Normally during the Winter Meetings, the Washington Nationals hold their center court time at the official hotel, but everything went virtual this year due to COVID, and we never heard from the President of Baseball Operations and General Manager, Mike Rizzo. This afternoon Mike Rizzo and his manager Dave Martinez made themselves available via ZOOM.
On the injured players, Starlin Castro is ready to go per Dave Martinez. He said he actually wanted to play Winter Ball but they encouraged him to relax and show up to Spring Training ready. On Stephen Strasburg, he is recovering from the carpal tunnel neuritis surgery.
“Yah he’s doing really well. Because of the therapy, he’s throwing a little bit,” Martinez said on Strasburg. “He is on his regular winter program. So, it will be nice to get him back on the mound.”
There has been very little action this offseason and the team’s direction going into the 2021 season has not shown where Rizzo is headed on the true player priorities other than they want a “big bat” after Juan Soto in the lineup. In September we laid out what we thought the priorities should be. A few of those got checked off of the list, but money has not been spent. In fact with the multiple DFA’s the team lowered their payroll.
Mike Rizzo says the Nationals’ top priority this offseason is trying to get a “bat to fill in the middle of the lineup and kind of complement the rest of our middle of the lineup bats.” Says this could be via the free agent market or in a trade.
— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) December 15, 2020
In Rizzo’s and Davey’s media session, they tried to avoid discussing names outside of the organization, but the exception was the Chicago Cubs former All-Star and MVP Kris Bryant who Davey admitted has “come up” in conversations.
“Very good player,” the former Cubs bench coach said of Bryant. “Like him a lot. For me, right now, unfortunately he is a Cub. His name definitely comes up in conversations. He’s an unbelievable player. He’s definitely a premier player in this league.”
In Rizzo’s segment with the media that followed Martinez, the general manager added some clarity about the Bryant rumors.
“We haven’t had a serious conversation about Kris Bryant in probably two years,” Rizzo said. “He was not a big guy on our radar last year or this year. He’s a great player, but at this point in time of where we’re at, and what we have in our farm system, and where we’re going, we think we can allocate our dollars and prospect capital in another way.”
For the Cubs, Bryant heads to free agency after next season, and he could be looking at $20 million in his final year of arbitration. So who will start at third base for the Nats in 2021? Davey Martinez in a replay of last year has once again publicly thrown support to Carter Kieboom as his third baseman, but this time there is a slightly different tone: “he’s got to earn it.”
Rizzo made it clear that he is looking for a big bat as his top priority and is expecting his starting pitching that he has over $90 million invested in 2021, to step up.
“It’s no secret we’re a pitching-oriented team,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got three great strong starting pitchers coming back. We’ve got a bullpen that we feel is built with a lot of depth and versatility.”
“We felt that our best bet would be to surround the guys we have in the middle of the lineup already with some more bats and make offensive production a little more of a priority this offseason.”
“Ownership has given me marching orders to put a championship-caliber club on the field. That’s my purpose. That’s my focus, and that’s our objective this offseason.”
“Now the guts of what we’re going to do this offseason will come in the next couple months.”
“We feel confident with some additions we are going to be competing for championships.”
This is somewhat a divergence for Rizzo to go after a big bat in free agency since you would have to go back to the offseason before 2016 when he added Daniel Murphy as the last time he spent big on a middle of the order bat. But with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin all returning for 2021, the Big-3 should be plenty for Martinez to work with and make the middle of the lineup this year’s priority for an upgrade. Additionally, Martinez said he is penciling in Joe Ross as one of his starting pitchers.
The payroll which ties into the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) is commonly referred to as a “luxury tax” will not be an issue for the Nationals in 2021. The CBT is computed using the average annual value (AAV) of each player’s contract on the 40-man roster, plus any additional player benefits. Per the 2017-21 Collective Bargaining Agreement the CBT for this year went from $208 million in 2020 to $210 million for the 2021 season. By our calculations, the Nats are just under $161 million today and not expected to get close to the $200 million mark.
Rizzo just said he didn’t meant to use the word fluid in responding to my question. He feels like the Nats have enough budget to win. (Whatever that means.) https://t.co/KyDvwN43F2
— Britt Ghiroli (@Britt_Ghiroli) December 15, 2020
The Washington Nationals reportedly signed Luis Avilan to a minor league deal to add to other MiLB deals that are official with RHP Raynel Moron, RHP Matthew Merrill and LF Yasmany Tomas. But the only MLB deals the Nats have made was claiming RHP Rogelio Armenteros off waivers from Arizona Diamondbacks, and signing free agent reliever LHP Samuel Clay, and the re-signing of Josh Harrison.
“As you know, Riz doesn’t sit still,” Martinez said. “He’s busy. I know he’s been on the phone and has contacted every team to see what’s available. A lot of good players out there. We’re doing our due diligence. We know we have to fill in some holes. We like our core guys for sure. So, I know that Riz is out there looking. We’re going to get to bring in the best guys we can possibly bring in if they’re available and guys who actually fit into our clubhouse as well. I really do believe that culture is important. We do believe that here.”
“When [Trea Turner and Soto] hit one and two, they were phenomenal, but we need some guys that could actually drive those guys in, as well.”
No targeted acquisitions were named specifically by Rizzo or Martinez on who the middle of the lineup player could be. The list is short, and if they are truly targeting corner outfielders and first baseman as Rizzo said at one point — the list is small and there will be competition for those top free agents and trade targets. Rizzo made it clear that finding that player is the top priority.
In other news on the offseason, with the new minor league affiliations set, the Nationals have now changed some of their managerial structure with Matt LeCroy back as a manager and he will be with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings as he replaces Randy Knorr who is back as a coach with the Washington Nationals. Tripp Keister moves from High-A to Double-A Harrisburg, and not Wilmington as previously rumored, and we have confirmed this through a source. Keister happens to live in the off-season in Delaware. Instead, Tommy Shields will get the managerial assignment at the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks, and Mario Lisson will remain as the manager at Low-A but moves from Hagerstown to Fredericksburg in the new configuration according to Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post. From the previous assignments, Patrick Anderson and Billy Gardner Jr. were the two managers not retained by the Nationals.
Adding more intrigue to the mix are reports through Bob Nightengale who quotes an American League and National League owner (unnamed) that the season should be pushed back and possibly shortened.
“I don’t see any way spring training starts in February,” an American League owner said to Nightengale. “Zero chance of that. I don’t care if we play 140 games, 120 games or 80 games, we have to make sure everyone is safe to do this right.”
“I think there will be significant pressure for players to get the vaccine first before they go to Spring Training, and if [Spring Training] has to be moved back to April and play 130 games, so be it,” an unnamed National League owner tells Nightengale. “But to have 162 games, and start Spring Training at the normal time without players being vaccinated, that’s just crazy. Does Arizona and Florida, with their cases spiking, really want teams with about 125 people in each organization coming to town without vaccines?”
Clearly, nothing seems simple and this will make this offseason contentious again as the MLBPA which represents the players wants business as usual. As we have previously reported, teams are still on target for Spring Training camps to open in mid-February and the season to open on-time. Of course, the underlying issues is health and revenues. Most stadiums could remain empty until COVID vaccinations reach the majority of the population.