As the calendar turns to a new year this January, a new baseball season is on the horizon. When it will actually begin, however, remains to be seen.
The lockout is currently keeping teams from making any major league roster moves, which is a shame because Mike Rizzo is usually very busy during the year’s first month. No matter the pace of an offseason’s free agent market, we have seen the Nationals general manager put together a competitive roster well before the start of spring training year in and year out over the last decade plus.
It’s a sometimes overlooked process that has been essential to the Nationals’ sustained success in the years before the current rebuild.
On the first episode of the “MASN All Access Podcast” of 2022, Amy Jennings and I looked back at some of the biggest moves Rizzo has made in January. There are some obvious ones and some not-so-obvious ones. There are franchise-altering moves and more moderate moves for just one season. Some worked out for the best, while others didn’t turn out so well.
Here’s our list with some more details and other nuggets we couldn’t fit in the podcast. They’re listed in reverse chronological order by year (so starting with 2021) and then in regular chronological order within each year (so years with multiple moves will start with the first ones made). Hopefully, that makes sense.
Feel free to add your own thoughts and any other moves we may have left out in the comments section!
* Jan. 9, 2021 - Signed Kyle Schwarber to one-year, $10 million contract with $11 million mutual option for 2022
This ended up being the biggest move Rizzo made last offseason. Here was a power-hitting lefty bat and World Series champion who was non-tendered by the Cubs and available for a reasonable price. Not to mention he already had a good relationship with manager Davey Martinez from their time together in Chicago. Schwarber’s time in D.C. got off to a rocky start, mostly due to an early-season sting on the COVID-19 list.
But in the short time he was here, he proved his worth. In 72 games with the Nats, he hit 25 home runs with 53 RBIs and a .910 OPS. Of course, his career with the Nats will mostly be remembered for the 18-game rampage he went on in June: .348 batting average, .403 on-base percentage, 1.043 slugging percentage, 16 homers, 27 RBIs and a 1.446 OPS, helping the Nats go 15-4 and get back in National League East race.
Unfortunately, he hurt his right hamstring on July 2, never to play for the Nationals again, and was traded to the Red Sox for minor league pitcher Aldo Ramirez on July 29. But Nats fans will always have that historic month of June.
* Jan. 3, 2020 - Signed Will Harris to three-year, $24 million contract
This was a questionable signing by Rizzo because Harris was 35 years old at the time. But the right-handed reliever had a lot of success in Houston, pitching to a 1.50 ERA in 68 games for the Astros in 2019. Of course, he gave up a home run to Anthony Rendon in Game 6 and the go-ahead home run to Howie Kendrick in Game 7 of the World Series, but his track record spoke for itself and Rizzo has a history of taking chances on veteran relievers. Harris was meant to solidify the back end of the bullpen with Daniel Hudson (we’ll get to him soon) and Sean Doolittle.
Harris, however, hasn’t had the same success in Washington that he had in Houston, posting a 3.08 ERA in 20 games in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and only pitching in eight games this past season before undergoing surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome. A lot of factors were out of his control, so hopefully Harris returns for the final year of his deal as the pitcher we saw in 2019.
* Jan. 14, 2020 - Re-signed Daniel Hudson to two-year, $11 million contract
Hudson had a strong second half in 2019 with a 1.44 ERA in 24 games with the Nats after being traded from the Blue Jays. He went on to record the last out of the World Series and became a fan favorite in the back end of the bullpen with Doolittle. After the celebrations, it was known that he wanted to return to Washington, and the Nats rewarded their second-half hero with a two-year deal.
Though he struggled in 2020 with a 6.10 ERA in 21 games, Hudson bounced back to be Martinez’s only reliable arm out of the ‘pen in 2021 with a 2.20 ERA. He pitched well enough that he became a trade chip when the organization’s direction changed in July, and he was shipped to the Padres for Mason Thompson and Jordy Barley.
* Jan. 28, 2020 - Re-signed Ryan Zimmerman to one-year, $2 million contract
We’ve been through Zimmerman’s accolades and franchise records, and what he’s meant to the city and organization. But remember there was a question of whether or not he would return after the World Series championship. The Nats had declined his $18 million option, and he publicly said he only wanted to play for the Nationals or retire.
That question was answered when the two sides agreed on a one-year deal. But then COVID hit and Zimmerman opted out of the 2020 season. So that one-year deal set the framework for his return in 2021, and he re-signed on Jan. 23, 2021 on a one-year, $1 million contract. Though in a reduced role, Mr. National had a great year off the bench behind Josh Bell: .756 OPS, 16 doubles, 14 homers and 46 RBIs in 273 plate appearances with great defense at first base. Plus, he didn’t miss any time due to injury or COVID. Although he received a great ovation on the final day of the season, could he possibly return this year?
* Jan. 13, 2019 - Signed Brian Dozier to one-year, $9 million contract
This was one of those fill-the-roster moves Rizzo has often made in January. Dozier was a 32-year-old second baseman with eight years of experience between the Twins and Dodgers. And he essentially had a pretty typical year by his standards, slashing .238/.340/.430 with 20 home runs and 50 RBIs in 135 games.
But it’s what he did off the field that made the biggest impact for the eventual 2019 champions. Dozier was a focal point in the team chemistry during their turnaround and postseason run, often seen with his shirt off and singing to “Calma” to make him a fan favorite forever in D.C.
