Hits and misses: Rating Rizzo’s best and worst moves with Nats
We asked two former Nationals beat writers — Barry Svrluga and Adam Kilgore — plus the inimitable Thomas Boswell to name GM Mike Rizzo’s three best and three worst moves. There wasn’t as much overlap as expected, although there was a clear consensus for t
Thomas Boswell: Three best
1. Trea Turner and Joe Ross for Steven Souza Jr. and minor leaguer Travis Ott. We don’t know what the total value of Turner’s and Ross’s careers will be. But we seem to know that Souza is just a decent, strikeout-prone outfielder for a losing team. The upside of the potential of a .350-on-base-plus-slugging, 40-steal shortstop leadoff man who is the second fastest in MLB, plus a possible solid starting pitcher, too, is a total steal even if baseball or life somehow changes the outcome.
2. The Michael Morse trade. In a three-way deal, the Nationals gave up only Morse and got back A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen. Fans hated the trade, especially when Morse helped win Game 7 of the 2014 World Series for the Giants by driving in both the tying and the winning runs. Now Cole is the sixth-starter insurance policy and a long man; that has value. Treinen looks like a decent back-end-of-the-bullpen asset. Rizzo thinks Treinen can close under pressure, though I won’t believe that until I see it. In Treinen’s past 56 games, he had a 1.73 ERA, a .210 batting average against and a really good .588 OPS against. In theory, those are closer numbers — but he only has one career save. At 28, it’s time to do it if he can. If Rizzo had acquired a closer for 2017 and 2018 four years ago as a partial return for Morse, that certainly would be a big plus in the “In Rizzo We Trust” department. And Treinen is under team control for four more years.
3. A 17-way tie. The trade of all-star reliever Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos. Drafting Anthony Rendon at No. 6 overall in 2011 when five other idiot teams convinced themselves the best pure college hitter in a decade was too injury-prone. Tanner Roark also came aboard on Rizzo’s watch, when the Nats gave up second baseman Cristian Guzman despite averages of .328, .316 and .284 his previous three years. Rizzo got Roark; Guzman played only 15 more MLB games. There are 14 more, but my editor said to stop.
Adam Kilgore: Three best
1. Turner and Ross for Souza and Ott. All Souza ever did for the Nationals was preserve Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter with an indelible diving catch and get traded for Turner and Ross. In other words, they should build a statue of him on Half Street. Turner’s first season suggested he could become an MVP candidate, and Ross seems like a stable part of the rotation for years to come. This was a fleecing, period.
2. Doug Fister for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol and minor leaguer Robbie Ray. The baseball industry had trouble processing the deal at first, emitting two primary reactions: Wait, Fister was available? And is that really all it took to get him? Ray has blossomed into a legitimate MLB starter, and Fister flamed out in his second and final season in Washington. Still, Fister may have been the best pitcher on a 96-win division champion.
3. Acquiring Ramos for Capps: The real genius of this move was targeting Capps in free agency, knowing he could rack up saves and become a trade target on a team that wouldn’t need to preserve close games in the second half of the season. The Nationals signed Capps on the cheap to be their closer entering 2010. Capps posted an all-star first half based almost entirely on his save total, and the Nationals leveraged his performance at the deadline by spinning him for Ramos. Capps had a decent stretch for the Twins and made little impact thereafter. All Ramos did was give the Nationals six years of solid performance, albeit limited by injury.
Barry Svrluga: Three best
1. Souza and Ott for Turner and Ross: This is an absolute heist, one that stunned other general managers when it broke and one that any GM would want on his résumé. At its core are, of course, the players involved: Souza, an outfielder who is best known here for securing Zimmermann’s season-ending no-hitter in 2014 with a spectacular diving catch but has gone on to rank second in all of baseball in strikeout rate (33.9 percent) in his two years with Tampa Bay. Turner was electric in his 73-game rookie season last year, hitting .342 with 33 steals, and he appears to be the shortstop for infinity. And Ross will be in the rotation again. But what further separates this move as Rizzo’s signature (with an assist to assistant Bob Miller) is the creativity involved, inserting himself as the third team in a brewing deal between Tampa Bay and San Diego — and finding a loophole that allowed Turner to be included even though he had been drafted and signed less than a year earlier. That changed a major league rule (players now can be traded in the offseason after they’re drafted rather than a year later) — and changed the Nationals’ future.
2. Capps for Ramos: This one is perfect for a rebuilding team. Capps was an all-star closer on a last-place team, the very definition of a movable part. Ramos was a catcher on the rise, a building block for the future — who ended up becoming a part of three division champions. Textbook franchise building.
