It was an innocent enough radio interview. The standard with Mike Rizzo late in the off-season with nothing happening. He was asked if everything on the checklist had been marked off and answered in the affirmative and then was asked if there were still moves left to be made. To this question Mike Rizzo gave the standard and cliched GM answer of anytime we can do anything to improve the club that makes sense for blah blah blah. You get the idea. There was nothing special at all about this interview. It was a time filler between Redskins talk on a local Washington DC radio station, but there was something in Mike Rizzo’s voice. He sound ecstatic while talking about improving the team. Reading between the lines it was as if he was smirking into the phone and really saying watch what I’m about to do.
Reading into voice inflection is no way to reach an honest conclusion, and nothing happening is just as likely as something, but Rizzo has a track record of late January/early February moves. On February 2 of 2012 Mike Rizzo in a surprise move signed Edwin Jackson to a pillow contract. He provided the soft place for him to land as he hadn’t found the long term deal he was looking for. Edwin Jackson in 2012 was very much Edwin Jackson. He was inconsistent pitching either shutout or a blow-up, but he provided the Nationals with 189 2/3 innings they would’ve had a hard time filling without him.
Fast forward to January 18, 2013 and the Nationals are still looking for what everyone believes to be a left handed reliever to replace Sean Burnett. Instead Mike Rizzo gives Rafael Soriano’s agent a call and signs him to a two year $28 million deal. Soriano was the best remaining free agent reliever on the market and the Nationals had an opening in the bullpen. The move pushed relievers like Storen and Clippard into set-up roles and looked to improve the Nationals bullpen more than a 1/3 of an inning LOOGY would’ve. It didn’t end up working out that way but that has more to do with the struggles of Drew Storen, Henry Rodriguez, and Zach Duke than Rafael Soriano.
January isn’t limited to pitching moves for Mike Rizzo and the Nationals. He signed Adam LaRoche on January 7 of 2011 and January 8 of 2013, and traded Michael Morse on January 16, 2013. These moves go somewhat hand and hand and really weren’t surprise moves, but it does show that if a position player remains on the market that makes sense or that a trade comes along that makes sense Mike Rizzo will make it late in the off-season.
This off-season has had a weird flow. It went into a frenzy the week before the Winter Meeting and then slowed to a crawl with something like only seven major league deals being handed out since early December. Almost none of the pitchers have been signed and most of the players that turned down a qualifying offer remain. It doesn’t make sense for the Nationals to sign any of the players that are attached to a qualifying offer. Stephen Drew would make a lot of sense as a super utility player and has a connection to Mike Rizzo but you don’t give up a first round pick to sign a utility infielder, and the same can be said for Kendrys Morales as a bench bat.
If there is a position player that remains that makes sense for the Nationals to sign to a major league deal I don’t know who it is. The move that does make sense is to sign a pitcher. The Nationals look set in the starting rotation. A front four of Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Fister is very strong and there are enough bodies fighting for a fifth starts role that the Nationals will be able to make it through the season in that regard as well. The pitching weakness comes in the bullpen. Soriano, Clippard, Storen, Stammen, and Blevins are five good relievers if they all play up to their abilities and stay healthy but that never happens in baseball.
The bullpen depth is slightly sketchy with the final two spots going to some combination of Cedeno, Mattheus, Garcia, Ohlendorf, Roark, and Karns. Ross Detwiler, who is as of right now likely to be the fifth starter, has solid numbers as a reliever with a career 1.11 ERA in 32 innings of relief. It is a very small sample size, but it is a role that Detwiler could excel in, and it could be a role that helps him to stay healthy. Getting Detwiler into the bullpen would require the Nationals to sign a starting pitcher better than Ross Detwiler and there are a few out there. The most obvious being Masahiro Tanaka. Nothing has been rumored about the Nationals and Tanaka so that would definitely be a surprise but it is far more likely that the surprise move would be a one year contract to someone like Matt Garza, Bronson Arroyo, or AJ Burnett. If that isn’t a route the Nationals want to go down they could also sign Grant Balfour or Fernando Rodney directly for the bullpen.
It is late in the off-season and lots of free agents still don’t have homes. At some point their price has to drop to a point that makes sense for Mike Rizzo to make an offer. Any move that makes the team better is a good move after all and improving the bullpen either by signing a starter and pushing Detwiler into the pen or by directly signing a reliever would certainly improve the team. What also shouldn’t be discounted is both Drew Storen and Danny Espinosa are still Nationals. Both were thought to be trade candidates when the off-season started and both could still be traded. With the way Mike Rizzo operates nothing can be discounted, and a surprise move is just as likely as no move. The only thing at this point is to wait and see and hope something interesting happens before pitchers and catchers report on February 13.