In baseball’s olden days - like, maybe, a decade or so ago - we’d just now be hitting the winter doldrums.
There used to be a significant number of free agent signings (read: most of them) by the time the calendar turned to a new year. Trades were made throughout the offseason, but most of the wheeling and dealing came in December, a nod to baseball’s Winter Meetings and the fact that general managers and front office staff used to spend most of the end-of-year holidays enjoying family time.
But that was before the days of agents playing spin doctors, instant communication via mobile phones and texting, contracts that approach the gross national products of small countries whose names are mostly consonants and fans entrenched in previously unseen levels of immediate gratification.
Simply put, the times have changed. We’re waiting longer to firm up camp rosters. And baseball’s executives are OK with that. Well, most of them.
Managers no longer feel the pressure to have their rosters set in ink by the time Christmas presents are exchanged. Shrewd executives know that they can find bargains as the weeks drag on and teams get closer to spring reporting dates.
The same guy who was set on a multi-year deal back in late November or early December might now be champing at the bit, wondering where he’s going to play next season. His wife might be itching to know where the family will be living and increasing some pressure. And let’s face it, an unemployed ballplayer isn’t earning any money. So a number of factors conspire to turn the demands for a lucrative multiple-year contract into a one-year pact loaded with performance incentives.
Along the same lines, a GM might look at a player who he might be interested in taking a flyer on in December and think that he could work on a minor league deal with a spring training invitation. Low risk, possible high reward. And guys who were demanding major league contracts at the Winter Meetings might be had on the cheap.
The Nationals still figure to have a little roster tweaking to do even after re-signing veteran backup infielder Stephen Drew, who prospered in a similar role with them last year. Even a couple of weeks ago, Drew was holding out for a starting gig or a two-year deal. Maybe with February looming, he thought it a safer bet to go where he’s a known quantity, given that his preferred situation hadn’t developed.
Remember last spring? Righty Matt Belisle and outfielder Chris Heisey were among the unheralded non-roster invitees who forced their way into 25-man roster spots (and Heisey parlayed that into a 2017 contract in mid-November). Right-hander Bronson Arroyo eventually might have, save for an ill-timed shoulder problem. Lefty reliever Sean Burnett was impressive, but couldn’t seal the deal; he eventually bounced to a couple of other organizations and wound up with the Nationals in September, almost cracking the National League Division Series roster.
The message here is that even the seemingly most minor of moves often pays significant dividends. Some think of it as Dumpster diving, but patience is one of a general manager’s biggest assets, and those who correctly gauge the market - setting and re-setting their priorities to match its fluctuations - sometimes end up with players who don’t hurt the budgetary bottom line and offer key contributions.
You can take it to the bank: In the coming week or so, there will be a flurry of activity involving guys who could fill out rosters and make a difference. All it takes is one or two key pieces to the puzzle to make a decision, creating a ripple effect. And when that happens, the group of Nationals players set to convene in West Palm Beach, Fla., could look just a little different.
Rizzo likely still wants to beef up his bullpen depth, which would take a lhit if one of the in-house options ends up pitching the ninth inning. That’s looking more and more like a reality, given that thre are no more free agent closers available and the Nationals don’t appear to have been particularly active in the closer trade market, deeming the price too high when they’ve got guys - however inexperienced - who they think can handle that job.
Update: The Nationals announced this afternoon that they had signed infielder/outfielder Grant Green to a minor league contract with an invitation to major league spring training.
Green, 29, was the 13th-overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft by the A’s out of USC, and has hit .251/.286/.339 in 127 major league games with the A’s, Angels and Giants. Originally a shortstop, he has played mostly second base in the majors, and everywhere but pitcher and catcher in the minors.