Former Nationals president Stan Kasten was happy to learn that the club promoted general manager Mike Rizzo to executive vice president of baseball operations and gave him a five-year extension.
The Nationals started talking to Rizzo about an extension after Kasten resigned from his role as president of the club.
When reached by phone, Kasten said the Nationals giving Rizzo the extension is an important demonstration of stability for the franchise.
“It’s something every successful franchise needs,” Kasten said via telephone. “It a great step for the franchise and also a great indication to the fans about how serious the organization is about building long-term success.”
It was Kasten who lured Rizzo away from the D-Backs in 2006 to become the Nationals’ director of scouting. For the next two-plus seasons, Kasten groomed Rizzo for his future role.
Rizzo would be named interim GM in March of 2009 and received full-time status a few months later.
“Mike has a real gift for examining players and being able to tell which players are going to be successful and the ones who are not. It’s not a perfect science, obviously,” Kasten said. “It was very clear he wanted to be a GM. He was preparing for it while he was a scouting director — learning everything he could.
“He asked good questions to the best people in the business, With addition to having all the skills to being a scout, he also did other things that he could to become a GM.”
Since becoming the GM, the Nationals are loaded with young pitchers — including 2009 No. 1 overall Draft pick Stephen Strasburg, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery — who are expected to make an impact in the big leagues very soon.
The team also has its share of sluggers in the system including Bryce Harper who is expected to be in the big leagues in two years.
“In the last two years, we’ve seen, I think, all of the good things that Mike has been able to do. And I think you could look forward to even more of that now and going forward,” Kasten said.
Outfielder Austin Kearns never played on a winning big-league team until the Indians traded him to the Yankees last July. Kearns, a reserve for New York, is a series away from going to the World Series.
MLB.com caught up with Kearns before the start of the American League Championship Series to talk about his time with the Yankees, Indians and Nationals.
MLB.com: What was your reaction when the Indians traded you to the Yankees?
Austin Kearns: I was excited, obviously. I wasn’t expecting anything. You get a chance to play in the postseason for a World Series [ring]. That’s what it is all about.
MLB.com: Is playing for the Yankees what you expected?
Kearns: It has been pretty much what I expected. There are a lot of good people and workers. They take care of their business. They have fun, but they come and get their work done. It has been fun to be here.
MLB.com: Before the trade, you were never on a winning team in the big leagues. What adjustments did you have to make when you became a member of the Yankees?
Kearns: … You come here and you are expected to win, so that is the mindset that you have. You go out there and you expect for good things to happen.
MLB.com: You got off to a great start for the Yankees and you tailed off a little bit toward the end. What happened?
Kearns: It’s part of the game. I scuffled a little bit. I’m banged up a little bit. It’s part of it.
MLB.com: What are you expecting the rest of the way against Texas?
Kearns: It’s going to be a dog fight, no matter who you play from here on out. Texas is a good ballclub. They played well [this season]. So I’m expecting some good baseball.
MLB.com: With you on a winning team, do you think about what Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn are going through with the Nationals?
Kearns: I know how much those guys want to win and how much they deserve to get that chance. I’m sure they will be part of a winner sooner rather than later. Those guys have put in the work. They definitely deserve to a shot to be in the postseason.
MLB.com: Overall, you had a your best season since 2006. What was the difference between this year and the previous three years with the Nationals.
Kearns: Health was a big part of it. The guys in Cleveland did a good job keeping out there on the field. I had a lot of problems with my hand — my thumb. So they helped me out with a pad to wear. I’ve went through a million things to try to help the thump. So they finally found something that works. That definitely helped. I think that is the biggest thing.
MLB.com: What does the future holds for Austin Kearns?
Kearns: I want to play and hopefully get a chance to be on a team where you get another chance to be in the postseason. We’ll see where it goes.
MLB.com: Do you want to stay with the Yankees?
Kearns: I would love to stay. It doesn’t get any better than playing with these guys.
In his first full season as manager of the Nationals, Jim Riggleman guided the team to a 69-93 record, a 10-game improvement from last year.
MLB.com caught up with Riggleman recently to talk about the 2010 season and the needs for next year.
MLB.com: When you look at the 2010 season, what sticks out in your mind?
Jim Riggleman: I have mixed feelings about our year. I’m very disappointed in our record. I’m not disappointed in areas of progress that we have made. I think the bullpen that [general manager] Mike Rizzo put together — with holdovers from last year — gave me a lot of options. I’m very happy with the bullpen. I’m very happy with our defense late in the season with Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, Pudge [Ivan Rodriguez] and Wilson Ramos. I think that really solidified some things there. Ryan Zimmerman played well at third. Some of that was expected, some of that we didn’t know for sure, but I’m very pleased with a lot of it.
I felt like we gave some games away between the end of May to the All-Star break. I just felt we gave away a lot of games that we should have put away. We just hit an unexplainable funk there of defensive lapses that I really can’t explain. That was disappointing.
MLB.com: If you had to do anything differently, what would it be?
Riggleman: Early in the year, we were playing three middle infielders and we were winning. But I probably fell into the trap of Cristian Guzman hitting so well, that I got away from that three-man rotation and played Guzman and Desmond. I got away from Adam Kennedy a little bit.
Guzman’s numbers continues to be good, but our victories went down. So when I went back and put Kennedy in there — because he didn’t play — he wasn’t the same player for a couple of week — defensively. I probably wouldn’t have fallen into that trap. I probably would have kept rotating those three guys — getting Guzzie at short little more and Kennedy at second little more. That’s about the only lineup thing I would have done differently.
MLB.com: The Nationals had a good first month, going 13-10. Did you expect the team to finish the season with a record of .500 or better? If so, how disappointing was it that the team finished with a losing record.
Riggleman: At our highest point, we were 20-15. We were not really hitting on all cylinders at that time – by any means. Tyler Clippard was on fire. He bailed us out in many situations. Matt Capps was outstanding. What Clippard and Capps were doing, there was no way that could continue like that. We weren’t really hitting at that point. Guzman was hitting, but Ryan Zimmerman missed [games] because of injury.
So we were not hitting on all cylinders and I didn’t know how to take our record. I felt we were winning games because we played good defense the first six weeks and Capps and Clippard were outstanding. I didn’t get caught up in what our record was, what it might be. I was going day-to-day.
MLB.com: What do you think is the biggest need for 2011?
Riggleman: That’s a great question because I agree with Mike. [We need] a front-line starting pitcher/. However, if there isn’t a front-line pitcher we could obtain, then I would be comfortable with our starting pitching the way it is. But strengthen the strength which is our bullpen. Make it stronger with the understanding that our starters are who they are and we may be going to be bullpen even earlier because we have another guy or two down there to go along with Clippard, Peralta, Sean Burnett, Drew Storen and Doug Slaten. But ideally, you are talking about a top-line starting pitcher and that is very hard to obtain.
MLB.com: What about the offense? It was a disappointment.
Riggleman: If you break each guy down individually — Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, Michael Morse Desmond, Pudge — you say he was OK. In couple of cases, Dunn and Zimmerman had really good offensive years. But collectively, it did not produce the runs that you would think it would produce. If each guy had an OK year, you would think that we would [have more runs scored]. So we missed something there — the situational hitting or whatever. We didn’t score as many runs as we should have scored based on each guys individual performance.
MLB.com: Do you think the defense needs improving?
Riggleman: I think it is already strengthened. Certainly, we can’t play the way we did during the period before the All-Star break. From mid-May to late June, it was terrible. I think with Pudge and Ramos, Zimmerman, Espinosa and Desmond, I think our defense has a chance to be real good. Our defense in the outfield? In the baseball community, I think each guy would be considered probably an average outfielder at their positions. That’s OK. If you are an average Major League outfielder, that’s a compliment.
I think our defense, without changing personnel, will be better next year. Surprisingly, I didn’t realize it, I guess it was better this year than it was last year. It didn’t seem like it, did it?
MLB.com: Not at all. The final question is, are you coming back to manage the Nationals next year?
Riggleman: I’ve been given every indication that I’m coming back, but I haven’t signed on the dotted line. That’s all I can say about it.
The Nationals are sending scouts to watch D-Backs right-hander Brandon Webb pitch in Instructional League games on Saturday and Thursday, according to a baseball source.
Webb will pitch the first game in Tucson, Ariz., while the second game will take place at Chase Field, the home of the D-Backs.
Webb, who is a free agent after the season, hasn’t pitch in almost two years because of shoulder problems.
It was learned by MLB.com on Friday that Webb would have interested in playing for the Nationals if he doesn’t re-sign with Arizona. It’s not a secret that Webb has a close relationship with Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who drafted Webb in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft when Rizzo was director of scouting with Arizona.
According to published reports, Webb threw one inning on Wednesday and didn’t have any problems throwing the baseball. He told MLB.com that day that his fastball was clocked in the 80s, but he expects the velocity to improve with each outing.
It was the first time Webb faced hitters in a game since Opening Day 2009 when he experienced shoulder discomfort that would lead to shoulder surgery in August of that year.
