Rizzo and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

December 10, 2015



It has not been a good year for the Nationals; I would argue that 2015 will go down as the worst in team history. No, they didn’t finish with the worst record ever but there were such high - and entirely justified - expectations going into the season and what ensued was a disastrous-to-the-point-of-almost-comical trainwreck.


Much of the blame rightly fell squarely on the shoulders of manager – now ex-manager – Matt Williams. He lost the confidence of his players and was a brutally inept in-game strategist.  Career years from great players like the one from Bryce Harper last year are credited with 9-10 extra wins above what another player might have produced; Williams’ performance as a manager probably generated an extra 10-12 losses.


So GM Mike Rizzo has a lot of ground to make up this offseason to make sure that 2016 does not end the same way 2015 did. However, we’re halfway through the critical GM meetings – where much of the offseason player movement finds its genesis – and it is not looking optimistic. 



Mike Rizzo’s checklist:

New manager: He had an agreement to bring on Bud Black as the new manager, but that process was undercut when either Rizzo or ownership not only low-balled the salary but would not guarantee more than a year initially and drew the line at two years guaranteed. Black rightly withdrew from the negotiation and the Nats went with Plan B, Dusty Baker.


Baker is a somewhat controversial pick because he’s had some success but his teams have underachieved for the talent they’ve had. Baker likes to point out that the teams he inherited in previous stops had finished low in the standings the year before he arrived, only to be turned around under his guidance. What he conveniently forgets is that the year he took over the Giants, they also signed Barry Bonds. The year he took over the Cubs was Mark Prior's first full season in the bigs. The year he took over the Reds was Joey Votto's first full season. Maybe Dusty had a hand in each team's improvement but there were some unquestionably significant player additions to the roster.


What he also doesn’t talk about is the number of stellar pitching talents that have either flamed out or never got on track under his care. The most notable names are Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, but Salomon Torres and Kurt Ainsworth both failed to materialize under Baker, and Joe Nathan might have been added to that list had he not been traded to the Twins and converted to relief. In addition, Shawn Estes, Russ Ortiz, Edinson Volquez, Carlos Zambrano were routinely allowed to walk half the park in their starts. Baker-managed pitchers have five of the 25 highest totals for walks in a season since 1993 (when Baker got his first chance at managing). Is that a function of his managing or of the player? Perhaps a bit of both but it is notable that after Baker and each of these pitchers parted ways, all but one of them improved his walk rate the next year.


It is indisputable fact that Baker routinely left his starters on the mound longer than he probably should have.  According to a Washington Post defense of Baker’s record, “Early in his tenure as manager, Baker’s starters were used in a large number of starts in which they saw their pitch count soar upwards of 120 pitches. For example, in 1999, the average NL team had 13 starting pitchers throw at least 120 pitches. Baker’s Giants had 30 such starts. The following year, Baker’s staff had nearly double the league average, 29 vs. 15. And that trend continued through his stint with the Cubs. However, beginning in 2008 with the Reds, Baker started to change his ways, falling in line with what we would expect from the league’s other starting pitchers.”


And yet despite keeping his starters on the mound longer than anyone, they were among the worst in completing games. In 20 seasons of managing, his teams have finished in the bottom 10 in the majors for complete games ten times. Had he been managing in the American League with line-ups featuring a DH that might not have been a big deal. Or if he had a reputation like Sparky “Captain Hook” Anderson, who yanked his starters routinely, it would make sense. But Baker left his guys on the mound longer than anyone yet was unable to give his bullpen a day off more often than anyone. For me, that reveals a manager who either is not watching what’s happening on the mound or doesn’t understand what he’s seeing.    


In the interest of accuracy, Baker was still above league average in leaving his starters on the mound for 120+ pitches even after 2008; he just was not double the league average anymore. So what changed? The addition of Aroldis Chapman to the bullpen gave Baker perhaps the most powerful relief arm in history to pitch a couple of innings. So we don’t really know if Baker has learned the lesson or not. And for a team with potentially great young arms like Lucas Giolito (21) and Joe Ross (22), that is quite disconcerting, especially since the Nats don’t have Chapman or even a very close approximation.


It is encouraging that that shortly after hiring Baker the Nats also hired premier pitching coach Mike Maddux, so there’s some hope that Baker’s bad trend with pitching will at least be mitigated. But that’s not the only concern. Baker also has a well-deserved reputation for being out-managed in big games, so it looks like the Nats will also have to bring in a premier bench coach to possibly mitigate that issue as well. Perhaps it would have been simpler (and less expensive) to find a better manager in the first place. Time will tell.  


What is particularly critical about bringing Baker on board is the fact that Stephen Strasburg will be a free agent after this season and Bryce Harper will be eligible after next season. If Baker has not developed a winning culture in Washington or has not given these players reason for believing it will happen in DC, both will be gone. No amount of money will be enough to keep them.




