Looking Back At Washington’s Winter To Do List, Part One


Back in early October in one of the first posts that I wrote here at DoD, I tried to take a crack at what the organization’s To Do List might look like heading into the offseason. We’re about a week into Spring Training which means that at this point everyone has arrived in camp and the pitchers have started to throw live batting practice. It seems like a good opportunity to take a look back at how each item on the list was addressed.

1. Decide (or at least make an official announcement) on who will manage the team in 2012.

Four days after listing that as the first item on the team’s offseason To Do List I wrote a lengthy argument pitching Terry Francona as the team’s next manager. I witnessed Francona’s impact on the Red Sox first hand, living in the Boston area, and questioned whether Davey Johnson was the best option for the organization beyond 2012. Ultimately I think I knew, just like we all did at the time, that a decision had already been made regarding Johnson’s place with the team for 2012. There just hadn’t been a public announcement yet.

We all know how this one ended. By the end of the month Johnson was formally named as the team’s manager for the 2012 season. Since the announcement, we’ve barely written much about the decision because there hasn’t been much to say. Johnson’s picking up right where he left off last September and the optimism surrounding the team heading into 2012 continues to grow.

2. Assess the starting rotation. Is acquiring another option important enough to trade some of the younger prospects? Is free agency the better route? Or, will the in-house options suffice?

Perhaps I should have included an “all of the above” option here. First, the team dealt four prospects to Oakland for Gio Gonzalez. Next, they unexpectedly brought in Edwin Jackson on a one year free agent contract. Finally, Johnson and Rizzo both expressed a vote of confidence in John Lannan’s and Ross Detwiler’s ability to provide depth at the back end of the rotation.

Check. Check. And check.

It would seem the team felt strongly enough about their projected rotation that they elected to address it via all three methods. Gonzalez, who signed a contract extension before even being introduced to the Washington media, will help anchor the rotation for years to come alongside Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. The trio is under team control through at least the 2015 season. The cost to acquire him was high – three young pitching prospects in Brad Peacock, Tom Milone, and A.J. Cole plus catcher Derek Norris. Gonzalez is a strikeout throwing left-hander who should complement Strasburg and Zimmermann, both right-handers, well.

Jackson’s been an effective starter for the past few seasons, averaging nearly 200 innings a year with solid peripheral numbers. Yet, despite pitching in a number of locations there seemed to be a limited market for him this winter. A creative one year contract, in which he’ll earn $9 Million this year with an additional $2 Million payment in 2013, was enough to entice Jackson – yet another Scott Boras client to join the organization – to sign in Washington and join the team’s pursuit of a winning season and potential playoff birth.

We’re expecting a competition for the final spot in the rotation between Lannan, Detwiler, and Chien-Ming Wang. Early thoughts seem to indicate that Lannan or Wang could be the favorite here, in part because they are slated to make such higher salaries. It’s important not to forget that Detwiler is out of options. Parting with any of the three would not be an ideal option but it also isn’t an easy solution to fit them all within the 25-man roster. While the pitching situation has certainly strengthened this winter, it’s still a fluid situation moving forward.

3. Same as #2, just in reference to center field.

This is a very different situation from that of the starting rotation. And it was addressed in a very different manner.

Early on it started to seem evident that the team was not focused on making a major splash when it came down to center field. Pitching was the priority and the cost to acquire an impact center fielder appeared to be just too prohibitive. The team would have to look another direction for their answer.

First, they seemed to accept the fact that center field may best be addressed by a committee approach. There was no singular option available on the free agent market that fit into the organization’s anticipated budget that was worth pursuing with any degree of seriousness. Those options may exist next winter and the team was able to upgrade the roster elsewhere. In effect, they decided that center field could wait.

To address the committee approach, veteran Mike Cameron was the first option brought into a mix already populated by Roger Bernadina and the personally unappealing possibility of Jayson Werth sliding over from right field. Jason Michaels, Xavier Paul, and Brett Carroll were also brought into the mix on minor league contracts.

There was no true favorite to stand out among the group aside from Cameron, who faced a great deal of questions regarding his health (he’s 39) and his attitude after a rough 2011 season. But he instead opted to retire just days before pitchers and catchers were set to report for Spring Training. He chose to spend time with his family rather than compete for playing time in the Nationals outfield. Nobody can really blame him for making such a decision, but he does change the landscape of the competition for center field.

Late into the offseason Rick Ankiel would return to the organization on a minor league deal. His options also were limited this winter and with an uncertain situation facing the Nationals he knew he’d stand a chance at winning a fair share of playing time. With Cameron’s sudden retirement, those chances seem to have increased. We know what Ankiel brings to the table – strong defense, power potential, but an otherwise limited ability to get on base. He’s flawed, sure. What player isn’t? But we also know what kind of player he can be in the clubhouse, the community, and in center field. Later this season when Bryce Harper is ready for the Majors there is a good chance he loses playing time. But Ankiel’s versatility also helps his case for a valuable 4th outfielder and bench option.

4. Who’s on first? Namely, will Adam LaRoche be healthy enough to offer some sort of production in the lineup?

When LaRoche suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder last Spring, his loss for the season was minimalized by the offensive emergence of Michael Morse and the late season debut of Chris Marrero. But with another season under contract that will pay him $8 Million and his defensive limitations that keep him at first base, LaRoche has been the presumptive starter heading into camp this Spring.

Some wondered whether he could be traded this winter, but that never seemed like an option being considered by the Nationals’ front office. The simple fact remained that he’d need to prove his health before another organization would be willing to take a chance on him and that wasn’t going to happen if he couldn’t get into some Spring Training games. By all accounts, that should happen starting next week.

However, it would seem that LaRoche isn’t at full strength just yet. Swinging the bat doesn’t seem to be a problem physically. LaRoche has been hitting off a tee since arriving in Viera and is taking groundballs regularly in the field. He is still experiencing discomfort throwing the ball, which could prove to be a big problem moving forward. Until he’s been able to play in games consistently, there likely won’t be an answer to just how healthy he is. This means we might not know what to expect from LaRoche until just a week before the season is set to begin.

It would seem that there is a plan already in place to keep LaRoche on regular rest once the season does begin. Mark DeRosa will likely get a fair share of starts at first and I wouldn’t rule out Morse seeing a game at the position if needed. Marrero could be available by mid-summer, giving the organization more depth at the position as the season progresses.