This past season, the Nationals finished in second place in the National League East, 10 games behind the Braves. Nats general manager Mike Rizzo knows what he has to do to improve the team: Acquire better players for the bench, add starting pitching and lefties in the bullpen.
MLB.com caught up with Rizzo recently to talk about the Nationals and his plans to improve the team.
MLB.com: Before we start talking about the Nationals, what was your reaction to the trade involving Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler?
Mike Rizzo: I think it's a trade that benefits both teams, the Tigers and Rangers. Both teams have intelligent general managers who know their clubs the best. I think those are two moves that improve both ballclubs.
MLB.com: Across the board, do you think this is the start of a lot of major moves in baseball?
Rizzo: It's hard to tell. There is no timetable for it. When a deal is presented and it makes sense to you, it has a life of its own and it happens quickly.
MLB.com: Let's talk about the Nationals. Going into the Winter Meetings, what do you think is the biggest need?
Rizzo: I think with our everyday lineup, we are very solid. Our rotation is good, we have much better depth in starting pitching than we had at this time last year. We have a good young core group of guys that are extremely talented. That's not to say we are a perfect ballclub. We can improve ourselves in our bullpen. We could certainly improve ourselves with left-handed relief pitching, although I think we are deeper and more talented this year than we were last year. We need to straighten out our bench and have some guys that can contribute not only in pinch-hitting roles and short stints, [but as everyday players if a key guy is injured for a long period of time].
MLB.com: Do you have the depth in the Minor Leagues to pull off a big trade for a starting pitcher?
Rizzo: We have a lot of desirable assets in the Minor Leagues. We also have young Major League talent. I know we have had a lot of discussions with teams that like our players, our depth. We are certainly not short of talent to make a trade, if we wanted to make a trade. Anything we do has to make sense for us, not only for this year, but for the long haul.
MLB.com: What is the future of Ross Detwiler? Do you still consider him a starting pitcher, or could he be one of your guys in the bullpen?
Rizzo: Ross is a very unique situation. He pitched extremely well for us this year [before he injured his back]. I think he could bolster our bullpen and give us some depth as a starter. What we did learn from last year is that we have good, young starting pitching. When you look at what Taylor Jordan did at his age, what Tanner Roark did and even Nathan Karns -- those are three names that should be able to help us next season.
We are seeing good things from guys like Robbie Ray, Sammy Solis and A.J. Cole. Those guys are good young pitchers and have had success [in the Minor Leagues]. Those are all guys that we could certainly see at some time in Washington.
MLB.com: Are there any Minor League hitters we could see in 2014?
Rizzo: Steven Souza has come a long way in his development. He had some injury problems that set him back a little bit, but he is still a very young player. His skills have been very, very good. But now the performance is catching up with the tools.
We have Matt Skole, who got sidetracked [with Tommy John surgery] on his non-throwing elbow. He should make a statement this year. Those are just two guys we will be seeing in the big leagues in the near future.
Michael Taylor is an exciting young player. We just put him on the 40-man roster. You are going to be oohing and aahing in Spring Training. He is a guy that can really go get the ball in center field. He has great tools as a hitter. He has a great upside and he is very, very young. We drafted him as a shortstop out of high school. He has really gravitated to center field.
MLB.com: How's it going trying to sign Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann to extensions? Do you think you will get it done before Spring Training?
Rizzo: We certainly have an interest in getting it done, but I don't know if we'll get it done before Spring Training. We've made overtures and we haven't had a deal done yet. That is as far as I can go with that.
MLB.com: Are you concerned they could wait and become free agents before getting the big money?
Rizzo: I'm not concerned about it. That's one path they can take. We want them in our organization. They are big pieces of our franchise, and we would like to keep them.
MLB.com: Then there is Bryce Harper, who could possibly opt out of his contract. Are you surprised the way the story came out the way it did?
Rizzo: I'm not surprised it came out. It took a long time for it to come out. There is nothing much I can say about the contract. It was a contract of a drafted player that we negotiated and agreed upon. That's as far as I can go with it. There is not much else to say.
We have Bryce under contract for the foreseeable future. So we feel good that he is with us, he is under contract. We feel that Harper is going to be here for a long, long time. He is one of our faces of our franchise. As far as I'm concerned, I want him around for a long time.
MLB.com: You currently have three second basemen: Anthony Rendon, Danny Espinosa and Steve Lombardozzi. Is Rendon your second baseman going into the 2014 season?
Rizzo: All three of them are good, talented second basemen, but also talented baseball players. They can play multiple positions. We feel good about their versatility, their talent level. They have performed admirably at the big league level at one time or another. We like all three of those players. They are all young, controllable, versatile players. They are guys that we are going to count on to help us not only this year, but down the road.
MLB.com: Do you think Rendon will be the Nationals' second baseman next year?
Rizzo: I can tell you he will be a National. In November, I don't know where he is going to play or what he is going to do. He is an extremely talented player that took very well to second base last season for the first time since he was in high school. He is an accomplished hitter that has a great upside. He can play many positions and came up as a third baseman throughout his collegiate career, and in terms of his Minor League career. He has a high ceiling as a Major Leaguer.
MLB.com: If you could do something over again in 2013, what would that be?
Rizzo: I would probably fast forward the clock to August and tell the guys to play like you did in August and September, and we would be in good shape. Early in the season, we had some injuries to some key players. In the past, we had our bench guys take over for a long period of time and give us some high performance at that position. We just didn't do it last year. It's no fault of anybody.
In 2012, we had a bench of Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, Lombo and Chad Tracy, and they performed admirably. But the same group of guys, with the exception of Lombo, didn't have the same year in '13 as they did in '12. That was a big part of the slow start that we had. As we adjusted the bench later on during the season, it became more functional. That, combined with our regular players getting healthy, obviously, our offense took off.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats.