Hot Stove in the District
A review of the Nationals Hot Stove Discussion, Part 1 of 2.
You can’t ignite the baseball hot stove season without a spark. The Washington Nationals held their first Hot Stove session for full-season ticket holders since January of 2020 last Saturday at Nats Park. Those in attendance on the concourse of the FIS Champions Club got an inside look at the upcoming season from an on the field and off the field perspective. This edition will focus on the on-field stuff.
The Baseball Operations Panel featured Employee Number 11, Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals Manager, Davey Martinez, Assistant General Manager of Player Personnel, Mark Scialabba, and President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo (a new father again!), who was a very welcome and surprise guest. The event was hosted by Dan Kolko, entering his 10th season as a Nats TV Broadcaster.
Setting the scene. Walking through the CF gate, I saw that the outfield dirt, (and I mean all dirt), was being watered by three sprinkler systems on a perfect late January day in southeast DC. Not surprisingly, inside the FIS Champions Club, the crowd was noticeably a tad smaller than prior years.
Four panelists, four main questions paraphrased below:
To get things warmed up, Dan Kolko announced that Mike Rizzo and his wife Jodi just had a new baby boy, Santino! I’m biased, but that is a great Italian name. Mom and child doing just fine according to Mr. Rizzo. You could see the extra energy in Mike’s face and body language.
On to the questions that were submitted by the ticket holders in advance and relayed by Kolko. Of course, the rebuilding process was the focus. The player specs listed below were taken from FranGraphs.
1: How is The Rebuild going?
Mike Rizzo stated that the reboot is on schedule. Mike acknowledged that cutting payroll is not fun and not for the faint of heart. Rizzo said that last season’s 55 wins is not going to cut it for anybody. I found it encouraging that he mentioned that the Nationals are following the blueprint that was used before 2012.
Rizzo emphasized that the rebuild is rooted in “up the middle players” as begun by the acquiring of P Josiah Gray and C Keibert Ruiz at the 2021 trade deadline. Rizzo thinks that Gray and Ruiz are really good players and thinks they will take a solid step forward this season and near future.
Continuing the “youth-up-the-middle” theme, Rizzo mentioned that SS CJ Abrams and 2B Luis Garcia are both just 22 years old. In addition, three projected starting pitchers are 25 or younger. (Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore, and Cade Cavalli). Mike was adamant about the team ranking their own players and feels that the Nats have their “most lush” crop of prospects they’ve ever had. Here Rizzo mentioned outfielders Robert Hassel III and James Wood by name in addition to Gray and Cavalli.
- Robert Hassell III OF (AA) Age: 21 Bats/Throws: L/L 6′ 2″ 195
- James Wood OF (A) Age: 20 Bats/Throws: L/R 6′ 7″ 240
Davey Martinez emphasized that staying positive and smiling are keys to the rebuild from his view. It’s going to take some time, patience, conversation, and teaching moments. Martinez is excited for a full year of CJ Abrams at short and Luis Garcia at second base.
Mark Scialabba, in his 18th season in player development with the Nats, stated that the R&D department has been building out. Scialabba acknowledged that this new expertise might have been lacking in the past, but the analytics group is getting more into the data and the tech world with the coaching staff. Scialabba was then asked to name a player or two under the radar that he could see contributing soon.
While he compared analyzing players to the stock market, Scialabba mentioned how high he is on Brady House and that Jake Alu had a good year last year. Mark called Alu an instinctively good hitter and an overachiever. Alu was the hitter of the month in September in the International League. As a mid-20th round draft pick out of Boston College, Nationals scouts identified Alu as worth a selection in part due to his work ethic and time spent in the weight room.
- Brady House, SS, (A) Age: 19 Bats/Throws: R/R 6′ 4″ / 215
- Jake Alu 2B/3B (AAA) Age: 25 Bats/Throws: L/R 5′ 10″ / 175
Two relievers were also mentioned by Scialabba. Zach Brzykcy possesses two or three plus pitches and pounds the strike zone with a mid-90s fastball. Brzykcy’s fast ball also has a lot of life as it rises to the top of the strike zone, according to Scialabba.
Scialabba said that Jose Ferrer, a young pitcher from the Dominican Republic, creates good angle deception as a lefty but his breaking ball is under development. While he emphasized a curveball early in his career, Ferrer has since built strength in his lower core and now throws his fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s and touches 100 mph sometimes.
- Zach Brzykcy P (AAA) Age: 23 Bats/Throws: R/R 6′ 2″ / 230
- Jose A. Ferrer P (AA) Age: 22 Bats/Throws: L/L 6′ 1″ / 21
Ryan Zimmerman was then asked to address how to getthe fan base and community to rally around a rebuilding process?
Zim said that it’s hard to be good for a long time. The farm system needs to be in place to succeed. Ryan thinks that the Nats are off to a good start in that regard. Young player experience builds confidence at this level, especially for the Nationals organization. Ryan thinks it’s critically important to take advantage of the younger years because it only gets harder as players get older.
Zimmerman said that there are very few MLB organizations that don’t have to go through rebuilding. But he mentioned that even Boston is going through a bit of a rebuild. He admitted that it might sting a little bit now, but young kids getting a chance and experiencing failure and losing builds character.
These struggles can also bring a clubhouse together. You learn about people when things are going bad. In 2012, veterans were good about telling the younger players about what they were doing wrong without being confrontational. Davey was also great about letting the veterans control the locker room by teaching the younger players how to learn from mistakes.
