LAS VEGAS - Even before he’d settled into his suite at the Delano Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, Nationals general manger Mike Rizzo had swiftly and decisively checked off most of the items on his offseason to-do list.
He’d bolstered the back end of his bullpen by trading with the Marlins for Kyle Barraclough and signing free agent Trevor Rosenthal to set up closer Sean Doolittle. He’d reworked his catching corps, signing free agent Kurt Suzuki for another tour in D.C. and obtaining Yan Gomes from the Indians. And last week, Rizzo got the frontline starter he wanted, spending big to land free agent lefty Patrick Corbin with a six-year, $140 million contract.
But that doesn’t mean Rizzo is resting on the comfy couch in his suite, raiding the minibar and watching the rest of Major League Baseball’s teams try to play catch-up to him. Quite the contrary.
The Winter Meetings are his nirvana, a time to observe and act, gameplan and try to outfox and outwork the competition. Not every action pays off immediately, and sometimes groundwork is laid months ahead of a deal being consummated.
“I think it’s the most vital part of a general manager’s season,” he said at the Winter Meetings on Tuesday afternoon. “You’re preparing the roster that’s going to take you through the season. There’s often ways during the season to tweak the roster and improve the roster, but this is the bulk of your decisions. Really, the bulk of the roster you have opening day takes you through the season. So I think this is a vital part of the offseason. The offseason’s for the players; it’s the on season for the front offices.”
In Rizzo’s world, it’s really never the offseason. Like a chess master, he’s got to anticipate and react swiftly, with multiple contingencies in place to thwart a rival executive who’s made a move. It’s not just thinking a move or two ahead. It’s more like a massive flow chart with different options based on infinite possibilities.
Take the Nationals’ quest for a left-handed reliever adept at retiring left-handed hitters. Right now, to hear Rizzo tell it, that search is low on the list of priorities. That may be posturing or it may be true. Rizzo isn’t letting on which, as it does him no good to broadcast every intention in a world where social media ensures no secret is kept for too long.
Maybe the Nationals make a move this week to fill that need. Maybe they don’t. It doesn’t mean Rizzo stops looking or that his scouts stop reporting on possible targets once spring training commences or the regular season begins. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.
Rizzo needs to always be reading the market. At present, the market is flush with trade talk - exactly what’s supposed to happen at the Winter Meetings. That’s a product of a logjam created by available free agent closers, whose signings will often dictate what other moves a team will make, and the fact that teams seem more willing at this point to see if they can engage in a mutually beneficial swap.
“At this time of the offseason, that’s often the case,” Rizzo said. “You have your handful of really good free agents that go off the board. You’ve got a couple of elite guys it’s going to take a little while longer (to sign). So I think that a lot of people do turn to the trade market to see what’s out there, and often, if they don’t want to give up what it takes in the trade market, they often go back to the free agent market.”
Whatever he does, Rizzo sometimes faces a now-or-later conundrum. Does he go out and get some competition for Sammy Solís, the guy the Nats would like to seize the role of matchup bullpen lefty, or does he wait and see if Solís struggles in spring training. By then, the options might be more limited.
If he goes with a tandem of Solís and Matt Grace to fill that need, how long a leash will they get in the regular season. Sometimes, Rizzo will make a move strictly out of need, like two seasons ago when he acquired Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the A’s to shore up a sagging bullpen. But waiting until a need becomes too obvious can often be counterproductive.
If a rival GM knows Rizzo is in desperate need of a left-handed reliever with a certain resume, the price will most likely go up. It’s Rizzo’s job to maintain as low a profile as possible to avoid driving up the cost of an acquisition.
Sometimes, a relatively minor move can pay big dividends at little or no cost. In 2014, needing a reliable lefty in the ‘pen, Rizzo put in a waiver claim on Matt Thornton, only to have the Yankees let Thornton go with no compensation. Thornton turned in 11 1/3 innings of scoreless ball during the stretch run and pitched in 60 games the following year with a 2.18 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. Not bad for an under-the-radar move no one saw coming.
Rizzo walks a fine line between being proactive and reactive. And like all executives, he trusts his gut as to when might be the proper time to make a move.
Hence his insistence this week that filling that southpaw void in the bullpen isn’t a priority.
“You could go out and attack and get everything that you think you need to start the season, but it’s often wiser to see what you have throughout the season and then make your adjustments as the season progresses,” he said.