” Because of this depth, Rizzo said he “cringes” when people talk about the window to win. He believes the “window is wide open” well beyond 2018, and he again talked about how they always have a 1, 3, and 5-year plan. Hopefully, we won’t ever end up like the Phillies, Marlins, or Braves.
On the topic of prospects, Victor Robles was discussed at length. Rizzo said that he was still in the developmental stage, and he needs to have the opportunity to “play every day.” He will be at big league camp and will be given the chance to complete for a starting job with the club, however if he doesn’t edge out the established starters, he will not be given a spot on the bench. Both Robles and the team will be stronger in the future with him having the ability to play regularly and continue to refine his skills in the minors.
As far as the coaching staff, Mike Rizzo seems to really like the group with Chip Hale as the bench coach and new additions of Derek Lilliquist, Kevin Long, and Tim Bogar among others.
“We got ourselves a great coaching staff,” Mike Rizzo said. “And young and energetic a little bit of ‘RED ASS’ in ’em (laughter from the crowd as Rizzo carried on with a straight face) which I like. That goes along with our manager also (to which Dave Martinez smiled). A tough bunch of guys who have won in the past and know how to win.”
Serious question, can anyone define ‘Red Ass’? We found several definitions that we cannot print here, and the Urban Dictionary had a few like this one that isn’t it, and this one that is closer in context. This one from another slang dictionary that points specifically to former coach Bobby Knight and Hall-of-Fame pitcher Randy Johnson gets us even closer in some context, and we will try to find out later on from Mike Rizzo what his definition is at some point.
Along the lines of keeping us competitive for the foreseeable future, someone asked Mike Rizzo about his contract, which was met with roaring applause and a partial standing ovation. Rizzo said his contract was “the last thing on my mind.” He said he has a good relationship with the Lerners and seemed confident that everything would work out in the end. He then promptly asked people to stop talking about it.
F.P. Santangelo noted the strong response from the fans in attendance, and asked if it was on video to show the Lerners. Fingers crossed this gets worked out with as little drama as possible, because many of us believe Rizzo is the backbone of our success as a team.
On an interesting note, a question came up about how Rizzo balances information gathered via scouting versus the new emphasis baseball is placing on analytics. Rizzo has a strong analytics department of five people (fives sides) that are part of his Pentagon, and he spoke to how he doesn’t make a decision without consulting them. However, given his background, he said scouting is “nearest and dearest to my heart,” and with differing opinions between the two ways of thinking, Rizzo will lean towards his scouts to make the final decision. Davey said “I wouldn’t be where I am today without scouting” and told a story about his high school scout pushing him to begin playing in the outfield, which ultimately led to him landing in professional baseball. FP chimed in and said “my scout signed me and got fired the next day.” (Side note: FP brought his A game today and was hysterical.)
Davey (Dave? Martinez? What have we decided as a fanbase to call him?) said he does feel analytical data is important, and wants all the information he can get. He will be choosey as to how he disseminates that information to players, however. He recognizes that all players are different, and some would benefit from analytical data more than others. He does plan to use it for situational decisions during games.
As a first-time manager, there continues to be a lot of questions around his managing style and his lack of decision-making experience. We all know he was Joe Maddon’s right hand man for a decade, which gives him a wealth of experience. Davey said he and Maddon often butted heads and had differing opinions, and he is hoping his coaching staff provides him with those alternative views this season. He said both at the Hot Stove and at the Washington Car Show on Thursday “don’t tell me what I know, tell me what I don’t know.” He’s interested in other points-of-view that can help him make the best decision in each situation that he and the team will face, and he will rely on input from his bench coach Chip Hale.
In terms of how games will look under Davey’s leadership, each time I’ve heard him talk, he’s mentioned being aggressive on the bases, and he expects every time that a single is hit to right field that his runner will know ahead of time that he will keep running to 3rd base. He recognizes our team is stacked with speed, and he wants them to use it. On Thursday at the car show, he threw out 30 or 40 stolen bases for Trea Turner, and Trea as we know surpassed the 45-mark in a partial season last year appearing in just 98 games. That number should easily be 75 or more as Trea stole 33 games in his rookie season playing just 73 games. DMart wants the team to use spring training to practice going from 1st to 3rd each time the ball is put into play. He doesn’t care if they get thrown out at 3rd, because really, who cares what happens in a practice game. But he’s hopeful the experience will give the guys the confidence of knowing when they can make it to 3rd base in games that do count. He also wants guys to put the ball in play and focus on getting on base. Y’all, this man speaks my language. This team should be so fun to watch this season. I can’t wait. The key word he used over and over was “aggressive.”
The Nationals manager also remained focused on the little things, and continues to reel in the fans who are jumping straight to October baseball. He wants to take things game by game, and focus on the fundamentals that make a talented team successful over a long season. That said, he told the gathered fans “my expectation is to play the last game of the World Series, and to win it.” He did say that managing in postseason is different than managing throughout the regular season, and you need to do whatever it takes to win, pointing out that the Cubs used their closer for three innings to secure a win last season. He made it clear that pitching in the post-season is different which was met by applause and used the example how the Cubs’ closer Wade Davis threw three innings in a game.
“It’s all about the win [in the post-season]. [When we play the Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS last year], we used our closer for three innings. We’re trying to put the best players out there and win to get to the next game,” Dave Martinez said.
In news not related to the team itself, Valerie Camillo shared several tidbits during the event. First and foremost, invoices for All Star strips will be sent out to Nats Plus members on February 8th, so the wait for that information is almost over. Partial plan holders will be in a lottery to see if they’re given the opportunity to purchase strips. No one will be able to purchase any tickets in addition to the strips offered to them. Strips include the All Star game, the Home Run Derby, the Celebrity Softball game, the Futures Game, and 2 tickets to Fan Fest, as well as an All Star Game commemorative program. Nats Plus members will also be invited to an exclusive event at Fan Fest.
Valerie also shared that they are working on new food and drinks at the park this season, including a pretzel bar and adult Capri Sun drinks (yum!). There are plans to build a life-sized bobblehead at the park to help everyone enhance their Instagram feeds, plus there is going to be a virtual home run derby game and a photo booth added to the concourse. She also said that after a flood of emails regarding theme nights around different decades, this year they’ve decided to do one each month, and each one will be a different decade, going from the 1960s through the 2000s. I’m most excited about this. Also, Valerie does listen to emails and Twitter posts, and she said the Red Sox and Yankee series will not be highly priced like the Cubs series was last year. She did indicate that the Nats utilize dynamic pricing, so ticket prices will fluctuate based on supply and demand, so if you’re interested in either of those series, I highly recommend purchasing your tickets as early as possible.
The Hot Stove remains my favorite off-season event at Nats Park, and this year’s did not disappoint. I am so geeked up for the season to start. We are so close, y’all. So. Close.