MIAMI - As July creeps ever closer and thoughts of the trade deadline begin creeping into his mind, Mike Rizzo made a series of bullpen changes this week that could go a long way toward determining just how the Nationals general manager chooses to approach July 31.
In releasing Trevor Rosenthal and then summoning veterans Fernando Rodney and Jonny Venters from the minors, Rizzo ostensibly declared this new-look relief corps has one month to prove itself before he must decide whether to be deadline buyers or sellers.
“I didn’t look at it that way,” Rizzo insisted Wednesday before the Nationals’ 7-5 win over the Marlins. “I just thought it was time to make these changes and to see what type of bullpen develops out of it. They have been two reliable guys in the past, veteran presence, to go along with Javy Guerra, who has been a nice pickup for us in kind of the same realm. ... It gives us some depth until (injured right-handers Kyle Barraclough and Justin Miller) come off the disabled list.”
If Rodney and/or Venters make the most of this opportunity, Rizzo might not feel the need to incorporate Barraclough and Miller back into the bullpen mix. Or to make a major splash and acquire a currently thriving late-inning arm as he did in 2017 with Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler or in 2018 with Kelvin Herrera.
Rodney has already showed a quick glimpse of what he can offer. The 42-year-old pitched a scoreless ninth inning Tuesday to lock up a 6-1 victory, though that outing included a leadoff walk, a strikeout on a 96 mph fastball and a game-ending double play.
That performance backed up the scouting report Rizzo got on Rodney from Randy Knorr, who was managing him at Triple-A Fresno.
“He felt that he would help the team,” Rizzo said. “He really broke down the delivery and the numbers and how he performed and everything, and he felt that he could help us. His word goes a long way with me. He evaluates players very well, especially pitchers.”
Venters has yet to make an appearance for the Nationals, but Rizzo said the 34-year-old lefty had increased velocity and better command during his month pitching for Double-A Harrisburg.
Both Rodney and Venters are low-risk moves, veterans whose salaries are mostly being paid by the clubs that released them earlier this season. Rizzo knows about eating that kind of contract, though, after electing to do just that with Rosenthal.
When one of his top scouts, Jay Robertson, raved about Rosenthal’s stuff during a showcase throwing session in late October, Rizzo gave the 29-year-old former Cardinals closer a $7 million big league deal for 2019 and a $10 million mutual option for 2020 that included a $1 million buyout which the Nationals must now pay after releasing him.
Rizzo spoke glowingly about Rosenthal on Wednesday, praising the pitcher for the manner in which he handled his immense struggles on the mound and eventual release.
“To me, there’s really no bad one-year deal. That’s kind of the way I look at it,” the GM said. “We knew going into this that this was a high-risk, high-reward type of contract that we had with him. And to no fault of Trevor Rosenthal, it just didn’t work out. Workmanlike attitude, great guy in the clubhouse, worked his butt off, prepared to get ready, physically, mentally, and it just did not work out at this time.”
When his team opened the season a dismal 19-31, Rizzo faced tough questions about his manager’s status and the possibility of the roster he assembled needing to be sold off later in the summer. The Nationals have since gone 20-9 and with a win tonight would reach the .500 mark for the first time since April 23.
That doesn’t mean they’re definitively in the pennant race yet, though. And so it’s still difficult for Rizzo to know how he’ll approach July 31, even as that day draws closer.
“We’ve liked the team since spring training,” he said. “We’ve got time to continue to evaluate before we have to make a decision, before the trade deadline, and we’ll do so. ... We’re going to see what the needs of the team are. We’re going to see where we’re at, what opportunities we have to make any kind of changes.
“This is our time to evaluate. We’re not at July 1 yet. We’re not at the All-Star break. So we’ll see where we’re at. And together will sit down and have a clearer picture of what we want to do, and how we’re going to act on the 31st.”