The Washington Nationals—under the direction of General Manager Mike Rizzo—had another strong offseason in 2013-2014. As the team gears up for the 2014 campaign, here are the top five moves the team made this offseason and how they will affect the Nats in the upcoming season.
5. The Hiring of Manager Matt Williams:
Last year the Nationals underachieved in Manager Davey Johnson’s final season as skipper for the club. Johnson—who was known for his laid back nature—has been replaced by Matt Williams, a man with a different mantra. Williams is known for his organizational skills, his intensity, and his ability to connect with players. A five time all-star during his playing days at third base, Williams understands the trials and tribulations of a Major League Baseball season. Last year, Williams worked as the Third Base Coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Interestingly, Mike Rizzo and Williams know each other from when Rizzo was the Director of Scouting for the Diamondbacks and therefore have a strong working relationship. Camp under Williams has already taken on a more organized form than Johnson’s last year, and this new philosophy will hopefully help the Nationals start the year fast, which is something they were unable to do last year.
4. Trading for Left-Handed Reliever Jerry Blevins
A major hole in last year’s Nationals team was a lack of a reliable left-handed reliever. This is an important role in any major league bullpen because of the prominence of power hitting lefty sluggers in the league. A manager needs to be able to have a solid lefty in the bullpen to get a much needed out late in games. The Nationals went through a slew of mediocre southpaws in 2013 including the likes of Zach Duke, Ian Krol, and Fernando Abad. Rizzo addressed this flaw by trading speedy prospect Billy Burns to the Oakland Athletics for lefty reliever Jerry Blevins. In his six-year major league career, Blevins has held left-handed batters to a .224 average. Blevins joins former University of Dayton teammate Craig Stammen in a Nationals bullpen that looks to be stout in the upcoming season.
3. Trading for Catcher Jose Lobaton
From the beginning of the off-season Rizzo made it a point to find a solid back-up catcher to play behind starter Wilson Ramos. Ramos’ health is a concern, as he has never played more than 108 games at catcher in a season. Kurt Suzuki—last year’s back up—was traded away at the end of last season. Therefore, finding a solid backup for Ramos was an emphasis of the Nats offseason. After signing a couple of veterans in an attempt to fill the void, Rizzo traded relief pitcher Nate Karns to the Tampa Bay Rays for catcher Jose Lobaton. Lobaton has been the backup catcher for the Rays for three seasons and is an upgrade for Suzuki in many ways. Suzuki hit .232/.290/.337 in 285 at bats last year. Lobaton on the other hand, hit .249/.320/.395 in 277 at bats for the Rays and provides a better bat for both backup and pinch hitting situations. Furthermore, Rizzo believes that Lobaton has above average metrics on defense. If he can stay healthy—look for a breakout year from Wilson Ramos—but if he is unable to, the Nats are in good hands with Jose Lobaton behind the plate.
2. The Signing of Outfielder Nate McLouth
Last year, the Nationals were plagued by injuries to their starting corner outfielders and their lack of depth became apparent as a result. Bryce Harper played in only 118 games in 2013 and Jayson Werth logged 129. Last year’s fourth outfielder to start the year was Roger Bernadina, but he hit an abysmal .178/.247/.270 and was released by the team mid-year. Furthermore, the Nats lacked depth on their bench when it came to pinch hitters. Because of these issues, the Nats signed Nate McLouth to a two-year deal this offseason in a significant move to bolster their ranks. The 32-year-old McLouth hit .258/.329/.399 in 531 at bats last season for the Orioles. McLouth can also play all three outfield positions and is a solid pinch runner. He will be used to fill in for injuries and to give Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, and Denard Span breaks to keep them fresh throughout the year.
1. Trading for Starting Pitcher Doug Fister
In 2013, the Nationals had one of the best pitching staffs in baseball—finishing in the top 10 in ERA, Saves, and WHIP. Despite their statistical success, the teams 4th starter entering the year—Dan Haren—could not regain previous all-star form and was seen as a disappointment. In response, the Nationals traded two left handed pitchers and utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi for Doug Fister, a stalwart of the Detroit Tigers pitching staff. Fister—one of the top 10 starting pitchers in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) according to Fangraphs.com—is a huge upgrade in the Nationals rotation from Haren and still has two years left on his contract. In the past three years, Fister has the 20th best ERA in Major League Baseball. This gives the Nats four of the top 20 ERA pitchers in that time span. Unlike the other top starters in the Nats rotation, Fister does not throw hard, and his fastball averaged 88.8 mph last year. Fister is effective because of his control, curveball, and changeup. It will be interesting to see what he does in his first year in Washington with a solid defensive team behind him.
These moves don’t necessarily mean that the Nationals will be the team that won 98 games and the NL East crown 2 years ago. It does, however, put the team in a solid place for the beginning of the year. We will find out as we move through the year how much these moves will fully impact the team.