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Rizzo on Papelbon grievance: "It's not personal"

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Rizzo on Papelbon grievance: "It's not personal"

NASHVILLE — The Nationals say they were aware of Jonathan Papelbon's grievance against the club the day after they suspended him in late September and insist it doesn't change their plans for the controversial closer.

"That's business. It's not personal," general manager Mike Rizzo said Monday at the Winter Meetings, adding: "It was something we've known about for a long time."

Rizzo wouldn't go into specifics about the actual grievance process, which is expected to carry over into next spring, but spoke of Papelbon as though he remains in the club's 2016 plans.

"Suffice it to say, Pap's a part of this team," he said. "He's on our roster. He's a really good, late-inning pitcher. He's had a great career. We're glad he's on the club and can't wait to see him closing out games again."

That by no means guarantees Papelbon actually finds himself in a Nationals uniform come spring training or Opening Day. Rizzo did acknowledge there has been interest from other teams in the right-hander but stressed he would only deal him if presented with an offer that makes sense strictly from a baseball standpoint.

The same theory applies to Drew Storen, who was bumped from the closer's role when Papelbon was acquired in July and has been unhappy with his situation since.

"We're not running anybody out of town," Rizzo said. "We like the bullpen that we have. Last year, we had the sixth-best bullpen in the National League. It was better than league-average. It didn't end well for us. They pitched poorly down the stretch. But there's a lot of good, talented players in there, and we don't have to move anybody if we don't want to. There's no money constrictions on us. We're going to put the best bullpen that we can out there, and the best 25-man roster that we can."

The Nationals finished the season with the NL's seventh-best bullpen but their collective relief ERA was 3.40 before the Papelbon trade, 3.55 after it. They also ranked last in the NL with a 47.6 percent save conversion rate after Papelbon was acquired.

Asked if he believes Papelbon and Storen could coexist another season as teammates, Rizzo responded: "They're both highly talented, extremely competitive, very good relief pitchers. If that's your eighth-ninth inning guys, we feel comfortable with that."

Papelbon's grievance is over the fact the Nationals withheld his pay during the 4-game suspension handed down by the club after the closer got into a dugout altercation with Bryce Harper that included him choking his MVP teammate. Given the relatively minimal amount of money involved — roughly $288,000 of the $13 million Papelbon made this year — it seems fair to question whether this is a move by the player to try to be released. If that happened, the Nationals would be responsible for Papelbon's entire $11 million salary in 2016, making him a free agent.

MORE NATIONALS: WASHINGTON CONSIDERING FORMER MVP

"I don't see that at all," Rizzo said. "This isn't personal. This isn't about the Nationals against Jonathan Papelbon. This is something that's a business move. The union does this routinely. It's not our first grievance that we've had. Most of the time, these things are done professionally and amicably."

Rizzo said there hasn't been any contact between the Nationals and Papelbon since season's end, aside from "a couple of the coaches reaching out to him and a couple of players reaching out to him."

The Nationals face an unusual dilemma at these meetings, both seeking to add experienced late-inning relievers while also listening to offers on two experienced late-inning relievers. While it seems unlikely the club would acquire another prominent reliever this winter and still keep both Storen and Papelbon, Rizzo insisted that "whatever way we can improve the bullpen, we'd certainly look into it."

The Nationals made a strong push for veteran setup man Darren O'Day over the last week, according to sources, ultimately losing out when the Orioles offered a fourth guaranteed year. That deal hasn't actually been finalized yet, but sources said it still is expected to be wrapped up within the next few days and the Nationals would only be a fallback option for O'Day if the deal with Baltimore somehow fell through just shy of the finish line.

The Nationals to date have sat on the sidelines while other clubs have locked up several relievers to deals of at least three guaranteed years and at least $22 million, including O'Day, Ryan Madson and Joakim Soria. That's more years and more money than traditionally has been given to non-closers, but it appears to be a fact of life right now.

"The market is what the market bears," Rizzo said. "Those are talented pitchers coming off good seasons. It's supply and demand. The supply was short and the demand is high."

The Nationals have added one reliever to a major-league contract so far this winter: Oliver Perez, who signed a 2-year, $7 million deal. Rizzo said he was intrigued by the veteran left-hander's ability to resurrect his career as a matchup specialist in recent years.

