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Mike Rizzo's forward-thinking has led to great success for Nationals; so what's next?

Mike Rizzo's forward-thinking has led to great success for Nationals; so what's next?

One of the reasons why Mike Rizzo has established himself as one of the best executives in baseball is his ability to look ahead. Just about every time a big-time player is about to leave in free agency, or is aging out, the Nationals have someone waiting in the wings.

Rizzo has stayed ahead of the curve sometimes by drafting and developing players, but also by using free agency and trades. And sometimes the moves have happened so far in advance, few connected the dots at the times they occurred.

Sometimes, he has even been lucky. Like, the Nationals could not have predicted Ryan Zimmerman would stop being able to throw the baseball from third to first in 2014 when they drafted Anthony Rendon in 2011, right? Yet, there Rendon was, ready to step in to take over at third base in 2015.

Most of these types of moves have clearly been intended and thought all the way through. The 2014 trade for shortstop Trea Turner and pitcher Joe Ross set them up well for when Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann left in free agency after the 2015 season. They also signed Max Scherzer in January of 2015, who has proven more than adequate as a replacement in the rotation.

In 2018, the Nationals executed a trade to get outfielder Adam Eaton from the White Sox. That came in handy one year later when Bryce Harper left in free agency. Eaton gave them enough production to start for a World Series-winning team, and at a much cheaper price.

The Nats also had Juan Soto developed and ready for when Harper was set to hit the open market. Between Soto, Eaton and Victor Robles, it made their decision to let Harper go much easier.

At the moment, the Nationals are in shape to do the same thing with infielder Carter Kieboom. Rendon left in free agency, but the Nats were ready with a top-20 prospect ready to take his place.

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Thinking ahead like this is what the best organizations in sports do. Imagine if the Redskins had been developing a quarterback when Kirk Cousins wanted out. Or if the Wizards had someone ready to take Otto Porter Jr.'s place at small forward in 2017. Instead, the Redskins let Cousins go for essentially nothing and the Wizards had to overpay Porter to keep him.

By thinking ahead, the Nationals keep their payroll low and their window to compete wide open because they find cheaper, younger replacements. And by doing that they can also be more selective in whom they keep, not feeling the need to re-sign a player just because they have nowhere to turn.

All of this brings up a natural question: what is next? If the Nats are always thinking two steps ahead, what's the second step we aren't seeing?

Scherzer is one to keep an eye on. His contract only runs through next season and even if they re-sign him, they will need to add pitching. He turns 36 next month and can't be counted on to pitch at a Cy Young level forever.

Eaton has a $10.5 million option for next season. But even if that is picked up, they will need an outfielder for 2022 at the earliest.

Turner is going to be a free agent in 2023 and could command a major deal. Affording him may not be easy with Soto and Robles contracts also down the line.

As for Scherzer, nothing can really be counted on yet in terms of his replacement. The Nats keep spending first round picks on starting pitchers, but none of the recent ones have conveyed into something substantial.

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Free agency offers no gurantees, either. The 2020 class is headlined by Corey Kluber (club option), Trevor Bauer, Robbie Ray and Marcus Stroman. The 2021 class is loaded with big names, but age will be a factor with most of them. The group includes Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke.

For Scherzer, the Nats may need to look for a trade similar to the ones they used to acquire Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister years ago. As for Eaton, the Nats are likely to be in good shape with their outfield no matter what. They have two young guys in Soto and Robles, with Soto already being a certified star and Robles well on his way towards becoming something special.

They seem to have the most concrete plan in place for the event Turner leaves. They have Kieboom, who is a natural shortstop, and also 20-year-old prospect Luis Garcia, who may be an established big leaguer by the time 2023 comes around.

Some of these decisions may seem far away, but it's never too early to plan and you know the Nationals front office is thinking in these terms.

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Nationals are off to season’s most dangerous spot: the road

Nationals are off to season’s most dangerous spot: the road

WASHINGTON  -- The Nationals ventured to their chartered train Sunday for a first: They were leaving Nationals Park to play a regular-season game elsewhere in 2020. This is a new challenge in a year filled with randomization.

The road is a bedeviling place in professional sports no matter the climate. Favorite places of all kinds -- restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues -- pull athletes from their hotel into the city streets. It’s standard. Among the running jokes in the NBA is players coming down with the South Beach Flu. Go to Miami the night before a game, play poorly the next, perhaps you caught it while out until 3 a.m.

For Major League Baseball in 2020, traveling has become the greatest barrier to the season’s completion. Organizations are petrified of an outbreak prompted by one person venturing into the night while on the road. Or even in the morning when visiting a cafe for breakfast.

The Nationals will first tangle with road protocols -- set both internally and by MLB -- this week in New York. A four-game series with the Mets will test their ability to sit still. Staying in the hotel is job one. A special guard was even considered in order to make it happen.

“I’m going to put [Mike] Rizzo in the lobby,” Davey Martinez said with a laugh.

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That, presumably, would be an effective deterrent to anyone who stepped out of the elevator, then into the lobby, coming face-to-face with the team president’s bald head. But, the job will be handled by MLB security, which is now in the hotels of road teams to watch the coming and going of players and staff following the coronavirus outbreak within the Miami Marlins organization. The rest is up to the Nationals.

“When you go on the road, you get in a routine: your favorite places to eat breakfast, your favorite places to go get coffee,” Martinez said. “There’s going to be none of that. And, that’s going to be tough. We got to adhere to the protocols. In order to keep everybody safe, we’ve got to stay in the hotel. So there’s going to be different things that we need to do. There’s not going to be any gallivanting around the city anymore. A lot of these cities, honestly, are pretty much closed down and there’s not a whole lot going on.

