Friday, October 16, 2015

Hot Stove Outlook: Washington Nationals

Okay, Nationals fans, what conclusions can we draw from this season's massive disappointment? The Nats were supposed to win 100 (or more) games, but instead scuffled around at .500 and finished a distant second in the National League East. To add insult to injury, their last regularly scheduled home game featured a mid-season trade acquisition attempting to throttle their 22-year-old MVP. Lots of questions surround Washington this winter, especially after Washington Post reporter Barry Svrluga wrote a three-part expose on the season, culminating with an absolute torching of (now former) manager Matt Williams. Why don't we take a look at some of them?

Who should be the next manager?
There were reports that the Nationals have interviewed Dusty Baker, and would like to interview Ron Gardenhire and Bud Black as well. Baker has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in several stops that he can't be trusted with young starting pitchers, so a team with Stephen Strasburg, Joe Ross, and Lucas Giolito shouldn't touch him with a radiation suit on. Beyond his mishandling of a pitching staff, Baker subscribes to the outdated theory that you should bat fast guys at the top of the lineup, regardless of their ability to actually get on base. He would probably have Michael Taylor and Trea Turner bat first and second, despite the former's sub-.300 OBP and the latter's inexperience. The bottom line is, the Nationals are too talented a team to entrust to a baseball Luddite like Baker.

Gardenhire and Black are both good enough options; both had to make chicken salad out of chicken shit for years in Minnesota and San Diego, respectively, and Black has the added bonus of being a former pitching coach who has received plaudits for his ability to handle a staff. Gardenhire's Twins teams consistently fielded well and minimized mistakes in the field and on the basepaths, two characteristics that would be welcome for Nationals fans accustomed to brain farts and botched plays. I like Black a little better because of his pitching acumen and because he fared well enough in a division (the NL West) with two traditional behemoths in the Giants and Dodgers.

Should Mike Rizzo be fired?
A lot of Nationals fans I know have been calling for Rizzo's head since the Papelbon trade turned out so disastrously, but let's look at the whole body of work. Rizzo has been the general manager for seven seasons now (since March 2009), and in that time has made plenty of moves that have set the Nationals up well for some level of long-term success. For starters, let's look at all of the major trades that Rizzo has made, ignoring those where no obvious talent was given up or acquired.

6/30/09 - sent reliever Joel Hanrahan (MLB) and outfielder Lastings Milledge (MLB) to the Pirates for reliever Sean Burnett (MLB) and outfielder Nyjer Morgan (MLB): The exchange of outfielders here was something of a "my garbage for your trash" trade, as both were head cases who had worn out their respective welcomes. Burnett was a key southpaw reliever for the Nats through their first divisional championship in 2012, while Hanrahan was an excellent closer for two years with the Pirates before imploding in Boston in 2013.

7/31/09 - sent reliever Joe Beimel (MLB) to the Rockies for pitchers Robinson Fabian (A) and Ryan Mattheus (AAA); also sent first baseman Nick Johnson (MLB) to the Marlins for pitcher Aaron Thompson (AA): These deadline giveaways from a terrible team (the Nationals finished 59-103) netted Mattheus, another key member of the bullpen in 2012.

7/29/10 - traded reliever Matt Capps (MLB) to the Twins for pitcher Joe Testa (AA) and catcher Wilson Ramos (MLB): Aha, now we're getting somewhere! The Twins needed bullpen help for a playoff push, and Ramos was a highly regarded young catcher blocked by Joe Mauer, so he was shipped to Washington for closer Matt Capps, who pitched an inning against the Yankees that fall and two more seasons in the Twin Cities. Ramos, of course, is still the Nats' starting catcher, and is under team control through next season.

7/30/10 - traded infielder Cristian Guzman (MLB) to the Rangers for pitchers Ryan Tatusko (AA) and Tanner Roark (AA): A legitimate steal. Guzman hit .152/.204/.174 for Texas and didn't make the postseason roster, retiring after the season. Roark, meanwhile, reached the majors two years ago and has provided more than seven bWAR since; he won't be a free agent until after the 2019 season.

2/2/11 - traded outfielder Justin Maxwell (MLB) to the Yankees for pitcher Adam Olbrychowski (A+): After signing Jayson Werth, the Nats must have figured they didn't have room to keep Maxwell as an extra outfielder; he's since bounced around the majors as a useful fourth or fifth outfielder for the Astros, Royals, and Giants. Olby, meanwhile, who was our Tuesday starter at Pepperdine my senior year, never advanced past high-A ball.

