Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo isn’t afraid to be called heavy-handed. There’s never been anything subtle about his draft strategy, which is how he took players who spent at least some time as the consensus top pick in four consecutive seasons. He signed Jayson Werth for $126 million over seven seasons, at a time when the Nationals weren’t even in an immediate position to leverage the addition. He’s a name-brand guy, willing to pay what it costs to have established, impressive, talented players at every position on the field, if possible. He doesn’t aspire to the nimble, saber-sexy moves that draw so many positive headlines for executives like Billy Beane, Andrew Friedman and Theo Epstein. Rizzo’s principal gift, as a GM, is getting his man.
On Sunday night, he got Max Scherzer. The biggest free-agent prize of the winter, Scherzer will cost more than $200 million over seven seasons, but Rizzo reeled him in. Washington now has Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and A.J. Cole on its starting rotation depth chart for 2015.
Of course, it won’t stay that way for long. Cole will begin the season in Triple-A, even though he had 11 solid starts there to close 2014. And one of Strasburg, Zimmermann and Fister—with Zimmermann considered the hottest commodity and best candidate—is about to be traded. That’s what makes this a strange move, in one sense, for the Nationals. Scherzer might be among the five best starting pitchers in baseball, but even if one has considerable confidence in our collective ability to forecast pitching performances (which is a shaky faith, indeed), the gap between he and any of the three trade candidates is so small as to be completely swallowed by possible variance. In other words, this signing, this massive seven-year commitment that goes beyond anything anyone has ever done for a starting pitcher before, might not make the Nationals any better in 2015.
The point, though, is that they didn’t need to get better. The 2014 Nationals finished 17 games ahead of the Mets and Braves. In Pythagorean record, their edge was still 16 games. Using The Bill James Handbook 2015‘s Efficiency Wins—the expected winning percentage given the projected totals of runs a team should have scored and allowed, as opposed to their actual tallies—widens the gap all the way to 20 games. The Braves spent the winter disassembling, the Marlins ran in place and the Mets stood stock-still. Improved health will help New York rise toward the Nats, but they can’t reach them if Washington has anything better than its nightmare-scenario season. No team is safer at the top of its division.
However, Zimmermann, Fister, center fielder Denard Span and shortstop Ian Desmond reach free agency after 2015. Ryan Zimmerman is clearly past his prime, and although Jayson Werth has enjoyed a very successful run, he’s now turning 36 and rehabbing from off-season shoulder surgery. That confluence places the Nationals in a unique position. They’re clear contenders, and should be in win-now mode, but they also have an opportunity to get better for the long haul without hurting the current team. That’s what this move is. Signing Zimmermann or Fister to an extension would have been nice, and surely that’s not off the table altogether. Now, though, at least one of those arms can be traded to some team for a controllable, long-term asset, and the Nationals will move toward sustainability without denting their strong hopes of winning their division and playing into October for the third time in four years.
We’ll see what else comes down the pike. For now, keep in mind that Scherzer, while an impressive addition for Washington, represents a creative shifting of resources to balance present and future value, and not some all-in move on Rizzo’s part.Next post: Washington Signs Max Scherzer to Sure Up the NL East
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