“We’ve got to be smart. If we’re going to pull this off and keep everybody safe, the best thing is to stay in the hotel and chill. There’s going to be plenty of food -- from what I gather -- at the ballpark. We’ve got restaurants that are going to cook for us. We’ll have lunch, we’re going to have dinner after the game. I think now we just got to feed ourselves for breakfast. I’m hearing that the hotels are going to be open for breakfast for room service, but we’ve got to do whatever we can to stay safe.”

One issue will be the pull to see family in different places. Juan Soto has family in New York. Several players have family in the Miami area. When Martinez returns to Tampa in mid-September, his adult children already know they won’t be meeting in order to protect his safety and that of the team.

“They understand,” Martinez said. “Hopefully, when this is all over, I’ll spend a lot of time with them.”

RELATED: STEPHEN STRASBURG'S DEBUT SHOWS HE STILL HAS A WAYS TO GO

He and Rizzo have trumpeted the same point from the start: what happens away from the field impacts everyone who goes to it. So, stay home, do your part, do not be the single lit match.

Testing negative, keeping the house in order, and playing on has both become a point of pride and competition. The Nationals enter the week with only one positive test result since play began -- that belonged to Soto, and he thought it was a false positive -- and the league’s worst offense. Without their best hitter, Washington has gone through a season-long scoring drought. Only the St. Louis Cardinals have scored fewer runs. They have also played seven fewer games because of a coronavirus outbreak in their organization.

“It's a new baseball season that we've never had before,” Rizzo said. “There's protocols in place that kind of break the routine that we've had our whole careers and our whole lives. So the team that adapts to that best and easiest and most seamlessly will have an advantage of being more comfortable playing baseball. Once the game starts, you're just playing baseball. I think that everybody kind of gets into their comfort zone, at least for the three hours during the game.”

The playing baseball portion has been more difficult than following protocols. The Nationals are a bewildering 4-7 through the jagged first two weeks of the season. They arrive in New York with Max Scherzer ready to return Tuesday. They may also recall a four-game series in Citi Field from last year. When the Nationals walked into the park, they were in a bad place. When they walked out, everything was worse.

They want to worry about the pitching matchups more than hotel entrances and exits. The league has tightened protocols since the Marlins debacle. The Nationals are even working on how to spread out their pregame meetings in conference rooms. And, maybe Martinez was on to something. In a season where cardboard cutouts have been put to use, a life-sized Rizzo with his hands on hips in the hotel lobby may just come in handy.

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Stephen Strasburg’s debut shows he still has a ways to go

Stephen Strasburg’s debut shows he still has a ways to go

WASHINGTON -- Elegant pitching took place in the top of the fourth inning Sunday when Anthony Santander led off the inning.

Stephen Strasburg threw him a 79-mph curveball for a called strike. An 87-mph changeup was a ball. Another changeup produced a swinging strike. A third consecutive changeup led to another swinging strike and an out.

Strasburg needed just 43 pitches to finish four innings in his season debut. The problem was he went to pitch the fifth -- and that his achy right hand still has mild issues.

He recorded one out, faded rapidly and was removed after allowing five sudden runs. The hook was too late. The Nationals fell behind, 5-0, and were on the verge of a weekend sweep at the hands of the Orioles and a troublesome 4-8 record before the game was suspended because of oddball circumstances with a malfunctioning tarp.

“You can look at the negative, or you can look at the positive,” Strasburg said. “I think there was a lot more positives. I'm just going to focus on that. Obviously command and execution wasn't very good there in the fifth. They just hit a bunch of singles and found the right spots. So they made me pay for it.”

Strasburg’s start came two weeks after he was supposed to be on the game mound for the first time in 2020. A right wrist impingement caused a nerve problem in his right hand, which led to pain in his thumb. All of the issues with the hand subsided after time off and treatment. He threw a bullpen session Wednesday. Sunday, “Seven Nation Army” poured out of the stadium speakers for the first time this season.

The first four innings showed a pitcher with lowered velocity, but exceptional command. In essence, Strasburg looked like himself. Plenty of curveballs, changeups and outs. Of his 69 pitches, 37 were curveballs or changeups.

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Javy Guerra quickly worked to warm up when Strasburg faltered in the fifth inning. The first out of the inning came on a 101.1-mph line drive from Dwight Smith Jr. It was a harbinger.

Austin Hays hit a line drive to right field. Chance Sisco hit a line drive to right field. Davey Martinez and trainer Paul Lessard came up the dugout steps to head toward the mound because Strasburg shook his right hand. Strasburg waived them back to their spots, though there was an issue.

“To be honest, I felt it,” Strasburg said of his hand pain. “I don't know if it was necessarily like fatigue or just not having necessarily the stamina built up quite yet. But it's something where I don't think I'm doing any long-term harm on it. But it does have an impact on being able to feel the baseball and being able to commit to pitches. That's something I haven't quite figured out how to pitch through it yet, so I think the goal is to continue to get built up and get the pitch count up to where that won't be flaring up over the course of the start.”

He walked the next batter. Pitching coach Paul Menhart went to talk to him. This, presumably, is when Strasburg should have been removed from the game. He was left in.

Bryan Holaday singled. A run scored. Hanser Alberto doubled. Two runs scored. Santander singled. Two runs scored.

Guerre came in. Strasburg departed.

The good news is Strasburg finally made a start in 2020. And, Max Scherzer is expected to return to the mound on Tuesday in New York.

The bad news is 25 percent of Strasburg’s potential starts are over. Starting pitchers were only in line for 12 this year. He missed two, then failed in the fifth inning in what would have been his third start. That gives him nine to go -- if the season makes it to the end -- with a hand that isn’t quite right.

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