12/23/11 - traded pitchers A.J. Cole (A), Tommy Milone (MLB), and Brad Peacock (MLB), and catcher Derek Norris (AA) to Oakland for pitchers Gio Gonzalez (MLB) and Robert Gilliam (A+): This was really the first trade Rizzo made with an eye toward contending immediately, as he gave up four of the more highly regarded young players in the system to get Gonzalez, who rewarded his decision by being the Nats' best pitcher in 2012 when they won 96 games. He has since regressed to above average, but has still given the Nationals 12.3 bWAR. Norris had three seasons of heavy part-time duty in Oakland before getting traded to San Diego last winter, where he is now the everyday catcher. Milone is slightly better than a replacement-level pitcher with the Twins these days. Peacock never harnessed his stuff, and is now a reliever in Houston. Cole, meanwhile, actually came back to Washington in a later trade.

8/3/12 - traded catcher David Freitas (A+) to Oakland for catcher Kurt Suzuki (MLB): Needing a more competent bat down the stretch than Jesus Flores (.213/.248/.329 after Ramos was lost to a torn ACL in May), Rizzo sent a catching prospect for an actual catcher, who provided the necessary offense (.267/.321/.404). Freitas is now with the Orioles' AAA affiliate.

11/29/12 - traded pitcher Alex Meyer (A) to Minnesota for outfielder Denard Span (MLB): the 6'9" Meyer was the Nats' top pitching prospect when they sent him to the Twins for Span, who was meant to provide strong defense in center field and be a prototypical leadoff man. He did both those things in 2013 and 2014 before losing most of this season to various injuries. Meyer finally reached the majors this fall, but struggled all year in AAA Rochester.

1/16/13 - traded outfielder Mike Morse (MLB) to Seattle, received pitchers AJ Cole (A+), Blake Treinen (A+), and Ian Krol (AA) from Oakland in a three-way trade: Fan favorite Morse was rendered superfluous by the previous trade, and Rizzo took the opportunity to restock the shelves with high-upside pitchers. Krol spent 2013 as a LOOGY in the Nats' bullpen before getting dealt to Detroit, while Treinen has spent much of the past two seasons bouncing between Washington and AAA Syracuse trying to harness command of his 98-mph sinker. Cole pitched briefly in the majors this year, but has been blocked by the bounty of starters in Washington; he should be in line to compete for a rotation spot in the spring, and he's still just 23.

12/2/13 - traded pitchers Robbie Ray (AA) and Ian Krol (MLB), and infielder Steve Lombardozzi (MLB) to Detroit for pitcher Doug Fister (MLB): Fister was perhaps the best Washington starter in 2014, so getting him for a LOOGY, a spare part, and a AA pitcher was a big win. Ray, now with Arizona, was essentially a league-average pitcher this year, but he was no more than the third-best Nats pitching prospect at the time of the trade. Even though Fister was hurt and ineffective for much of this year, this trade still worked out well for Rizzo.

12/11/13 - traded outfielder Billy Burns (AA) to Oakland for pitcher Jerry Blevins (MLB): Blevins was acquired to shore up left-handed relief, an area of weakness in 2013, and he was certainly capable last season. However, Rizzo traded him to the Mets in a fit of pique over a difference of $200,000 after Blevins took the team to arbitration this past winter. Burns, meanwhile, just finished up an excellent rookie season as Oakland's primary center fielder, but he was blocked in the Washington system by Michael Taylor and (at the time) Brian Goodwin. Still, slight loss for the Nats.

7/31/14 - traded infielder Zach Walters (MLB) to Cleveland for infielder Asdrubal Cabrera (MLB): Walters is essentially a AAAA shortstop who hasn't been able to hit at the major league level, and Rizzo was able to shore up second base for a playoff stretch run with Cabrera, who then left as a free agent last winter. Still, the trade worked out well for Washington.

12/19/14 - traded pitcher Travis Ott (A) and outfielder Steven Souza (MLB) to Tampa Bay; received pitcher Joe Ross (AA) and infielder Trea Turner (AA) from San Diego: This trade was an unqualified success; Souza was an old-for-his-level spare part, and Ott is a lottery ticket. Ross was a huge help this season when Fister and Stephen Strasburg were hurt/ineffective, and Turner, San Diego's first-round pick a year ago, reached the majors this year and has been pegged as the replacement for Ian Desmond at shortstop.