"He's a veteran presence," the GM said. "He's had two really, really good seasons. He's a person that knows several of the players and will fit into the clubhouse, and gives you a really good, left-on-left guy. And if he falls back to where he was two years ago, he was good against both sides of the plate. He gives us a good, veteran arm to go along with some of our good, young, electric arms. We feel it will be a good fit for us."

The Nationals hoped to retain veteran Craig Stammen after a lost season in which he made five appearances before having surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his arm. But the two sides couldn't agree on terms of a contract that would have been for less than the $1.8 million Stammen would have been guaranteed through arbitration, so the club decided not to tender him a contract last week.

"Craig has been a great competitor for years for us," Rizzo said. "But the fact that the price tag was what it was, knowing that he's just starting to throw, unsure about where his health is going to be in spring training, was the reason that we non-tendered him. We tried to re-sign him as we non-tendered him, and it just didn't work out."

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Stand pat or hunt for replacements at second base?

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Stand pat or hunt for replacements at second base?

Mike Rizzo is wading through the offseason with two separate to-do lists. One covers everything Bryce Harper and the other three distinct gaps in his roster: catcher, second base and the third spot in the starting rotation.

The Harper list will ultimately be decided by ownership. Rizzo wants him back. It’s up to the Lerner family how much they are willing to spend on a return. They were the decision-makers on Max Scherzer’s contract. They will again be so with Harper, weighing many of the same things he will, such as legacy, winning and off-the-field futures.

The other list is more mundane. However, it may be more important. The Nationals have multiple quality solutions if Harper signs elsewhere. And no matter where he ends up, they needed to work on the secondary list. Monday, the Nationals reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with catcher Kurt Suzuki, making headway there. So, let’s first take a look at second base before checking on the third rotation spot later in the week:

The in-house option: Split time between Wilmer Difo and Howie Kendrick

Rizzo told reporters at the general manager meetings he felt good about using the above combination to take care of second base next season. Kendrick would, theoretically, provide a steady bat. Difo would, theoretically, provide athleticism the lineup needs and solid defense at a spot where it did not exist the last three seasons with Daniel Murphy.

The platoon line appears clean: Kendrick would be a right-handed option, Difo, though a switch-hitter, a left-handed choice since he is better against right-handed pitching. Difo could also carry more of the load early in the season assuming the Nationals slow play Kendrick in his age-36 season when coming back from an Achilles tendon tear. Nationals medical staff informed Kendrick he would be “back to normal” if he followed the post-surgery protocols.

“And that’s very refreshing to hear something like that, especially if you have an injury of this caliber,” Kendrick told me in September. “Years ago, it might not have been the same. But now with the advancement of technology and the way they do surgery I feel really confident I’ll be back to normal and playing. Just the process, I’ve got to stick with the process and trust it. “Mentally, I really don’t have a problem with it. I know it just takes time because I’ve had injuries before. So, it’s like, all right, just follow the protocol and I’ll be where I need to be when it’s time.”

Kendrick is doing most of his rehabilitation work at Banner Health in Tempe, Arizona. The facility is just down the road from his house. It also allows him to work with physical therapist Keith Kocher, who Kendrick knows from his time with the Los Angeles Angels. Kocher also knows Nationals director of athletic training Paul Lessard and athletic trainer Greg Barajas. Barajas previously worked for Kocher.

Difo, entering his age-27 season, is nearing the end of the line with the organization. He had just a .649 OPS last season in 408 at-bats. There’s little to indicate an offensive uptick is forthcoming. Both he and Kendrick, who will become a free agent, are likely gone after this season.

Should the Nationals choose this platoon path, they would have to live with Difo’s lack of offense and occasional in-field brain freezes. Davey Martinez likes to hit him ninth when he plays, bumping the pitcher in front of him. He would like Difo to calm his swing and have a more measured approach at the plate.

Relying on Kendrick following the injury is a gamble. But, this pair is an option if the organization believes everything else is in place. A team .723 OPS at the position would qualify for middle of the National League pack last season. Kendrick and Difo combine for a .703 career OPS.