* Jan. 18, 2018 - Re-signed Howie Kendrick to two-year, $7 million contract
Kendrick came to D.C. in a July 2017 trade with the Phillies. He was 34 years old, but hitting .340 in Philadelphia, so he at least could provide some offense. He went on to hit .293 in 52 games with the Nats to earn his two-year deal. His 2018 season was cut short due to an Achilles injury. But then he bounced back in 2019 to have one of the best hitting seasons we’ve ever seen from a National and one of his personal best years: .344 average with 17 homers and 62 RBIs.
Of course, he hit the game-winning grand slam in Game 5 of National League Division Series in Los Angeles, then the championship-clinching home run in Game 7 of the World Series. He returned for one more season in 2020 and then retired as a legend in Nats lore.
* Jan. 31, 2017 - Signed Matt Albers to minor league contract with invitation to spring training
This is one of my personal favorites. Albers had a 4.38 ERA over 11 major league seasons with the Astros, Orioles, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Cleveland and White Sox. He had just turned 34 when he signed and then was released before opening day despite not giving up a run in spring training games. The Nats re-signed Albers on April 9 and the right-hander had the best season of his career with a 1.62 ERA in 63 games. Not many people remember Albers, but this was one of the biggest underdog stories and best reliever seasons in Nationals history.
* Jan. 8, 2016 - Traded Drew Storen to Blue Jays for Ben Revere
Now let’s get into some trades, shall we? The 2016 offseason was full of questions on what would happen with Storen. We know of his postseason misfortunes of the past, but he was having a great 2015 season (1.73 ERA, 1.018 WHIP and 29 saves in 31 attempts, while the Nats went 37-1 in games he pitched) before the Nats traded for Jonathan Papelbon. Storen became the setup man and was never the same, seeing his ERA jump up to 3.44 by season’s end.
With Papelbon as the new closer, the Nats were expected to trade Storen, which they finally did, acquiring Revere from the Blue Jays. The Nats also sent cash considerations and were supposed to receive a player to be named later, but that eventually turned to cash as well. (Thanks to Mark Zuckerman for helping me with that one.) Storen was traded again at the 2016 deadline to the Mariners and pitched for the Reds in 2017, but hasn’t reached the majors again since. And we know how the Papelbon saga ended. The Nats, meanwhile, were looking for Denard Span’s replacement in center field and were hoping Revere would fit the bill. But the 28-year-old only hit .217 over 103 games in his only season with the Nationals. And with Victor Robles’ struggles, it seems that the Nats are still looking for their long-term center fielder.
* Jan. 14, 2015 - Traded Tyler Clippard to Athletics for Yunel Escobar
Here’s a trade that actually worked out for all parties involved. Clippard had been a part of the Nats bullpen since arriving via a trade with the Yankees in 2008. Over his seven years in Washington, he had a 2.68 ERA and 1.047 WHIP in 414 appearances and was named an All-Star twice (2011 and 2014). His final season with the Nats was one of his best, with a 2.18 ERA and major league-best 40 holds. Nats fans were sad to see the reliever famous for his goggles go, but like I said, this trade ended up working out for both sides.
Ironically, Clippard became the A’s closer when Doolittle began the season on the injured list, and he recorded 17 saves, earning him a trade at the deadline to the Mets to assist in their pennant run. And the Nats wound up needing a third baseman to start the season after Anthony Rendon sprained his left MCL early in spring training. Escobar hit .314 and scored 75 runs in 139 games for the Nats, playing so well that Rendon shifted to second base upon his return.
* Jan. 21, 2015 - Signed Max Scherzer to seven-year, $210 million contract
What more needs to be said about Scherzer? I don’t think we’re having this conversation (or at least it wouldn’t be that interesting) without the Scherzer signing that was a momentous moment in the organization’s history. We know about the numbers, the no-hitters, the World Series and the achievements off the field. Simply put, this is the greatest signing in franchise history, and it might be the greatest signing we’ve ever seen in professional sports.
We’ll have more on this as the anniversary approaches.
* Jan. 7, 2011 - Signed Adam LaRoche to two-year, $16 million deal
LaRoche was one of the more beloved players to don the curly W cap over the last decade. His first season in 2011 was cut short with labrum surgery on his left shoulder, but he bounced back to become the lefty power-hitting first baseman Rizzo hoped for. After the first deal was complete, the Nats brought LaRoche back, re-signing him to another two-year deal on Jan. 8, 2013, this one worth $24 million. Over his three healthy seasons, he hit 79 home runs with 254 RBIs, while winning Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards and finishing sixth in NL MVP voting in 2012.
Unfortunately, his career ended in controversy with the White Sox, but LaRoche was welcomed back to D.C. with a loud ovation at Nats Park when he returned to throw the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the 2016 NLDS.
Here is a short list of other January moves that didn’t make the cut. You can also watch the podcast episode below or listen to just the audio in the link above.
Jan. 26, 2021 - Signed Brad Hand
Jan. 27, 2021 - Signed Jon Lester
Jan. 8, 2020 - Signed Eric Thames
Jan. 8, 2020 - Re-signed Asdrúbal Cabrera
Jan. 16, 2019 - Signed Paolo Espino for second stint with Nats
Jan. 26, 2017 - Signed Stephen Drew
Jan. 16, 2013 - Traded Michael Morse to Mariners, received A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen from Athletics in three-team deal
Jan. 17, 2013 - Signed Rafael Soriano