1/14/15 - traded pitcher Tyler Clippard (MLB) to Oakland for infielder Yunel Escobar (MLB): While Clippard's departure unraveled the bullpen and resulted directly in the Papelbon trade in July, any time you can trade a reliever for an everyday hitter who makes less money, you do it. Escobar exceeded expectations by having a career year with the stick, and apart from Harper was the only regular to meet or exceed offensive expectations in 2015.

7/28/15 - traded pitcher Nick Pivetta (AA) to Philadelphia for pitcher Jonathan Papelbon (MLB): And here we come to it, the one Rizzo trade that looks really bad, both at the time and in hindsight. Granted, they got Papelbon for nothing substantial, but there were always more risks than rewards in this deal.

So should one poorly conceived trade doom Rizzo to the chopping block? As is fairly evident from scrolling through the preceding list, he has done an excellent job getting a lot for a little, and in identifying which prospects needed to be kept and which could be deemed expendable. Of all the young players traded away during his tenure, so far only Norris looks like he might make Rizzo regret dealing him; that's a pretty great track record, and hopefully for Washington Rizzo will learn from his one major misstep this year and come out better in the end. They should keep him.

What other organizational moves need to be made?
Aha! Now we come to the crux of a major issue for the Nationals. The developmental staff has done a fine, if not Cardinals-esque, job in the minor league system, as several years' worth of graduated prospects and a still-strong farm system show. The scouting department has done its job well, too; eleven of the fifteen players taken in the first two rounds from 2007-2011 are in the majors, and five of those players happen to be Jordan Zimmermann, Strasburg, Harper, Rendon, and Storen. By and large, the baseball operations department has done a stand-up job under the Lerner family, especially once Rizzo took the reins.

Where they have struggled, however, and most notably this year, is in the training room. The plural of anecdotes is not data, but I cannot recall a team in all my years of following baseball closely that had as many secondary injuries as the Nationals did this year. What do I mean by secondary injuries? I mean that guys who get hurt are either being rushed back or rushing themselves back, and get re-injured, either in the same area or somewhere else on their body because they're not ready to play every day or pitch every fifth. Alternatively, injury timelines keep getting stretched further and further out, either because of issues cropping up during the rehab process or initial misdiagnoses. Take a look at the prominent Nationals who were injured this year:

Anthony Rendon - Last year's NL Silver Slugger suffered a sprained MCL during spring training that was supposed to only keep him out for four to six weeks. Towards the end of those four to six weeks, he was diagnosed with a strained oblique, and didn't make his first appearance until June 4th (and didn't start hitting until about three weeks after that). Rendon wound up playing in just eighty games and never quite looked like himself, with a measly .363 slugging percentage and a career-high strikeout rate.

Jayson Werth - The Wolf of First Street had shoulder surgery last winter and clearly wasn't right early in the year; he was hitting a putrid .208/.294/.287 when he broke his hand getting hit by a pitch in San Diego and went back on the shelf for two and a half months. He also never fully recovered, hitting .221/.302/.384 in 88 games, his worst season since he became a full-time player in 2004.

Doug Fister - The soft-tossing righty suffered a forearm strain early in the season (often a precursor to Tommy John surgery), spent a month on the disabled list, and looked basically nothing like the worm-burning machine of the past four years, as he lost his rotation spot in early August to Joe Ross making just ten appearances out of the bullpen over the final two months.

Stephen Strasburg - Last year's Opening Day starter sprained an ankle in March, favored it when he came back (too soon, of course), and pitched horribly as a result; he had just one quality start in the first two months before hitting the disabled list at the end of May, with his ERA at 6.55. He made three promising starts when he returned three weeks later, except that he exited the third one in the fourth inning after straining a back muscle. This time he waited until he was fully healthy to come back, and when he did in early August he was positively electric; 92 punchouts in 66 innings (12.5 K/9) across his final ten starts, against just eight walks and 42 hits for a 0.75 WHIP and 1.90 ERA, while opposing batters managed a feeble .179/.206/.306 slash line, worse than some pitchers. Given that his delivery requires more or less perfect synchronization of all the moving parts, why was he rushed back/did he rush himself back on that bum ankle?

Ryan Zimmerman - Moving Zim to first was supposed to a) keep his bat (career 119 OPS+) in the lineup and b) prevent him from exposing his scattershot, surgically repaired right shoulder as a third baseman. Instead, he struggled out of the gate as he usually does before plantar fasciitis got the best of him in early June, knocking him out for seven weeks. He came back late in July and played a little better, particularly in late August, but then a strained oblique cost him the final 25 games. In all, he played in 95 contests, hitting a very subpar .249/.308/.465.

