Mul­ti­ple Choices Crowded out­field gives Na­tion­als op­tions

NL BASE­BALL

The Star Democrat - - SPORTS -

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. (WPNS) — On Mon­day af­ter­noon, stand­ing on a patch of grass un­der some palm trees among a throng of loi­ter­ing re­porters and base­ball de­ci­sion-mak­ers, Washington Na­tion­als Gen­eral Man­ager Mike Rizzo in­sisted his ros­ter doesn’t need more than some tweak­ing this off­sea­son. His goal every win­ter is to build a team he be­lieves is ca­pa­ble of win­ning 90 games. He be­lieves th­ese Na­tion­als are close to, if not al­ready at, that tar­get.

But Rizzo also said that a year ago. Then he nearly traded for Chris Sale, which would have cre­ated the scari­est troika of start­ing pitch­ers in re­cent his­tory, be­fore he set­tled on ac­quir­ing Adam Ea­ton, an un­der-ther­adar star, from the Chicago White Sox. Tweak­ing might be all that’s nec­es­sary, but his­tory shows tweak­ing is not Rizzo’s go-to win­ter pas­time.

Eleven months later — af­ter Ea­ton tore an an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment, af­ter Michael A. Taylor fi­nally cap­i­tal­ized when given a chance to play every day, af­ter Brian Good­win emerged as a le­git­i­mate big league player and af­ter Vic­tor Robles con­tin­ued his rapid rise — the Na­tion­als have a log­jam in the out­field, one

that Rizzo could pick from if he has the itch to go be­yond tweaks again. As cur­rently con­sti­tuted, the Na­tion­als’ start­ing out­field would be Ea­ton in left field, Taylor in cen­ter field and Bryce Harper in right field, Rizzo con­firmed Mon­day. But that’s if a game were played in midNovem­ber. Open­ing Day is in 4½ months.

“There’s a lot of things that can hap­pen,” Rizzo said.

One of those po­ten­tial things is, ob­vi­ously, a trade. In ad­di­tion to Good­win, Robles and the start­ing out­field­ers, the Na­tion­als have Andrew Steven­son and Rafael Bautista on the doorstep, and Daniel John­son and Juan Soto, two of their top 10 prospects, fur­ther down in the farm sys­tem. Washington is, by far, deep­est in the out­field.

“We like the out­field op­tions that we have, and they’re all good, tal­ented play­ers and a lot of them are young and cost-con­trolled, which is im­por­tant to us,” Rizzo said. “We feel that it’s an area of depth for us, but a lot of them are young and far­ther away. So we think we’re in a good po­si­tion.”

One way to po­ten­tially add, say, a front line, cost­con­trolled start­ing pitcher when you’re al­ready ap­proach­ing the com­pet­i­tive tax thresh­old is to make an out­fielder the cen­ter­piece of a trade pack­age. Why would the Na­tion­als want such an as­set af­ter their starters fin­ished with the fourth-best ERA in base­ball? Well, Rizzo has a his­tory of bol­ster­ing — or try­ing to — his start­ing ro­ta­tion when least ex­pected. He nearly landed Sale last year af­ter Washington fin­ished sec­ond in base­ball in starters’ ERA. He ac­quired Doug Fis­ter in De­cem­ber 2013 af­ter Washington fin­ished sev­enth in starters’ ERA and signed Max Scherzer to a $210 mil­lion con­tract a year later af­ter Washington fin­ished first in starters’ ERA. There was never a glar­ing need. The Na­tion­als pounced any­way.

This time, the Na­tion­als have a hole in the ro­ta­tion fol­low­ing Joe Ross’ Tommy John surgery in mid-July. Washington could fill it in­ter­nally with A.J. Cole or Erick Fedde. Or the Na­tion­als could go low-bud­get for a back-end starter type. Or they could hedge against re­gres­sion from their four­some of Scherzer, Stephen Stras­burg, Gio Gon­za­lez

and Tan­ner Roark by adding a top-of-the-ro­ta­tion tal­ent.

Robles, a 20-year-old five­tool phe­nom, won’t be the one moved if the Na­tion­als de­cide to go in that di­rec­tion. He is carved in the Na­tion­als’ fu­ture.

The out­field buildup has led to the as­sump­tion that Jayson Werth’s days as a Na­tional are likely over. The or­ga­ni­za­tion rec­og­nized the near in­evitabil­ity when it un­veiled a tribute video dur­ing the Na­tion­als’ reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale. Rizzo, how­ever, wouldn’t shut down the pos­si­bil­ity of a re­union with Werth, who turns 39 next May.

“I wouldn’t close the door on it,” Rizzo said. “I’ll leave it at that. . . . [It’d] have to fit into what we want to do, but I wouldn’t close the door on it.”

For it to “fit,” Werth would prob­a­bly have to agree to come back for a sig­nif­i­cant pay cut as a bench piece, the Na­tion­als would have to come to the con­clu­sion that Werth’s club­house pres­ence would off­set any de­fi­cien­cies in­escapably brought on by age, and the log­jam in the out­field would have to be thinned. For that to hap­pen, the Na­tion­als will likely need to make a trade. His­tory sug­gests that pos­si­bil­ity isn’t far-fetched.

TNS PHOTO

As cur­rently con­sti­tuted, the Na­tion­als’ start­ing out­field would have Adam Ea­ton in left field.

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