WASHINGTON — Mike Rizzo had already acquired two proven veteran relievers, in Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson, vastly improving the depth of the Nationals’ bullpen two weeks ahead of the trade deadline.
But the Nats GM knew he wanted to make just one more deal, to shore up the back end of the pen that much more.
“I know I wanted to make one more move, but I thought it really put us in good position and gave us a little bit of added leverage when we did the Doolittle-Madson deal early,” Rizzo told The Sports Junkies on Wednesday.
The Nationals were in the enviable position of being able to deal from strength, because “we weren’t quote, unquote, ‘desperate’ to make a deal at the deadline.” If they didn’t get what they wanted, they could simply walk away happy with what they already had.
“Part of the strategy of jumping out early was I think prices are better early than they are at the deadline, often times, and when you get a deal that you could do at the deadline, I think sometimes — depending on the supply-and-demand — you could pay extra for it,” he said.
What the Nationals gave up in acquiring Doolittle and Madson — all told: Blake Treinen, Sheldon Neuse and Jesus Luzardo — was “much, much easier for us to absorb than it would have been if these two guys were on the market at the trade deadline,” Rizzo said.
“We felt that we gave ourselves some leverage,” he said. “We weren’t in the position that we had to do a deal… I wanted to do a deal. I wanted to get another quality arm at the back end there, be it an eight- or ninth-inning guy.”
As the clock ticked down toward the deadline, the Nationals pulled the trigger on a deal to acquire an All-Star closer, Brandon Kintzler, from the Twins, for nothing more than 20-year-old pitching prospect Tyler Watson, a 34th-round selection by Washington in 2015.
How Rizzo even came to know Kintzler was available is a story in itself. He’d observed watchfully as Minnesota acquired Jaime Garcia from Atlanta seven days earlier, a left-handed pitcher the Twins would eventually flip to the Yankees a day before the deadline.
To Rizzo, that early action signaled Minnesota was “open for business.”
“Our staff did a terrific job of unearthing some guys that maybe weren’t on a lot of people’s radar, as Brandon wasn’t,” he said. “He wasn’t really attached to anybody. When Garcia, the left-handed starter from the Braves, who went to the Twins, and when the Twins traded Garcia, we thought that they were open for business and we contacted them immediately after that. That’s how it started.”
Rizzo ultimately never sought an additional starting pitcher for the Nationals, who are without Stephen Strasburg (disabled list), Joe Ross (Tommy John) and, though this came after, potentially, Max Scherzer, who pulled himself from Tuesday’s start in Miami after suffering a neck spasm.
“We felt that we were protected there at starting pitching, mostly because we have four quality starters and some depth at that fifth spot,” he said.
“When Stras went down, I know a lot of people were pushing us to look for a starter, but we felt that in the situation we were in, with the lead in the division that we had, knowing what we knew about Stras’s prognosis, and having Max and Stras and Gio pitching well, and Tanner coming along and I think throwing the ball much, much better, that we were protected through the regular season.”
“And then in the playoffs, you kind of whittle it down to three or four starters anyways,” he said. “And I thought we were in good shape there. We never really explored any starting pitching help because of the depth that we have and the people we have in the big leagues already.”
Burke & Herbert Bank Fan Question of the Week
With all the hype the Dodgers are getting this year, do you feel comfortable that the Nats could be flying under the radar and not have all the pressure heading into the postseason? — Derek in Kensington
“I like pressure, because pressure means you’re winning and you’re in big games. I like that,” Rizzo said. “The alternative is not good, believe me. I’ve been there, too. I like playing these pressure games.
“Hey, the Dodgers got a great team. We respect them, we don’t fear them. We took two-out-of-three from them in Los Angeles. Last year in the playoffs, Clayton Kershaw — who’s one of the best starters in the history of baseball — pitched against us three times.
“We scored eight runs against him in two of those playoff games that he started and couldn’t win either one of them. We really look forward to playing those good teams, and if we’re lucky enough to play in the playoffs against those elite teams, we feel we’re one of the elite teams and two elite teams going at it in playoff baseball, there’s nothing better. We look forward to it if we’re lucky enough to get there.”
On if Adam Eaton (torn ACL) can return in time for postseason
“I don’t believe that. I don’t believe he can. I think that if he did, we’d be rushing him and we would not be doing him a service by doing that. We went and acquired Adam Eaton, he’s going to be a huge key for us in years to come. We thought he’d be a great key for us this year.
“You saw what he did when he was in the lineup for a month. He’s a spark plug and he’s a great player for us. He’s probably one of the best players in baseball that you never hear about. He does so much for a team that’s not even on a stat sheet that we learned when we had him for a while.
“When he went down, it was an opportunity for Michael Taylor and Brian Goodwin — they’ve taken the bull by the horns and really ran with the opportunity and played great for us.”