This is absolutely the Nats greatest need, partly because it was the greatest source of failure last season and partly because this team will need a great one to overcome Baker’s frequent late-game missteps. Papelbon and Storen were disasters both on and off the field for the final two months of last season. Papelbon has proved particularly problematic because of his demand to close and high salary for someone at his position, which makes him nearly impossible to trade. Making it even more difficult is his reputation as a clubhouse disruption, which he clearly earned in just the short time he’s had with the team. This is looking more like a bitter pill in which the Nats simply have to swallow his salary and release him. As for Storen, he has the talent to be an excellent reliever but his time in Washington has been marred by so many crushing blows to his confidence that he probably needs a change of scenery to achieve fulfillment. The Nats would be better off just going with Blake Treinen and/or Felipe Rivero closing out games than with the current plan.


So far, the only bullpen arm Rizzo has added this off-season is Oliver Perez, who can be very good but has also had stretches of being absolutely brutal. He is basically a left-handed specialist at $3+ million a year for a team that is looking very much like it will need many innings out of their bullpen.


What is surprising is that there are some high quality bullpen arms (some with closing experience) available - Steve Cishek, Jonathan Broxton, Fernando Rodney, Shawn Kelley, Juan Nicasio, Joel Peralta, etc. – yet Rizzo has been unable or unwilling to roster any of them. John Axford, Darren O’Day and David Hernandez were also available but the Nats whiffed on them already. This situation is bordering on dire.




The top of the rotation is fine with Scherzer and Strasburg, but Gio Gonzales probably should be a 4th starter. The Nats will definitely feel the departure of Jordan Zimmermann, whose hallmark was an indomitable will. When the team needed 7-8 innings from a starter in order to rest the bullpen, or a quality start in a big game, Zimmermann always seemed to post up. Gonzales, on the other hand, is wildly inconsistent. He has great talent but not the determination to fully realize his potential, and in the post-season he has been profoundly disappointing.


Tanner Roark is serviceable but not the kind of pitcher that is featured in a championship rotation. He looked great in 2013 and 2014 but that’s not who he is. That year and a half he was very lucky on balls in play, reasonably lucky on strand rates and extremely lucky on keeping flyballs in the park. Last year was much more who he really is. He’s more of a 5th starter than the linchpin of a great rotation.


Which leaves Joe Ross, who will be a very good starter eventually but he’s still young enough that workload is a concern. This means the Nats will need at least one more quality starter for innings. Perhaps Rizzo will be able to find what he needs from the bargain bin, but if he waits too much longer, that’s all that will be available. That is a bit worrisome given his checkered track record for finding mid-range starters. Dan Haren, Chien-Ming Wang and Edwin Jackson ranged from underwhelming to outright flops. Doug Fister was great for one year but was terrible the next.


The current rumor is that he is trying to sign Mike Leake, who’s a solid pitcher and would certainly give the team innings. He’s an intriguing choice because his fastball’s average velocity has been increasing for five straight years and he doesn’t walk many batters, but his results so far have been league average. There’s some debate over whether he will ever be more than an average starter.  What will help is having a great infield defense behind him if he does sign, as he is very groundball-heavy.




The current options at shortstop/second base are Trea Turner, Wilmer Difo, Danny Espinosa and Yunel Escobar. There’s some talent there for sure but Turner and Difo will both be rookies. If they prove to be overmatched at the plate then the keystone becomes Espinosa, who is better defensively than Ian Desmond was but has a lot more swing and miss in his game, and Yunel Escobar, who makes contact but doesn’t bring much else to the game. Third base is in excellent hands with Anthony Rendon back; he just needs to stay off the disabled list. Similarly, Ryan Zimmerman is an excellent hitter but has not played more than 100 games since 2013. The Nats definitely have depth issues and if Escobar ends up at shortstop, then they also have some defensive limitations as well. Tyler Moore and Clint Robinson are both capable of playing first base and the outfield but the Nats still need someone who can play high quality defense at the other infield spots if the rookies don’t pan out.




Jayson Werth is getting older and has played 130 games in a season just once since 2011. Michael Taylor is talented but is probably best suited to be a 4th outfielder until he learns to tame his urge to swing at everything.  So the Nationals should be in the market for another outfielder. They could also use another hitter from the left side to help Harper balance the line-up.  And it just so happens that there are several left-side hitting outfielders available. Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward are the premier free-agents and Carlos Gonzalez is being shopped. On the next level down are Dexter Fowler and Gerardo Parra. So far that Nationals have not seriously looked at any of them.




On the surface the Nationals appear to be a team with few needs. But the reality is that they have vital needs in the bullpen, rotation, infield and outfield, as well as the coaching staff. There should be a real sense of urgency to fix so many weaknesses and at least from the public’s perspective, there has been none. If Rizzo does not start to address these needs in short order, he could very well be looking for work next winter.