Rizzo on Turner, Strasburg, Harper and the offseason plan

The Nationals weren’t satisfied getting knocked out of the first round of the postseason for the third time in five years, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still view the 2016 campaign in a favorable light, general manager Mike Rizzo insisted today.

“I definitely view it as a successful season that ended poorly for us,” Rizzo said during a 15-minute conference call, his first session with reporters since the season ended two weeks ago. “We played a good, steady brand of baseball all year. We had the second-best record in all of baseball. We won the division for the third time in five years. I think, all in all, it was a successful season. But again, we didn’t get to our ultimate success, which is winning the World Series.”

The Nationals won 95 games and another division title, then lost both the fourth and decisive fifth games of the National League Division Series to the Dodgers, failing to advance deeper into October once again.

When the same events occurred in 2012 and 2014, Rizzo kept the vast majority of his roster intact, but made a handful of significant (and sometimes surprising) additions in an attempt to bolster the team’s chances of advancing farther in the postseason the following year.

After the 2012 NLDS loss to the Cardinals, he signed closer Rafael Soriano and veteran starter Dan Haren and traded for center fielder Denard Span, then watched as the 2013 club regressed and won only 86 games, missing the playoffs.

After the 2014 NLDS loss to the Giants, he signed ace Max Scherzer to a record $210 million contract, traded Tyler Clippard for Yunel Escobar and signed veteran Casey Janssen to take over Clippard’s spot in the bullpen, then watched as the 2015 club regressed and won only 83 games, missing the playoffs.

Rizzo-with-media-sidebar.jpgNow Rizzo faces a similar scenario. His roster doesn’t necessarily need major additions, but there will be several big-name players available this winter if he wants to pursue them. In the immediate aftermath of this season, he and the rest of his front office see a number of different paths they could take.

“The one thing that we see is we have a very versatile roster,” Rizzo said. “We can go in a lot of different directions to improve our ballclub. We haven’t gotten really into too many specifics yet. But we see a lot of opportunities and a lot of different ways and different venues to improve the ballclub, mostly because of the versatility of the players we have.”

Nobody embodies that versatility more than Trea Turner, who after a brilliant second half following his promotion from Triple-A Syracuse has firmly entrenched himself as the Nationals’ unquestioned leadoff man moving forward. Where he plays in the field, however, is an open-ended question, and Rizzo views that as a good thing.

“What he has shown is that he can excel at shortstop, he can excel at second base and in center field,” the GM said. “It allows us to build around that, meaning that it gives us more options in the marketplace to improve the ballclub.”

Most likely, Turner will wind up in either center field (which he learned on the fly this summer, but played surprisingly well) or shortstop (his natural position). A move to second base would happen only if Daniel Murphy was injured or if the reigning club player of the year shifts to first base and bumps Ryan Zimmerman out of the everyday lineup.

Rizzo made it clear he doesn’t expect the latter scenario to occur.

“No, Zim’s our first baseman going into this offseason and spring training,” he said. “The fact that Trea excelled at second base is just another reason that we have so much flexibility in our roster construction.”

The Nationals do have two prominent players set to become free agents after the World Series ends: catcher Wilson Ramos and closer Mark Melancon.

Ramos was in line for a long-term contract after a breakthrough season that included his first career All-Star selection, but the 29-year-old catcher tore the ACL in his right knee during the final week of the season and now isn’t certain to be ready to play come opening day 2017.

The Nationals could still make a run at re-signing Ramos, or they could consider making him a qualifying offer (which he could either accept and return for one season at a salary of roughly $17.2 million or decline and let the Nats receive draft-pick compensation if he signs elsewhere). They haven’t made that decision yet.

“He came out of the surgery well,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to see what the short-term rehab is. We’ll do all the due diligence on the medicals, which is the most important factor in what our plans are for Wilson. Once we get together with all the medical people that are involved, we’ll have a better idea of where we’re at with Wilson. Then we’ll employ a strategy that best fits our needs and the need to improve the ballclub in any way we can.”

The Nationals cannot extend a qualifying offer to Melancon, because he was acquired in-season, and so there would be no compensation for losing him this winter. Rizzo spoke highly of the 31-year-old closer and expressed a desire to re-sign him, but also pointed out how many experienced closers will be available this winter, with Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen also due to become free agents.

“He pitched terrific for us,” Rizzo said of Melancon. “More importantly, he fit beautifully into the clubhouse. He’s a plus-plus makeup guy. Great character and performed admirably for us. He’s got great stuff, and he’s a good quality pitcher. It’s a broad, deep reliever market this year, and Mark is one of the elite relievers in the marketplace.”

The Nationals could decide not to invest significant money in a veteran closer and let one of their promising young relievers grow into the role, but Rizzo suggested experience and track record is preferred in this case.

“In a perfect world, you’d always like to have a guy that’s done it in the most competitive situations, but that’s not always possible,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of options as far as guys with plus stuff and plus makeup, and it’s a deep relief market this year. So there’s different avenues to go and different routes that are attractive to us.”

No matter who serves as their closer, the Nationals do expect to have a healthy Shawn Kelley back as one of their primary setup men. Kelley (who has had two Tommy John surgeries in his career) departed Game 5 of the NLDS with what initially looked like a serious elbow injury, but the right-hander was confident afterward that it wasn’t anything serious, and Rizzo corroborated that sentiment today.

“He’s fine,” the GM said of Kelley, who is signed through 2018. “He’ll be ready for the offseason and his preparation for spring training.”

Also on track for a normal offseason and spring training is Stephen Strasburg, who missed the season’s final three weeks with a strained flexor mass in his right elbow but was progressing in his rehab during the NLDS and perhaps could have been ready to return to active duty if the Nationals reached the World Series.

“We anticipate Stephen to be full-go this offseason,” Rizzo said. “And his preparation for spring training ... obviously we think he’ll be full-go for spring training and into the season.”

Strasburg’s promising season ended in disappointing fashion. The club’s other former No. 1 draft pick, Bryce Harper, also endured through a disappointing season. In the wake of his historic MVP performance in 2015, Harper got off to a rousing start and won NL Player of the Month honors in April, but then tailed off considerably and finished the season with a .243 batting average and .814 OPS, both considerably down from the previous year.

There were questions about Harper’s health late in the summer, including a prominent report that suggested the right fielder was playing through a right shoulder injury that was hindering his ability to drive pitches, especially those on the outer portion of the strike zone. Harper insisted throughout he wasn’t hurt and Rizzo insisted likewise.

What, then, do the Nationals believe was the primary cause of Harper’s drop-off in production this season?

“It was a decline from MVP Bryce Harper,” Rizzo said. “He had a really solid season for a lot of players. He was an integral part of our lineup. He was a guy that was identified by every team that comes in here as a guy that: This guy’s not going to beat us. As the season progressed, I feel extremely proud of the fact that he never took his at-bats into the field with him. He had a terrific year defensively in right field, Gold Glove-caliber season, in my mind, in right field. And was a guy that every time he comes up, I expect him to get a hit. And I expect that to happen again next year.”

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