If he signs with any teams, Webb most likely would have to sign an incentive-laden deal because hasn’t pitched in a big-league game in almost two years.
Rizzo was not available for comment.
Webb may be a risk worth taking. There was a three-year period where Webb was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. In 2006, Webb was the National League Cy Young award winner by going 16-8 with a 3.10 ERA. Two years later, he won 22 games and had a 3.30 ERA with Arizona.
The Nationals have been a disappointment on the field this season, but they still had players who performed up to their capabilities. With that in mind, MLB.com hands out its team awards for the 2010 season.
MVP — The Nationals’ Bullpen: Almost two years ago, general manager Mike Rizzo called the bullpen incompetent. Entering Friday’s action against the Mets, Washington’s bullpen, led by Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard, is one of the best in baseball. The relievers have pitched a combined 530 innings with a 3.33 ERA.
Comeback Player of the Year — Roger Bernadina: He missed most of last season because of a fractured right ankle. This year, Bernadina received his first chance in the big leagues and became one of the best young players on the team.
Best Pitcher — Stephen Strasburg: He came to the big leagues as advertised. He pitched in only 12 games, but he was dominate in almost everyone of them before having elbow reconstruction in early September.
Rookie of the Year — Ian Desmond: You can’t shut manager Jim Riggleman up when it comes to Desmond. The skipper already proclaimed Desmond one of the leaders on the team because he is productive and plays hard for nine innings. For those reasons, Riggleman has allowed Desmond to speak his mind.
Most Improved Player–Michael Morse: He has been in professional baseball for 11 years and most of hit has been spent on the disabled list. He even spent a brief time on the DL this season. But when he came back in mid-May, Morse was a productive hitter off the bench. People are now wondering if he can play every day. He must alter his swing to prove that he can do it on a regular basis.
Chilly Billy–Adam Dunn: It was the best group of guys since the 2004 Expos. No one blamed the media for the team’s problems on and off the field. But Dunn deserves this trophy. Members of the media went to Dunn’s locker on a daily bases to ask about his free-agent status, below average defense or his majestic home runs. Dunn never turned them down.
Best Moment–Strasburg’s debut: Aside from a brief hiccup — a two-run homer — Strasburg was nothing short of astonishing in his big-league debut, whiffing 14 Pirates, including his last seven, over seven innings to earn the win.
Lifetime achievement award — Dave Jageler, Stan Kasten and Charlie Slowes: In his first press conference in May of 2006, Kasten vowed to improve the team’s depleted farm system, and he made good on the promise as the Nationals went from having one of the worst farm systems in baseball to a respectable one, thanks to strengthened scouting and player-development teams.
Despite the inconsistency on the field, Slowes and Jageler have kept Nats fans entertained on the radio with their quick wit and tell-it-like-it-is style. Here’s hoping they stay on the air another 30 years calling baseball games in DC.
Muhammad Ali Award — Nyjer Morgan: On Sept. 1, Morgan charged the mound in the sixth inning and threw a punch at Marlins right-hander Chris Volstad, who threw a pitch behind the left-handed hitter. It marked the second time Volstad threw a pitch at Morgan. Two innings earlier, Volstad hit Morgan in the lower back. Morgan went on to steal two bases in the inning even though Washington was down, 14-3. The Marlins had a problem with Morgan dating back to Aug. 31, when he barreled into catcher Brett Hayes, who suffered a separated shoulder on the play.
Hustle Award — Willie Harris: He is hitting under .200, but that doesn’t stop him from playing hard all the time.
Catch of the Year — Morgan: In the bottom of the third inning on June 25th, it looked like Orioles outfielder Corey Patterson was going to hit a home run off right-hander J.D. Martin, but Morgan climbed the wall and robbed Patterson. Morgan didn’t have much to say about the catch, because Washington lost the game, 7-6.
“It was a nice catch, but the game hurts — losing to the ballclub over there,” Morgan said. “We have a really good team over here. We didn’t bury them. That’s what really hurts.”
Phillies pitching was able to stop first baseman Adam Dunn in a 7-1 victory over the Nationals on Wednesday night at Nationals Park. He went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts and may have played his last home game in a Nationals uniform. He is a free agent after the season ends Sunday.
A day after indicating that he wasn’t thinking about playing his last game at Nationals Park, Dunn acknowledged that he was trying to please the fans by trying to hit a home run during his four at-bats.
The chant, “Sign Adam Dunn,” was heard every time Dunn came to the plate.
“Yesterday, when I was asked that question — how it could be the final game here — I thought it would be like any other game,” Dunn said. “And then you guys got me thinking, when I started to hear that stuff, I tried to hit every ball as far as I possibly could. I was trying not to do that, but I ended up trying to do that. I wish it would have ended better today but the Phillies whipped us.