The free agent choices: Old, but reliable

Two of the six Gold Glove finalists at second base in 2018 are on the market. Jed Lowrie, who reinvented his offensive effectiveness during the last two seasons, and DJ LeMahieu, who won his third Gold Glove this year.

LeMahieu is the top option for the Nationals if they want to make a hefty investment. He’s 30 years old, a two-time All-Star, the league’s best defender at the position and the 2016 National League batting champion (hello, Coors Field: .391 at home and .303 on the road that season).

What’s interesting is his career OPS-plus, which is adjusted for a hitter’s park, is well below that of Kendrick. Kendrick has a 107 career OPS-plus, LeMahieu 92. And Kendrick didn’t earn the gap only earlier in his career. He put together a 118 OPS-plus in 2017 when being used properly by both the Phillies and Nationals in a reduced role. However, LeMahieu would be a significant fielding upgrade for a team that needs to be better at cutting 90 feet here, 90 feet there from the opposition.

Lowrie is going into his age-35 season. He delivered two of the top seasons of his career in the last two years. Both earned a 120 OPS-plus. He’s shown more power and more patience at the plate. The question is how much to pay him for those last two seasons, the usual paying-for-past-performance risk. The significant dips in Lowrie’s average and slugging percentage following the All-Star break last season can be viewed as red flags.

Asdrubal Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Brian Dozier and Murphy are also among the lot available. None are getting younger.

The trade options: Limited.

To reiterate: Limited. First, the Nationals’ assets have dwindled in recent years. Second, Carter Kieboom could be ready to play second in 2019 if he is still in the organization. Third, there’s no reason to burn an asset to fill this spot now.

A recommended path

Signing Suzuki will help patch catcher. Another move is likely coming there. Perhaps a second low-cost veteran. Remember, the Nationals allotted roughly $11 million to the position last season. Suzuki will cost half that, which leaves room for further investment without increasing the year-over-year payroll in regards to the Competitive Balance Tax. The salary cost stays the same, the tax threshold rises, you find savings at that spot.

Resolving the catcher position, at least in part, delivers second base as one of the few remaining uncertain spots on the roster. Which in turn provides the Nationals wiggle room when making a decision this offseason. So, the recommendation is to stick and wait. Shoring up this spot could be a move for July or even August at a much lower cost. In the interim, the Difo-Kendrick platoon is surrounded by enough current talent to hover near league average without being a significant hole.

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Reports: Nationals sign catcher Kurt Suzuki

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Reports: Nationals sign catcher Kurt Suzuki

The Nationals took a step Monday morning toward fixing one of their largest ailments.

They signed veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to a two-year deal, according to multiple reports. Suzuki gives the Nationals at least a partial solution to a spot which spent most of the season as a distinct problem. Nationals catchers finished 14th in the National League in OPS last season.

The question around Suzuki is not if he will be an improvement -- it’s hard not to be -- but if this signals the Nationals have again given up on trying to acquire Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto. Everything indicates the Marlins’ asking price to be extremely high, think Juan Soto or Victor Robles to start, and this signing ostensibly withdraws the Nationals from the Realmuto chase.

Washington could pair Suzuki with an in-house defensive option like Spencer Kieboom. The problem with that approach is the likelihood of injury. Suzuki is a 35-year-old catcher enter his 13th season. Even if he’s not injured, he’s unlikely to play more than 90 games. If he is injured, that leaves the Nationals with the same troubling situation of last season when Kieboom and Pedro Severino were splitting time when Matt Wieters was out.

At the least, Suzuki will be an improvement. His 2.1 WAR from last season severely outpaces the -0.1 WAR compiled in 2018 by Kieboom, Wieters and Severino. Though, he is not the “front-line catcher” Rizzo said at the general manager meetings the team would pursue.

Another thing to note here: It’s just Nov. 19 and Rizzo has done a lot of chipping away at the Nationals’ problems without spending big money. Reliever Kyle Barraclough was acquired for international slot money the team was unlikely to use anyway. Reliever Trevor Rosenthal is on an incentive-laden deal to likely be the setup man with a baseline price lower than that of Ryan Madson last season. And Suzuki’s last deal was for one year and $3.5 million. Expect this deal to be in that neighborhood. That’s significant filler early and at a low cost.

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