When Bryce Harper filed for free agency at the beginning of November, the Nationals put their “Plan B” into effect. Plan B was simply to use the offseason to improve pitching, defense, speed and athleticism. Improved defense improves pitching. Improved speed improves defense and offense. Improved athleticism improves everything. Mission accomplished. These principles are nothing new for the Washington Nationals, but they lost their way the last couple of years.
On November 10th of 2010, Mike Rizzo appeared on MLB Network Radio and was able to brag. Rizzo already had Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann at the top of his rotation, and he drafted Bryce Harper a few months earlier. His farm system was looking very good, and Rizzo also knew that his ownership was going to allow him to spend big in that off-season in which he would later acquire Jayson Werth. So yes, Rizzo could talk as confidently as ever as the Nats’ G.M. even though the team never had a winning season to that point.
“Our philosophy here has been clear since I’ve taken over. We believe — and I believe wholeheartedly that championship teams are built on pitching, defense, speed and athleticism,” Rizzo said in November of 2010.
Since then, we have heard that mantra often, and we heard it at Rizzo’s “Hot Stove” event last month because he knew the Nationals had some poor defense last year with Matt Wieters, Daniel Murphy, and Harper. This off-season, Rizzo upgraded his defense with the acquisitions of Yan Gomes at catcher, Brian Dozier at second base, and a healthier Adam Eaton in rightfield, and we expect Victor Robles to make the Opening Day roster as the centerfielder. On top of that, the Nats bagged the prize of starting pitching in this year’s free agency with Patrick Corbin and also signed Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson.
“We really added to what [we] think makes a championship organization tick,” Rizzo said at the Hot Stove event. “Pitching, defense, athleticism, and speed. I think we improved in all four of those aspects. It’s a big part of our identity as far as trying to develop a championship caliber club.”
That message from Rizzo matches what he said nearly 8-years ago. On top of all of that, the Nationals might be willing to embrace more rest days for pitchers who need it according to a report by Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post. This would be quite the divergence for the Nationals who have watched other teams move in that direction years ago. The Dodgers have been to back-to-back World Series by resting pitchers more often and even gaming the 10-day DL which will probably be adjusted in the next CBA.
Boswell writes: The result probably will be a 12-man staff with at least 18 pitchers — a half-dozen of whom, at any one time, will be stashed in the minors or on the 10-day injured list. Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez keep talking about how many of their pitchers have “options” to be sent back to the minors, which gives them “flexibility.”
“From week to week, the Nats will try to figure out which of their big league arms are effective and healthy and which need a rest, are a bit sore or are just getting shelled. It will be a delicate task for Martinez, their second-year manager. But the good news is that he really does have a lot of pretty good pitchers, not just cover-your-eyes problems.”
For the skeptics or those from Missouri, we will wait and see if there is a change beyond how the team pitched Hellickson last year along with usage of Sanchez and Corbin as well as easing up on Scherzer. This season, the Nats are projected to have the best 1-2-3 pitchers in the NL. The Nationals are close to the best rotation 1-to-5 in baseball with Sanchez and Hellickson at the back of the rotation.
That “Big 3” is projected on Fangraphs at a +12.4 WAR. That is certainly impressive especially since the Nationals main competition (Braves, Mets, Phillies) have all improved their team offense.
“Good pitching beats good hitting. We have good pitching.” — Clint Hurdle
In the Nats case, they have both good pitching, good defense and good hitting. Soon enough we will be able to watch Rizzo’s team in action and put his mantra to the test. Maybe this retooled team without Harper can go further than ever before into the postseason.