Oct 12, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo on the field before game five of the 2012 NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Hot Stove: Washington Nationals Burnt?

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With all of the rumors and excitement that is the Hot Stove time of year, I want to sound a note of caution to Mike Rizzo, the Nationals organization and Nats fans.

Let’s not forget that the team can get burned by that hot stove.

Let’s face it–the Nats got burned by the Hot Stove last year. Rizzo’s three main moves, trading for Denard Span and signing Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano, have not paid the expected dividends. Haren was a disappointment. The jury is still out on Span. Soriano had a 43 save year that felt like a downer at times.

The one thing Rizzo forgot, or thought wasn’t important, with the Span signing and the dumping of Michael Morse, was team chemistry. The addition of Soriano bumped Drew Storen from the closer role, putting him in the bullpen. It took all season for Storen to adjust. The subtraction of Morse meant the team lost its resident goofball. The team played tight for most of the year with the expectation of making the World Series weighing them down. There was no one in the dugout with the ability to joke around and loosen up the team the way Morse did.

Remember the bullpen members getting together to make a video of them reading selections from 50 Shades of Grey after Morse professed himself shocked at the content of the book, which his fiancee was reading? Hilarious. Remember Morse and his replay home run swing? How about the shaving cream sneak attacks? Singing “Take Me On” on MLB’s Intentional Talk Show? Remember Beast Mode? Remember smacking himself on the helmet after a home run, the samurai cobra snake and the 400 foot home runs? The first Nat to share the celebration with the fans when they won the division title?

This year, there were no bullpen guys goofing on something one of the players did. No memorable videos or interviews showing the Nats being relaxed or goofy. Even Gio Gonzalez’ electric smile seemed faded this year. The fact that Gio and Jayson Werth ended up in a screaming match in the dugout after an inning this year shows the amount of tension in the team in 2013 that was not there in 2012.

The team chemistry that existed in 2012 did not exist at the beginning of the 2013 campaign. Span plays a terrific center field, but his arrival shifted Bryce Harper to left field, which meant Harper was learning yet another position and the three main outfielders were having to learn to play together for the first time, a process that no one seemed comfortable with in the outfield until August. The team never seemed to be pulling for Soriano like they did for Storen. It was late in the year before Span started grooving a bit at the plate. Haren didn’t teach the young pitchers a thing (I hope).

This team did not really jell until August. By then it was probably too late to make the playoffs. The Nats were in the hunt until the end, which is amazing considering how badly they played from April to August.

Chemistry is a magic and difficult thing for a team to achieve. The manager and GM mess with that at their peril. Players aren’t mechanical parts. A team is not like a computer where you can upgrade your machine by swapping in better parts. Even if a new player is an upgrade, it may take some time for the team to feel comfortable with the new player and vice versa. Sometimes it never happens.

Span and the team are now comfortable with each other. Now I hear rumors that Span may be traded by the Nats. This may be risky. I suppose all moves ultimately are risky–nothing is guaranteed. I still have to question the wisdom of Rizzo changing any personnel on a team that had just won their division running away, other than not re-signing Edwin Jackson. Why Rizzo felt it necessary to mess with a winning team I still don’t understand. Not signing a left handed reliever after Sean Burnett left was the move Rizzo did not make that I don’t understand. Hopefully the signing of a left handed reliever (or two) is on Rizzo’s checklist for this Hot Stove season.

For the last two years, Rizzo went out and bought a veteran pitcher to be the number four man in the rotation. Neither Edwin Jackson nor Dan Haren produced the way they were projected. Both were supposed to be pitchers that could provide veteran leadership and solidify the fourth starter position and eat innings. Jackson did eat innings, but not much else was impressive about his one year stint with the Nats. Haren was very inconsistent, and was worse than expected.

It turns out there was a reason that neither of these pitchers were re-signed by their former teams.

Both the Angels (Haren) and the Cardinals (Jackson) had extended looks at both pitchers and decided to let them go. That should be a red flag to the next organization looking to sign a player that was just let go by their former team. Was it the payroll situation of the team, the fact that they had a cheaper alternative in the minors ready to come up, or did the team evaluate the player and decide that their performance was not likely to get better, and might get worse? Jackson did not pitch well for St. Louis in the post season. He was only 7-7 before being traded by the White Sox to the Cardinals. Based on past performance the Nats should have known they were getting a mediocre pitcher for a lot of money. Same holds true with Haren. Haren had been plagued by injuries, and went 12-13 with the Angels in 2012 with a 4.33 ERA. His performance was slightly worse for the Nats at 10-14 and a 4.67 ERA, but his numbers were not significantly different from one year to the next.

I for one am glad that the Dodgers have more money than sense these days. I love it when another team does something stupid, like sign Dan Haren to a $10 million one year deal after having a 10-14 year with Washington. The Nats let him go after one year, and the Dodgers did not get the message. What that means for the rest of the teams chasing pitchers is that one mediocre option just came off the market and will not make the Dodgers a better team. Have to love a decision by a NL rival who is shooting for the postseason.

Lets hope that none of the Nats Hot Stove moves elicit the same type of comments from other teams. Let’s also hope Rizzo gets that left handed reliever that the team needs.

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Tags: Hot Stove Mike Rizzo Washington Nationals

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