Rizzo, the Nationals and the Boras effect

A week from today, I’ll wake up in San Diego, head to the media workroom and be ready for the first official day of baseball’s annual Winter Meetings. Unless, of course, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo gets a head start on the fun and announces something Sunday night, as was the case in 2010 when the Nats snagged outfielder Jayson Werth before the press conference dais had even been finished. But that’s why I’m arriving in San Diego at midday Sunday. Just in case.

In the ensuing three days, I’ll make countless trips between the workroom (a large ballroom full of long, draped tables) and the main hotel lobby, which is the focal point of the Winter Meetings. In fact, I’m tempted to get a pedometer to count the steps. Reporters will mill around and chat up agents, team officials, each other and the occasional player. Baseball’s largest happy hour will commence every evening while ESPN and MLB Network battle to make sense of the day’s activity and predict what might happen tomorrow and beyond. We’ll all be looking for any shred of a nugget about the teams we cover, anything to satiate the curious fans back home, those ravenous for any rumor, regardless of how unsubstantiated or farfetched.

This year, I honestly think there will be some significant action at the Winter Meetings (unlike other Decembers where we sat in the workroom and stared at the large but empty press conference dais for most of the four days). This year’s weaker free agent crop combined with rising player salaries makes swaps more likely. And major league GMs have already been busy wheeling and dealing (see: Black Friday trade that sent third baseman Josh Donaldson from the A’s to the Blue Jays for infielder Brett Lawrie and several prospects).

It won’t be like the old days, though. As a kid, I rushed home from school to get the 4:45 p.m. sports report on the local radio station, where the major moves du jour were reported (for the minor transactions, we had to wait until the next morning’s paper or even the following week’s arrival of the Sporting News). There was no 24/7 news cycle, around-the-clock cable TV coverage or Twitter. Heck, even the general managers utilized some unusual tactics, like the time when White Sox executives Bill Veeck and Roland Hemond set up a table in the hotel lobby with a hand-scrawled “Open for Business” sign. Don’t laugh - that ploy in 1975 resulted in the White Sox making six trades involving 22 players over the final three days of the confab in Hollywood, Fla.

RizzoHoodieSidebar.jpgRizzo will be his usual cagey self, sequestered in his suite at the Manchester Grand Hyatt where he will conduct most of the team’s business. I think this is when Rizzo is at his best, when he can be as circumspect as he wants without interference or unnecessary judgment. There’s little criticism levied when fans eager for a move or two understand that it’s not to your benefit to broadcast your intentions. Under the radar sometimes works.

What’s Rizzo looking for? Like most years, he’ll look to beef up his bench and bullpen. When you’ve won two National League East titles in three years, sometimes the smaller moves are the kind that put you over the hump. With players like pitchers Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann, and shortstop Ian Desmond a year away from free agency and not a lot of recent conversation on multiyear contract extensions, it’s a good bet Rizzo will at least listen to rival executives hoping to pry away one of his stars. But they won’t come cheap; think at least one major league-ready player and a couple of decent prospects in return.

Free agency, anyone? Rizzo would be a fool not to at least explore the possibilities of guys like pitchers Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields. You can never have enough pitching, right? Think of it as Rizzo doing his due diligence, because getting a read on those free agents helps the GM more realistically value his own players. And pinpointing value ahead of time can sometimes be the key factor in trade talks and free agency negotiations. Keep in mind that the market sets and resets, so it’s incumbent on a GM to stay abreast of the changing landscape. That’s how mystery teams make their presence felt. It’s less about sweeping in at the last minute and making a move no one predicted, more about staying engaged with what’s happening and reacting appropriately.

It’s no secret that the Nats have been linked to Scherzer, since Rizzo was running the Diamondbacks’ draft when Arizona selected the right-hander with the 11th overall pick in 2006. Scherzer’s agent is Scott Boras, who reps a slew of current Nats (outfielders Werth and Bryce Harper, infielders Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa, and pitcher Stephen Strasburg). While other teams hate dealing with Boras, the Nats have a reputation of being able to work with one of baseball’s toughest negotiators. And part of that ability to hash out deals with Boras lies with understanding who they’re dealing with.

Boras isn’t unlike any other agent or representative in that he wants to extract the best possible deal for his clients. It’s really simple baseball math: The best deal means a happy player who goes to a team where he’s wanted (and if it has the added benefit of also being the most lucrative deal, that means more money in Boras Corporation coffers).

When he makes his annual appearance at the Winter Meetings to meet with reporters, Boras is swarmed by writers, recorders and cameras. The bodies are five or six deep as arms stretch out in the vain hope that technology will pick up the superagent’s voice. You’d better hope the guy you’re pressed up against showered that morning. But even when he speaks softly, Boras is heard. He’s perhaps the most well-known agent in the business and what he says carries a lot of weight.

But Boras is no fool. He realizes there is often minimal benefit to getting deals done quickly based on artificial deadlines. Sure, if a client says he wants to have a deal done by Christmas Eve so he and his family can have plenty of time to plan for a new team and home, a deal is reached. But one of the reasons players gravitate to Boras is the agent’s knack for knowing just how long to stretch out negotiations in order to better benefit the player. In other words, a guy who signs in early January usually makes more money than a guy who signs, say, in early December in San Diego.

That was the course that Boras took in 2013 with former client Rafael Soriano. Few saw the two-year, $28 million deal Boras and Soriano struck with the Nationals. The Nats already had a closer in Drew Storen and a growing payroll. But Rizzo correctly read the market, realized that there was benefit to adding a veteran closer and chose to bolster his bullpen at the expense of Storen’s psyche.

Waiting out the market is nothing new. Ex-Nats GM Jim Bowden took until Feb. 1, 2009 to sign free agent slugger Adam Dunn to a team-friendly two-year, $20 million contract. What’s that old adage about good things coming to he who waits? Sometimes, a player gets antsy for a resolution or a team has an injury that necessitates a late roster addition. Some executives are more frugal and want to wait for the market to come to them. Either way, bargains are to be had as spring training draws nearer.

I’m surprised more representatives don’t follow the Boras model, elongating discussions into January - the Soriano deal was finalized on Jan. 17, 2013 - and altering the landscape. Baseball has always been a routine-oriented business. Maybe there’s a chance the routine will change.

While D.C. is definitely a Boras-friendly zone, he’s not the only thing on Rizzo’s mind as the Winter Meetings approach. Rizzo is like a chess master, thinking several moves ahead; he’s not just constructing his roster for 2015, but also thinking about 2016, 2017 and 2018, too. There’s nothing that says everything Rizzo wants to do has to be accomplished by the time the Nats brass departs San Diego after the Rule 5 draft a week from Thursday. In fact, I’d be surprised if Rizzo doesn’t look at the Winter Meetings as the real start of his busy season.

Rizzo is known for bold strokes (the Gio Gonzalez deal in December 2011 and the Soriano signing), but has also shown a propensity for the seemingly minor moves that pay big dividends (acquiring catcher Jose Lobaton from the Rays just as spring training started in February). Yes, he could do something during the Winter Meetings - he signed Nate McLouth last year in Orlando and righty Dan Haren the year before in Nashville - but he doesn’t necessarily have to.

Even if the Nats come home from San Diego empty-handed, which I don’t expect, it doesn’t mean they’re standing pat. These days, being a GM is a 365-day-a-year job, even if there’s more focus on your activities during a few days at the beginning of December.

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