“You can’t put it into words. That’s the first time in a long time I had the jitters. I haven’t had that in baseball in a long time. Tonight, for some reason, I had it. It was pretty cool feeling.”
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said he would not be happy if the Nationals weren’t able to sign Dunn to an extension. Zimmerman said it would be hard to find a power hitter to replace Dunn, who is hitting .262 with 38 home runs and 103 RBIs.
“It would be frustrating,” Zimmerman said. “Obviously, if you lose him, you lose a big piece of a lot. It’s hard to find a [cleanup] hitter like that. Obviously, he does a lot in here that you guys and the fans don’t get to see. He is a good teammate. To let him go, it’s going to be hard to replace him. When you go out and find a guy like that, it’s not only hard, but expensive.”
A month after having elbow reconstruction, Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg said he had his cast removed two weeks ago, is close to having his range of motion and should be rehabbing his right elbow soon.
Strasburg, who is continuing his studies at San Diego State University, said he watches the Nationals on regular basis and acknowledged that it’s sometimes hard to watch them because he is not out there. Strasburg is expected to be back on a Major League by the end of next year.
“I wish I was out there with everybody,” Strasburg said during a conference call. “I think the hardest part was being back [in California] and waiting for the surgery to happen. Once it was over with, it was sense of relief. I knew everything was fixed and I’m closer to getting back out there.”
Strasburg was the talk of baseball after making his Major League debut on June 8 against the Pirates. A sellout crowd of 40,315 at Nationals Park saw Strasburg allow just four hits, and his 14 strikeouts established a club record. The 14 strikeouts by Strasburg in a Major League debut were one shy of the all-time mark of 15 set by Karl Spooner in 1954 and J.R. Richard in ’71.
But his season came to an end after he felt pain in the elbow on Aug. 21 against the Phillies. Strasburg would have surgery a couple of weeks later. Strasburg made 12 starts and went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA.
“I’m chalking it up as a great season,” Strasburg said. “It’s unfortunate for this to happen. While I was out there, I had more people become Nats fans. I know there are going to be there when I come back in a year. I’m not too worried about it. I’ll know I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can, be back out there and show people what I can bring to the table.”
The Nationals are expected to announce by the end of this week that Jim Riggleman will be retained as manager, according to a baseball source.
Last offseason, Riggleman signed a two-year deal, but only 2010 was guaranteed. The team could have bought him out after this season.
Washington is 63-88 and has improved from last season, when it went 59-103. It was Riggleman who brought accountability back into the Nationals’ clubhouse for the first time since Frank Robinson managed the club from 2002-06.
Riggleman replaced Manny Acta as manager of the Nationals after the All-Star break last season. The club went 33-42 and finished the year on a seven-game winning streak.
This is Riggleman’s fourth managerial stint, after leading the Padres, Cubs and Mariners. His best season as a skipper was in 1998, when he guided the Cubs to the playoffs after they won a National League Wild Card tiebreaker over the Giants. The team lost to the Braves in the NL Division Series, 3-0.
The Nationals announced the signing of a two-year player development contract with the Hagerstown Suns of the Single-A South Atlantic League.
Among the familiar names to have played for the Suns since the Nationals began their affiliation with Hagerstown in 2007 are pitcher Drew Storen, catcher Derek Norris and outfielder Justin Maxwell.
Hagerstown is located almost equidistant from Nationals Park (73 miles), Double-A Harrisburg (77 miles) and Class Potomac (85 miles). More than half of the 16 South Atlantic League clubs reside within a six-hour drive of the nation’s capital.
“Our partnership between the Nationals and Hagerstown has fit well,” said Nationals president Stan Kasten. “We very much appreciate the proximity and hospitality that Hagerstown and the Suns provide our players. We are pleased to have both town and team as members of our affiliate family.”
No matter what happens during the rest of the 2010 season, the Nationals will have a better record than last year, when they were 59-103.
Entering Tuesday’s action against the Astros, the Nationals are 62-88. However, Washington has lost four straight and 10 out of its past 12 games. Manager Jim Riggleman is concerned that the recent losing streak may mask the progress the club has made this year.
“You worry about that a little a bit because the fans have supported us so well,” Riggleman said after the team’s 8-2 loss to the Astros. “I think people have gotten excited about some of the nice players we have put out there.
“But when you lose too much, they are going to get a little disillusioned with it. We can’t let that happen. We have to keep playing with energy, play hard, battle with energy and not take innings off. The other clubs are going to get you if they do that.”