Denard Span - The Nats' leadoff man and center fielder began the year on the DL thanks to off-season core surgery (a sports hernia), but came back in mid-April and was his usual self (.304/.367/.430) before back spasms sent him back to the disabled list in early July. He returned for two games (August 25 & 26, incidentally the only two games that the regular lineup played together all year) before going down for the year with season-ending surgery on his hip labrum.

All six of those players were expected to be major contributors to the 2015 Nationals, but the four position players combined to miss 324 of a possible 648 games (exactly half) and the pitchers lost eighteen starts between them. In each case they either came back when they weren't healthy or had their return slowed by a second injury (or in Span's case, a third). That means that there must be some sort of disconnect going on with the training staff. Either the players are not being honest about their bodies, or the trainers are doing a poor job in evaluating, treating, and rehabbing injuries. Honestly, it's probably a little bit of both, but given that the Nationals have a lot of injury-prone players on their team, major upgrades to either the training staff or the process that they use should be a focal point this winter in Washington.

What should be done with the four big free agents?
This is a fun exercise. Ian Desmond, Denard Span, Jordan Zimmermann, and Doug Fister are all free agents this winter. Desmond is the best shortstop available, Span is probably the best center fielder available assuming he heals well from his recent hip surgery, and the two pitchers are near the top of a robust crop of free agents at their position; Zimmermann probably slots in third or fourth behind Zack Greinke (assuming he opts out, which is likely), David Price, and possibly Johnny Cueto, while Fister is anywhere from the fifth to ninth-best starter on the market, depending upon one's feelings towards Yovani Gallardo, Jeff Samardzija, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Mike Leake.

The first step is deciding whom to give one-year qualifying offers (which this winter are going to be roughly $15-$16 million) to. Desmond and Zimmermann are no-brainers; Span and Fister raise more questions because of the injuries they suffered this year and the effect it had on their performance. Despite playing in only 61 games because of a variety of ailments, Span produced when available, hitting .301/.365/.431 and manning center field. I think the Nationals will give him a qualifying offer as well. Fister, meanwhile, never rebounded from the dreaded "forearm tightness" he originally suffered this spring; he ended the season with a 4.19 ERA in just over 100 innings between the rotation and the bullpen. If there is no lingering damage from the forearm strain, however, Fister has an excellent track record going back to 2011. Assuming the Nationals feel good about his health, I think they should give him the offer as well; no free agent has yet accepted a qualifying offer, and one more year of Fister wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. If he signs elsewhere before June, then the Nationals are looking at FIVE first-round draft picks (unless they give up their own to sign someone else). There's very little downside here.

Those first-round picks are huge. Getting five of them at once would allow the Nationals to do a couple different things. First, they could replenish their system with high-end talent after graduating several of their best prospects to the major league level. Second, they could grab a mix of polished college players and rawer high school players to ideally spread out the eventual impact to the major league roster. It would also allow the team to rebuild without intentionally losing to do so, like the Astros. It's an enviable position to be in for a team that has a winning record over each of the last four seasons.

Should they trade anyone away?
Yes. Storen's relationship with the club has deteriorated to the point where it is probably beyond repair, and he could use a fresh start somewhere else after a pair of very public demotions and some meltdowns in important games. He's probably in line to make somewhere in the $7-$8 million range next year, his last before free agency, but guys with closing experience who aren't overpriced will always draw interest. Rizzo will have a harder time finding a new home for Papelbon, at least without eating the majority of the $11 million he has coming in 2016. As detailed a couple of weeks ago, he may be a sunk cost, and it sounds like the Lerners were embarrassed enough by the incident that they are actively looking to move on from the volatile Papelbon. If they trade both, expect Rizzo to kick the tires on either Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel, although he's made it pretty clear that Turner and Giolito are off-limits as potential trade bait.

Apart from their two closers, there might be serious trade talks swirling around the infield. Oft-injured Ryan Zimmerman and the four years and $60 million remaining on his contract aren't going anywhere, and the onus will be on him to stay healthier next year. That leaves four everyday players for three infield spots: Rendon, Escobar, Turner, and Espinosa. Rendon may also be injury-prone, but there's no way you can even think about dealing away a guy who, when healthy, is the best third baseman in the National League. Turner offers six or seven years of team control and is expected to be a long-term fixture in the middle of the diamond. That leaves Escobar (due $7 million in 2016 with a $7 million team option for 2017, when he will be 34) and Espinosa (two years of arbitration remaining, made $1.8 million this year at the age of 28).

