Mike Rizzo spoke with reporters on Sunday morning before the Nationals were set to close their series with the Atlanta Braves and covered a wide range of subjects with his team ready to embark on a West Coast road trip.
Of course, with his 22-year-old right fielder having hit six homers in his last three games - including Saturday's walk-off - the name 'Bryce Harper' came up frequently. But Rizzo also talked about Lucas Giolito's 2015 debut, the status of Stephen Strasburg and how other specific players have done so far this season.
Here are the highlights:
What do you make of Harper's recent surge?
Mike Rizzo: We thought all along he was in a good place coming into this stretch. Throughout the season he's seen a lot of pitches and he's had good at-bats. He and Rick [Schu] have worked really hard on his approach and I think it's paying off.
How about his play defensively in right field?
MR: He's played extremely well in right field. Our thought process all along was that we thought he'd be a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder when he finally got comfortable at a single position. We moved him around a little bit early in his career, but I think he's found a home out there. I'm very pleased with where he's at defensively.
What is different about Harper's swing this season?
MR: It's quieter. We call it softer in his load and in his approach. I think it's allowing him to see the pitch out of the hand better and know the strike zone better. He's ahead in a lot of counts and that's the secret of any good hitter, to work yourself into good counts and get a pitch to drive. When he's seeing his pitch, he's making the most of it.
Has this past week made you adjust your 'ceiling' for Harper?
MR: Well, it's not like this guy came from nowhere to where he is today. This guy was one of the really good players in the game from the time he stepped into this clubhouse. He was a historic 18 year old, 19 year old, 20 year old. I think that we've said at times he's scratched the surface of his ability level. I think that as his experience level grows and as at-bats keep piling on, he's a guy that knows the league and knows his skillset and how he needs to succeed. He's a big part of it. When this guy's healthy he's been as good a player as anybody. He's maturing in that aspect, to take care of his body and to make sure that he stays healthy. He knows that when he's in the lineup, he makes it a better lineup.
The hidden ceiling that I have in my mind, I've never made public. He's going to be a good player we feel for a very long time.
What did you think of Lucas Giolito's 2015 debut?
MR: We had our farm director Mark Scialabba there. He said it was very good. He got a little tired in the third inning and elevated some pitches. But we've got some things to worry about in this organization and Lucas Giolito isn't one of them.
Is Stephen Strasburg okay after his recent injury?
MR: It really didn't alarm us much. Stephen knows his body very well and when he told me after he came out that it was nothing serious, I was pretty good with it. Then when he saw the doctors, it wasn't much fear that it was something worse. We felt good about it.
What is different about Max Scherzer from what you remembered in Arizona?
MR: The difference is he just competes so much. In every aspect, the preparation he puts in is just remarkable. I don't know if you guys notice it. He prepares from the time he leaves his start for his next start. The way his repertoire has come together. I think the big difference from then until now is the way he can pitch with that repertoire. The stuff was always there. This guy reads swings and reads hitters. He's a student of the game. He really employs the mental aspect to it along with the physical. What he's meant to this clubhouse can't be understated either. He's a mentor, he's a leader. When things are needed at their most and when they're needed from a leader, he steps up.
Surprised at how good the young relievers have been?
MR: It wouldn't constitute 'surprise' for me. We liked all those guys in the minor leagues and we saw them all in spring training. We felt that there was a place for them on the club at some time in their careers and we felt that for each of them, we needed to bring them in here and felt that they were ready physically to pitch in the bigs. We think that all of them have come as advertised. We think that it was a big part of what our process was in the offseason, to have depth with bullpen arms. We've turned into more of a power bullpen and that's kind of what we envisioned this thing to be in the beginning.
Good to see Danny Espinosa come around?
MR: It's been great. He's worked extremely hard. He's gone through a lot of trials and tribulations. He's a great worker, man. Nobody outworks him. His skillset is great. He bring a lot to the table. Defensively and with baserunning, speed and throwing arm. Now that he's had some success from the left side, it's really good to see him do that because he's worked so hard at it.
Injury updates: Nothing new on Anthony Rendon or Casey Janssen, but Rizzo did say Nate McClouth is starting his hitting progression while rehabbing down in Viera, Fla. Rizzo expects him to return to the Nats at some point this year, but does not know when that will be.