Rizzo on left-handed reliever search, Nats’ bench roles

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Local reporters met with Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo in his suite at the Swan and Dolphin resort for nearly 20 minutes a bit ago, and we covered a number of topics related to the Nats’ efforts to finalize their roster this offseason.

It’s clear that finding a left-handed reliever is Rizzo’s top priority, and the Nats could still look to bolster their depth at a few spots on the bench after adding Nate McLouth, whose signing should be official after he completes a physical this week. But in essence, while there might be some low-level signings coming, the Nats don’t sound like they’re going to be actively pursuing guys in a bunch of areas, lefty relief notwithstanding.

“We’re going to see what’s out there, see if we can get some value,” Rizzo said. “If we can, if we can find some value that fits what we’re looking to do, then we’ll acquire it. But we felt that we’ve come a long way with fixing our bench, and we may have some further tweaks, but we like where it’s at right now.”

As far as the search for a lefty reliever goes, Rizzo said the Nats are staying open-minded when it comes to acquiring a reliever via either free agency or a trade. With there being a number of free agent options out there (J.P. Howell, Scott Downs, Eric O’Flaherty and Boone Logan among them), Rizzo feels the chances are good that the Nats end up getting a lefty that can help them, but he cautioned that such a deal might not come during the Winter Meetings.

“I don’t know if for sure we’re going to get a guy, but we feel that there’s enough depth out there and enough people that we’re interested in that we feel good about the fact that we can get one,” Rizzo said. “But the deal has to make sense for us to make it. And we’re not close to accomplishing that yet.”

What type of southpaw are the Nats hoping to add?

“A left-handed reliever that can get out left-handed hitters in crucial situatons and also can get out a right-handed hitter,” Rizzo said. “Pitch a full inning instead of pitching a batter at a time. In a perfect world, that’s kind of the left-handed reliever that we’re looking for.”

Because of Wilson Ramos’ injury history and the Nats’ lack of proven major-league backup catchers within the organization, it was assumed that Rizzo was interested in acquiring a veteran who could provide depth and slide into the starting lineup for an extended stretch should Ramos land on the DL yet again. But Rizzo said that he isn’t actively searching for a backup catcher, feeling that Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon - the Nats’ top two in-house options - are capable of handling that role.

“We feel good with what we have,” Rizzo said. “We like Solano and Leon as backup catchers. The question that comes in is, if Wilson was to get hurt for (an) extended period of time, can they handle the load? I think going into spring training right now, I think we’re comfortable with what we’ve got because we do feel that Ramos is 100 percent healthy. We feel good about his knee and we feel good about the hamstring. He really caught a heavy workload at the end of last season. We think he’s passed that test. If Wilson’s your everyday guy, we’re very comfortable with Solano or Leon as a backup.

“The question comes in: if Wilson were to get hurt and be out for an extended period of time, then do you feel comfortable with what you’ve got? And we’ll always be looking to upgrade. We did it two years ago when Wilson got hurt, we went out and got (Kurt) Suzuki. So that will probably be the plan of attack going forward, is to go with what we’ve got, because we feel good about where Ramos is health-wise. We think that he can take on that load. And if that’s the case, we feel good about what we’ve got as our backups.”

As far as Ramos’ workload this upcoming season, the Nats see him being able to take on a normal starting catcher’s share of the playing time, which usually comes out to somewhere around 125 games.

Perhaps the most interesting nugget of Rizzo’s session with the media centered around Danny Espinosa, who Rizzo has been touting as a quality reserve infielder that can back up at both shortstop and second base. Espinosa doesn’t have any experience playing third base as a professional, but Rizzo said that he feels the 26-year-old could also take on the role as a backup third baseman.

“I think we’re covered,” Rizzo said, when asked if the Nats needed to add a reserve corner infielder. “First of all, I think Danny Espinosa could go and play third base extremely well. A guy who can play shortstop the way he plays shortstop and second base the way he plays second, I have all the confidence in the world that he can go to third and handle the position defensively. And then we have the other option of, we do have a guy that’s a natural third baseman (in Anthony Rendon) that could go over to third base if need be and Danny could play a more natural position at second base.”

Could Espinosa even play first base, if needed?

“I’m not sure. Probably could,” Rizzo said. “I definitely think he could.”

If Espinosa does indeed become the Nats’ backup middle infielder, he’ll join a bench that includes McLouth, Scott Hairston and whatever backup catcher the Nats decide to go with. Tyler Moore could be the Nats’ final bench player, serving as a power right-handed bat and backup first baseman.

The Nats had Chad Tracy on their roster the last two seasons as their left-handed power bat, but Rizzo doesn’t see that as a need this winter.

“That’s part of (McLouth’s) appeal to us - that he’s a good hitter, but he has a propensity to hit one over the wall,” Rizzo said. “I think that that’s part of the reason that we liked him.”

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