Espinosa turned his career around this year and really should be an everyday player, whether at shortstop or second base. His bat came back around this year to acceptable levels (.240/.311/.409), and his .310 wOBA (weighted on-base average) would have ranked seventh among all shortstops and fourteenth among second basemen if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. With his excellent fielding skills, the Espinosa of 2011-12 and 2015 is a top-ten shortstop in baseball,* and he won't be a free agent until after 2017. That's a tremendous asset to have, and a team without an obvious answer at shortstop that wants to get better for the next couple years and would like an inexpensive option (the Rays and White Sox are both plausible options) could do worse than to inquire about Espinosa's availability. Additionally, he may request a trade if it becomes clear that he isn't going to be an everyday player; one of the more revealing quotes in Barry Svrluga's three-part expose of the 2015 season was one from Randy Knorr about how when Espinosa isn't playing every day, he's horrible to be around. That bears remembering. Escobar would be more of a one-year fix for a team that needs his bat without caring too much about his declining defensive skills, and would undoubtedly fetch less in a trade. Both guys are at a point where trading them now would be selling high, and if the return is something like, say, Jayson Werth's eventual replacement, the Nationals should pounce.

*The other nine, in approximate order: Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Troy Tulowitzki, Xander Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons, Addison Russell, Brandon Crawford, Jung-Ho Kang, and Jose Iglesias. You could maybe talk me into Didi Gregorius or Adeiny Hechavarria for that last spot.

Should the Nats chase any free agents?
Yes. But they should stay away from the big guns this winter and make some smaller, subtler changes to their roster than dropping a nine-figure deal in front of David Price or Jason Heyward or whomever. Remember, even though the Lerners are among the wealthiest owners in baseball, they have major decisions to make in the next couple years regarding their own young stars, in particular Harper and Rendon. They're not the Dodgers, with essentially infinite resources, especially not with the local television situation still unsettled (hopefully it will be taken care of this winter).

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the Nationals say goodbye to all nine of their impending free agents (the lesser five are Matt Thornton, Nate McLouth, Casey Janssen, Dan Uggla, and Reed Johnson), and that they trade at least one of Storen or Papelbon, and one of Espinosa or Escobar. That leaves them with the following likely 25-man roster, with a forty-man payroll somewhere in the $130 million range (down about $35 million from this season):

Catchers: Ramos, Lobaton
Infielders: Zimmerman, Rendon, Turner, Espinosa/Escobar, Difo, Robinson
Outfielders: Harper, Werth, Taylor, Moore, den Dekker
Rotation: Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Roark, Ross
Bullpen: Storen/Papelbon, Rivero, Treinen, Carpenter, Stammen, Solis, Grace

There is a pretty solid core there, but it's a pretty weak bench considering how many regulars either have a history of being injury-prone (Ramos, Zimmerman, Rendon, Werth, and Harper all carry moderate to serious concerns in that department), or are inexperienced and may still go through some growing pains (Turner, Taylor). Toss in the possibility of Espinosa regressing to his 2013-14 self and it's possible that all eight position players could come with questions marks. Even if you eliminate Harper from that group now that he's proven what he can do when healthy, that's a lot of uncertainty in the lineup, which means that you want bench guys whom you can rely upon to approximate the value of an average regular if someone goes down. This past season, Robinson, Taylor, and Espinosa filled in admirably for the starters they replaced, but who does it this year? Difo probably needs another year in the minors to develop, Moore has proven pretty conclusively that he's a AAAA guy with some pop who doesn't help much in the field, and den Dekker's sudden September power surge may have been a fluke, given that he had one home run in two previous years with the Mets before hitting five for the Nationals after Span was lost for the season.

The rotation has one injury concern (Strasburg) and two guys who may find it a little more difficult to sustain their success through a full season in the rotation (Roark and Ross). A.J. Cole is sitting there in AAA Syracuse as another option (as is Taylor Jordan, although he is definitely a lesser option), and Lucas Giolito, the top pitching prospect in all of baseball,* is expected to be ready to debut in the majors by mid-summer. Still, a veteran innings-eater who would accept a minor league deal would probably be a good find for the Nats, to use in case of emergency. In the bullpen, the same questions remain as they did a year ago; namely, who the hell can the Nats trust in middle relief?