2. The Fredericksburg Nationals.
Rizzo suggested that the “Fred Nats” were going to be a loaded team and rattled off some names:
- Jake Bennett SP (A) Age: 22 Throws: L
- Jarlin Susana P (A) Age: 18 Bats/Throws: R/R 6′ 6″ / 235
- Armando Cruz SS (A) Age: 19 Bats/Throws: R/R 5′ 10″ / 160
- Brenner Cox OF (CPX) Age: 18 Bats/Throws: L/R 6′ 3″ / 195
Scialabba said that the Fred Nats are going to be an ultra-athletic team. He mentioned two players to keep an eye on:
- Daylen Lile OF/DH (CPX) Age: 20 Bats/Throws: L/R 6′ 0″ / 195
- Roismar Quintana OF (CPX) Age: 19 Bats/Throws: R/R 6′ 1″ / 175
3. Off-Season Signings:
Davey: Trevor Williams has been a starter and spent time in the bullpen as a long guy. So, he’ll be a starter and he’s excited for the opportunity.
Rizzo: We were looking for a younger cast of characters. And looking for bounce back candidates at a reasonable price. To build that player equity, we’re hedging that they’ll revert to who they really were, like a Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell, for example.
Davey: Dominic Smith can be a really good player. Smith is not comfortable in the OF, so we’re going to keep him where he’s comfortable, 1B and DH. Smith was having an unbelievable season when the Mets asked him to play LF and he did not hesitate to go out and play the outfield. Davey thought that Smith exhibited good team player character in this regard.
Davey on Jeimer Candelario: “Candy” is a gamer who loves to play the game. Candelario drives the ball and is a switch hitter. He’s got a great attitude and plays good 3B. With new rule changes, these are guys who we think can hit a lot better without the shift. (Can you hear Charlie Slowes? “The Candyman does it again!”)
Davey then spoke highly of Corey Dickerson’s character and defense. Dickerson is healthy and doesn’t care where he hits in the lineup. Corey just wants to help the team and Davey loves that about him.Not only can these new guys help the Nats win games. But the expectation is that the veteran infusion can also help the younger players to play the game the right way.
Another comeback player candidate, RHP Alex Colome, is aveteran with experience to help the other relievers and finish games. Jesse Dougherty of The Washington Post reported that Colome signed a minor-league contract with the Nationals last week and was invited to spring training. The Nationals scouted Colome in 2019 and almost made a trade for him, but the right-hander produced a 4.82 ERA and 1.52 WHIP during the last two years. Colome still might be able to break into the Nats bullpen.
Zimmerman agreed that these are good players, but you also need people to teach the youngest players about how to play. Players always listen to players before they listen to managers. For example, Davey would tell Ryan what to say to the young players. This sort of communication builds trust and creates a positive clubhouse atmosphere. Asking questions as a player is important because the mental side of the game is very tough.
Dave Martinez then talked about his four “C’s:”
Davey wants the young kids to speak up. Martinez also wants his players to compete hard every day and to commit at the highest level. The Nats manager noticed last year that some of the young guys set the tone that they don’t like losing. Martinez wants the younger players to bring a winning attitude daily.
Rizzo was quick to point out CJ Abrams’ crazy athleticism and skill set. But Rizzo seemed thrilled when he noted that Bench Coach Tim Bogar and Third Base Coach Gary Disarcina were out on the field early taking grounders every day with the “keystone combination” of Abrams and Luis Garcia. Still learning but oozing with talent, charisma, and energy. Mike expects them to be table setters soon.
Scialabba confirmed that the talent of Abrams and Garcia allows them to be on the big club. But it’s important to know and work on things like their chase rate, for example. This process turns into a healthy and friendly competition as the analytics department tracks the stat throughout the season.
Scialabba is also monitoring the winter leagues via reports from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, to name a couple. He suggested that fans embrace the building process and go see some minor league baseball in Fredericksburg or Harrisburg. Or the back fields at spring training.
Zimmerman wants to be more involved with the club but doesn’t know exactly how or what yet. He will go down to spring training and talk to the minor league players as he did last year. Ryan said that veterans did that for him when he first came up and he really appreciated them for it.
Since he still lives around the DC area, he can also hit some of the affiliates. He’s looking forward to being a little more involved and helping the younger guys. In terms of broadcasting prospects Zim did some pre- and post-game stuff last year and loved watching and talking about the game while the young kids went through their ups and downs.
Ryan is still fresh enough to not have forgotten how hard the game is to play. But he admits that it looks easier on TV. Broadcasting is harder than it seems too. Bob Carpenter does a great job. Zim’s goal is to do anything to stay involved and be around and is looking forward to trying a bunch of different things and find something in which he likes and excels.
4. The final question to the panel was what should the message to the fan base be right now? Rizzo gave fans credit for paying the bills and he wants the team to get back to a version that brings pride to the fans sooner rather than later. He re-emphasized the process, but that they’ve done it before and will do it again. The building blocks are developing before our eyes, and we’ll look back at these building days fondly someday.
Rizzo asked fans to stay passionate. But it would be problematic if the team ever becomes irrelevant. He credited the Nats fan base as being intelligent enough baseball fans to recognize what a real championship team looks like. It’s a tough game to play, but there’s nothing like playing 162. No other sport that does it.
With a young and energetic group of guys, Mike feels that the Nats will be better defensively and therefore will help the pitchers be better. The goal is to win and compete with toughness and swagger starting with opening day. With the fire still lively within Rizzo, it’s hard not to believe him.
Finally, Zimmerman suggested that we embrace and enjoy the process. Meanwhile enjoy the ballpark and its unique surroundings; one of the best setups in the league. Zim has hope that the rebuild will be a relatively short process.