Washington will have rotation, lineup to contend for division title in 2016
By Richard Justice
BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Once he was able to digest the whole disappointing season, Nationals general manager and president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo took a couple of deep breaths and arrived at two reasonable conclusions:
• He's going to have a team good enough to win the World Series in 2016. This he knows. This he's convinced of.
• His top-to-bottom organization remains excellent, and it is positioned to remain competitive for a long time.
Rizzo has had to bring himself back to those two thoughts a few times as he assessed what went wrong during a season in which a club widely thought to be the best in the National League went 83-79 and finished seven games behind the Mets in the NL East.
What went wrong? Rizzo is uncomfortable with this question. He knows his answer will not come out right.
"I don't want to sound like I'm making excuses, alibis," Rizzo said. "We're tipping our hats to the Mets. The Mets won the division. We didn't lose it. I look at it that way. They outplayed us at the end. Now, they're king of the division, and it's our turn to try and knock them off."
On the other hand …
"But you'd like to have your horses," said Rizzo. "We tried to explain it. Depth is one thing, but when you lose hundreds of games to the disabled list to your core guys -- and some have two and three different DL stints throughout the year -- that's tough. We couldn't get any rhythm; we couldn't get any synergy in the lineup. This kind of zapped our energy at the end."
Yep, that part of the story is right there in black and white. The Nationals had gotten to within four games of first place when the Mets came to Washington on Sept. 7. The Mets swept that series, coming from behind in three straight games.
The Nats then flew to Miami and lost two more, and in a span of five days, they were 9 1/2 games out of first. This was the stretch in which Rizzo probably decided once and for all to dismiss manager Matt Williams and begin a search process that resulted in the hiring of Dusty Baker.
Ah, Dusty. If this is the sweet comeback story Rizzo hopes, a lot of it will begin with the leadership and charisma of Baker's half-century in the game. His 19 years as a player and 3,176 games as a manager bring instant credibility into a clubhouse that seemed disjointed and stressed at points last season.
"Dusty brings an exuberance, an energy, a belief that we can do anything," Rizzo said. "And years and years of X's and O's in the dugout. He paints with a broad brush all the time and has a huge skill set as a manager. He will get the most out of every player on the roster."
Now, about that roster. The Nationals are going to be different in 2016, as three key players -- right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, shortstop Ian Desmond and center fielder Denard Span -- are expected to depart via free agency.
When you unwrap the Nats, when you get under the hood and look at all the pieces, this is a club that should win in 2016. Win big. Play in October.
That's a point that gets lost at times. The Nationals have won. They just haven't won enough. Since they turned a corner at the beginning of the 2012 season, their 363 regular-season victories have been the third most in the NL, behind only the Cardinals (375) and Dodgers (364).
But the Nats made just two postseason appearances in those four years, and they won just three postseason games. Rizzo would be the first to say that was unacceptable.
What Rizzo would like more than anything else is a season in which the Nationals aren't decimated by injuries. If he could have one of those, we might all be able to make a fair assessment of his work.
Let's be clear about these numbers: Rizzo believes the Nats still had enough to win. But in evaluating his club, he wasn't going to beat himself up over things that were out of his control.
"If our players play up to their career norms, we think we have ourselves a good team and a team that can play meaningful games in September and October," Rizzo said. "We've got a good group of players. We've got a good mixture -- four or five players that are going to be 24 and younger and some veterans to sprinkle in there also. It's a good mix. We think we're tweaks away, not sweeping changes away."
Despite it all, the Nationals scored 703 runs, third most in the NL. Bryce Harper had a monster coming-of-age season with 42 home runs and a 1.109 OPS, and he seems to be a near slam-dunk NL Most Valuable Player Award choice.
In other areas, the Nats weren't good enough. The rotation took a step back, and Rizzo likely will have two youngsters -- Ross and Tanner Roark -- in the slots behind Max Scherzer, Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.
Rizzo's real work is in the bullpen. First, will he bring back Jonathan Papelbon, who picked a fight with Harper in the dugout in September?
"He and Harper have talked," Rizzo said. "Harper reached out to him, showing his maturity and leadership has really gone to the next level. He's made peace with it. Pap's made peace with it. I don't think that's going to be an issue. They both want to win. They're both competitive as hell. They feel with both of them on the team, we have a better chance to win."
Rizzo is also prepared to shop for relievers. With that rotation, with Harper in the middle of that offense, and with just a bit of good health, the Nationals could still get to the place Rizzo wants them to get.
Those 363 victories the past four seasons -- that's nearly 91 victories per year -- are an indication that, despite the October disappointments, the Nats have done far more right than wrong. This is where Rizzo hoped to get them when he took over as general manager six years ago.
Rizzo hoped to build the franchise around player development and power arms and winning. That's exactly where Nationals are. Now it's about taking the next step.
"We have a team we think can win today," Rizzo said.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.