3. Alex Meyer for Denard Span: This rates because it was a risk — the 6-foot-9, right-handed Meyer was a top prospect — and because it addressed what had been two uncertain positions for the Nationals since they came to Washington: leadoff hitter and center fielder. Span’s 2014, in which he led the NL with 184 hits, almost made the deal worth it by itself. Meyer made only 11 major league appearances with Minnesota before he was traded to the Angels in August.
Thomas Boswell: Three worst
1. Trading Robbie Ray. David Schoenfield of ESPN took a stab last month at predicting the next player from every franchise who would be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Most of his selections were famous. Ray was his choice for the Diamondbacks. A 2010 Nationals draft pick, Ray was traded with Ian Krol and Steve Lombardozzi to the Tigers in 2013, then traded to Arizona in 2014. Ray struck out 218 in 1741/3 innings last season — in a hitters ballpark. We will see.
2. Trading Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning for Adam Eaton. Eaton checked all the boxes for Rizzo, but the biggest was probably flexibility in roster construction this season and next. Despite Eaton’s front-office-friendly deal, what has that flexibility produced? Nothing yet. Meanwhile, Giolito looked like a teachable back-end-of-the-rotation starter. And if you can’t turn Lopez into, at least, a fine setup man, you aren’t even trying. And he might be really good.
3. The Jonathan Papelbon deal. Rizzo looked at the numbers, the past performance and the bullpen’s desperate need and overlooked what a jerk the guy had been at every stop. This move didn’t top the list only because Papelbon helped the Nationals turn a bad season into an awful one, making it easier to get rid of manager Matt Williams.
Adam Kilgore: Three worst
1. The Papelbon deal: There is some hindsight to this one. The Nationals needed relief help at the 2015 deadline, and Papelbon came from Philadelphia with unquestioned on-field credentials. But it could not have been more of a disaster. Papelbon’s performance was shaky, and his presence caused Drew Storen’s tailspin, which culminated with Storen breaking his hand on a locker. Oh, and Papelbon also choked MVP Bryce Harper in the dugout, a vivid symbol of the Nationals’ dysfunction at the time.
2. Hiring Matt Williams: Rizzo bet on his own judgment in pegging Williams, a managerial novice, to lead a contender. It was a colossal mistake. The Nationals won 96 games in 2014, but Williams’s missteps, particularly in Game 4 on the National League Division Series, contributed mightily to their loss to the Giants. In 2015, Williams oversaw the total collapse of a World Series favorite. Rizzo at least recognized his error and sought a candidate with experience in 2016, landing eventually on Dusty Baker.
3. Not giving pitcher Edwin Jackson a qualifying offer: In the first year of the qualifying-offer system, the Nationals let free agent Edwin Jackson walk in 2012. That was a good decision — Jackson would sign a four-year deal with the Cubs, and during the contract he effectively pitched himself out of the league. But not giving him a qualifying offer cost them a draft pick. Jackson had fired his agent, Scott Boras, during the season after signing a one-year deal. The chances he would have taken another one-year deal seemed nonexistent. It was a simple strategic error that cost the Nationals a value asset they could have acquired at minimal risk.
Barry Svrluga: Three worst
1. Trading for Papelbon: This deal developed directly because Rizzo no longer trusted Storen, who had blown Game 5 of the 2012 division series against St. Louis and Game 2 of the 2014 division series against San Francisco. But Storen, at the time of the trade in 2015, had a 1.73 ERA, had held hitters to a .212 average and had converted 29 of 31 save opportunities. Had Rizzo been able to trade for, say, Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel, Storen could have tipped his cap and stepped aside. But Papelbon’s stuff was deteriorating by that point. And the lasting image of that season is Papelbon’s hands around Harper’s throat. Whoever was at fault, that trade — even for a Class A pitcher — didn’t work.
2. Hiring Williams: It’s important to point out that Williams was named the National League manager of the year in 2014. But it’s also important to remember that the Nationals job, headed into 2014, was as attractive a position as there was in the sport, and it didn’t have to be handed over to a novice. Rizzo wanted discipline after Davey Johnson’s loosey-goosey style, but he failed to recognize that Williams — who was tense and rigid as a player — would be tense and rigid as a manager. He butchered the 2014 playoffs and lasted two seasons.
3. Heading into 2017 with no established closer: This is predictive, for sure. But this is a team that is otherwise set up to win, and entering with either Treinen or Shawn Kelley to close — after failed runs at Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen — sends a lousy message to the clubhouse. Rizzo’s attitude: Just do your job. But if whoever wins the closer’s job falters early, players will wonder whether Rizzo did his.
Landing Trea Turner in a trade was a steal for Rizzo and the Nationals.
Jonathan Papelbon’s tenure in Washington did more harm than good.