Nats face changes, start­ing at man­ager, but they should avoid mak­ing too many

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Thomas Boswell thomas.boswell@wash­ For more by Thomas Boswell, visit wash­ing­ton­

On open­ing day, the Na­tion­als seemed to have all the an­swers. On clos­ing day, they have tons of ques­tions. Arm­chair gen­eral man­agers will have fun think­ing about this mas­sive jig­saw puz­zle dur­ing the off­sea­son. But the Nats’ front of­fice and own­er­ship may have a months-long mi­graine.

Of all the Na­tion­als’ prob­lems, one of the big­gest is that their op­tions for ad­dress­ing those prob­lems are so tan­gled that the team may get swamped in the com­plex­ity of its al­ter­na­tives and act too rad­i­cally.

This is a team that needs a new man­ager. But the big­gest name— Cal Rip­ken, antsy in Aberdeen— is such a huge hero, yet with no man­age­rial ex­pe­ri­ence, that he could be ei­ther a dream or a night­mare. Rip­kens are stub­born. So is Gen­eral Man­ager Mike Rizzo. Scary movie?

The Nats also may de­cide to trade key re­liev­ers Jonathan Papel­bon and Drew Storen. Is a near-to­tal bullpen re­build nec­es­sary? If so, this is a year with few qual­ity free agent re­liev­ers on the mar­ket. If you don’t get a much-in-de­mand Joakim So­ria, then an ex­pen­sive trade may be the only al­ter­na­tive. Who says the teams with a prize, such as Craig Kim­brel in San Diego, will even make a deal?

As the ros­ter now projects, the Nats have only one ev­ery­day left­handed hitter— Bryce Harper. That would worsen a lop­sided lineup that, in 2015, saw righthanded start­ing pitch­ing con­stantly (a .483 win­ning per­cent­age go­ing into the week­end) while rarely get­ting to beat up on south­paws (.590).

Good left-handed bats are in short free agent sup­ply, too. And where would you put one? Those such as Ger­ardo Parra, who plays 150 games and whom Rizzo ad­mires, may not be in­ter­ested in a team that has Harper and Jayson Werth (two years, $42 mil­lion left on con­tract) en­trenched in the cor­ner out­field spots.

Also, the 2015 de­fense, by the Nats’ own eval­u­a­tion, was close to lousy. Werth, Yunel Es­co­bar and Clint Robin­son were all li­a­bil­i­ties at their pri­mary po­si­tions. Ian Desmond’s 27 er­rors— 20 more than any other Nat— will dis­ap­pear. But who goes where? Can Es­co­bar still be a short­stop? Shud­der.

The Nats’ great hope is that their 2015 crop of free agents is ex­cep­tional and roughly fits the gaps cre­ated by the de­par­ture of free agents De­nard Span, Desmond, Jor­dan Zim­mer­mann and fiz­zling Doug Fis­ter. Some­day, cen­ter fielder Michael A. Tay­lor, starter Joe Ross, re­liever Felipe Rivero and mid­dle in­fielder Trea Turner will prob­a­bly be first-rate play­ers. But will that be true in 2016?

With Max Scherzer and Stephen Stras­burg (1.90 ERA af­ter the all-star break) at the top of the ro­ta­tion, the Nats are still a go-deep-in-the-play­offs con­tender in 2016 if they cure enough of their headaches. But how hard can you push so many young play­ers un­der pen­nantrace pres­sure?

All these in­ter­lock­ing de­ci­sions could make any front of­fice go a lit­tle crazy. How will it im­pact the Nats, com­ing off a mor­ti­fy­ing year with a 90-yearold owner who wants to see a World Se­ries played in his home town? Nerves are raw af­ter the past two months, dur­ing which the Nats had 13 games with key ri­vals or old foes be­fore this week­end— the Mets, Giants and Ori­oles. They went 0-13.

In public, the Lerner fam­ily takes the long view and, gen­er­ally, acts along those lines, too. But it’s not easy for them. Base­ball makes them feel just as crazy as it does ev­ery other fan. The Lern­ers take ev­ery in­ning, al­most ev­ery at-bat, to heart, some­times pelt­ing oth­ers in the or­ga­ni­za­tion with in-game ques­tions or just a sense of alarmed con­cern.

The Lern­ers may be in­vis­i­ble to the public, but their de­sire to win is so in­tense— and their de­sire to re­verse dis­ap­point­ing sea­sons so strong— that, al­most out of the blue, they are ca­pa­ble of agree­ing to a $210 mil­lion con­tract in hopes of mak­ing ev­ery­thing right. Yet even this en­thu­si­asm for so­lu­tions, some­times of­fered by agent Scott Bo­ras, can lead to new prob­lems. The team ex­pended so many re­sources on Scherzer in Jan­uary that there was lit­tle front-of­fice flex­i­bil­ity left for fixes in July.

This will be the Lern­ers’ tough­est off­sea­son to show good judg­ment, re­spect their base­ball peo­ple and do enough but not too much. Yes, that’s hard. And it will be the rough­est win­ter for Rizzo, whose as­tro­nom­i­cal bat­ting av­er­age has been se­ri­ously dented by hir­ing Matt Wil­liams and trad­ing for Papel­bon. Now he’ll prob­a­bly have to swal­low some pride while re­work­ing the team he largely built.

The Nats have sig­nif­i­cant strengths. Few teams have a trio of stars to match Harper, Scherzer and Stras­burg. An­thony Ren­don, fifth for MVP in ’14, can’t have another half-in­jured, half-walk­a­bout sea­son, can he? And Ryan Zim­mer­man had the third-high­est on-base-plus slug­ging per­cent­age in the Na­tional League af­ter the all-star break.

To take pres­sure off a chronic heel in­jury, Zim­mer­man plans to work on a leaner physique over the win­ter with in­creased flex­i­bil­ity. In a smart de­ci­sion, he vows to play more con­ser­va­tively — like a slug­ger past age 30, not a kid div­ing ev­ery­where. “That may be hard,” he says. “I was taught to go 100 per­cent.”

In the wake of one of the most dis­as­trously dis­ap­point­ing sea­sons by any MLB team in re­cent years, the Nats should not for­get all their strengths and farm-sys­tem depth, in­clud­ing the top-rated pitch­ing prospect in the mi­nors, Lu­cas Gi­olito. There’s no need to panic.

Some prob­lems can be worked around. Per­haps Storen, who’s liked per­son­ally but no longer trusted as a ninth-in­ning post­sea­son op­tion, does not re­ally have to be traded. Af­ter his late-sea­son im­plo­sion, plus break­ing his pitch­ing-hand thumb in pique, both he and the Nats might be bet­ter off if they shared a hug and agreed that his walk year in 2016 might best be spent in the sev­enth or eighth in­nings.

First things first. The bill of par­tic­u­lars against Wil­liams is al­ready long enough to merit a new man. But add this: Since the all-star break, no one in base­ball has ap­peared in more games than the valu­able young Rivero (36 games through Satur­day), yet he also has been asked to get more than three outs 10 times in that span. Wil­liams has used him in ev­ery role: one out, one in­ning, two in­nings, pitch three days in a row? Sure, let Rivero do it.

If only all the Nats’ off­sea­son de­ci­sions were as clear as their first one. Once the Nats de­cide about their man­ager, their prob­lems may look less com­plex. But not by much. And not soon.

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