*Okay, so there's no such thing as a guarantee when it comes to pitching prospects. Still, Giolito is really freaking good.

With all that in mind, here are the needs that the Nationals should address first and foremost in free agency (or potentially via trade): an infielder who can handle shortstop, a fourth outfielder who can play center if necessary (the second part is somewhat less of a concern, given that both Harper and den Dekker are capable in that spot), a veteran starting pitcher to stash in Syracuse in the event that one or two guys in the rotation get hurt or become ineffective, a dependable set-up man, and a dependable LOOGY (Rivero's stuff and potential are too great to stuff into that role). Splurging for another big-name arm would merely stall the development of Ross, Cole, and Giolito, while dropping big bucks on a major bat would have the unpalatable effect of pushing a tenured veteran with an eight-figure salary (Werth or Zimmerman, for example) to the bench.

Who are some good targets to fill those holes? Let's start with the infield, where the Nationals could acquire a utility infielder and outfielder by signing the same player; Ben Zobrist. The two-time All-Star, who will be 35 in May, has played everywhere in the field except behind the dish, and has quietly been one of the most valuable players in baseball over the past six seasons. While his glove skills are eroding (he was once an elite defender at five positions), his bat has been consistently twenty percent better than league average since 2008; he can get on base and give you 35 doubles and 12-15 home runs over the course of a full season. His versatility means that no matter who gets hurt (except for the catcher), he can fit in somewhere, and at this stage of his career may be best suited to a super-sub role that gives him 110-130 games and 300-400 plate appearances. He's never made more than $7.5 million in a season, and going into his age-35 season, is unlikely to cost much more than that on an annual basis, if indeed that much.

Moving on to the outfield, if the Nationals feel that they need a fourth outfielder who can give them at least 100 quality games between pinch-hitting and the inevitable DL stint from Werth, the top two options to pursue are probably Chris Young (fresh off a .252/.320/.453 season in the Bronx at the age of 31) and Gerardo Parra (.291/.328/.452 between Milwaukee and Baltimore at 29). Parra may be looking for a firm full-time starting spot, but it never hurts to do the homework, and he would be an elite corner defender who could also play center and provide enough doubles power to stay in the lineup. Young, who can also handle all three outfield positions but isn't quite the gloveman Parra is, can provide somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 home runs a year in heavy part-time duty, and is a better base runner than Parra. Neither should be terribly expensive, and Young can probably be had on a two-year, $8-$10 million deal, similar to what Nate McLouth made over the past two seasons (much of which he sat out after shoulder surgery).

Funnily enough, the other Chris Young would appear to be the best option for an emergency starter to stash in Syracuse, with Chris Capuano, Dillon Gee, and Aaron Harang also good candidates. Finding an inexpensive LOOGY shouldn't be hard; possible signings include Manny Parra, J.P. Howell, Antonio Bastardo, Neal Cotts, and Sean Marshall. Elsewhere in the bullpen, if the Nationals want to a) stabilize the situation out there and b) earn back some goodwill from their fans and, more importantly, the clubhouse, an obvious option is staring them in the face through his goggles; Tyler Clippard. Clippard has been among the most consistent relievers in baseball since the Nationals moved him to the pen in 2009; he can generally be counted on for an ERA in the high twos, a strikeout per inning, and 70-80 appearances, mostly of the high-leverage variety. Beyond Clippard, some of the intriguing choices include Jonathan Broxton, Ryan Madson, Joakim Soria, or a flier on Neftali Feliz (still just 28!).

What's the big picture?
In the end, the Nationals have a lot of interesting decisions to make as they make a semi-transition from a core of Desmond/Jordan Zimmermann/Ryan Zimmerman/Werth to a younger crop of players headlined by Harper and Rendon (and possibly Strasburg, should they decide to keep him past 2016). Navigating that transition while attempting to both win now and build for the long-term future is a difficult balancing act, and Rizzo almost fell off the tightrope this summer when the Papelbon trade blew up in his face. However, his full track record indicates that he is capable of keeping the Nationals competitive (especially in what should again be one of baseball's weaker divisions), and that he can correctly identify young, inexpensive talent to replace aging pieces as needed. February will reveal a very different Washington Nationals team from the one that has had four straight winning seasons and two trips to the playoffs, but I would bet on them to keep themselves in a position to contend again.