Many so-called “experts” have Washington Nationals’ manager Jim Riggleman entering this season on the proverbial hot seat. It’s a place Riggleman is familiar with as he is all too aware of the tenuous grip most managers have on their jobs. Yet during an opportunity to speak with him before last Saturday’s inaugural Senators’ Hot Stove dinner, I found him surprisingly at ease and confident about his ballclub’s chances this season even with Stephen Strasburg’s injury and Adam Dunn’s departure. A certain level of optimism at January appearances like this is expected, but I would go so far as to say that Riggleman is genuinely excited about the upcoming season.
In the off-season, the Nationals opened up their checkbook and added free agents Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche to the middle of their lineup and their new manager believes that “our 3-4-5 guys have a chance to be pretty productive guys.” He is also enthused by the prospects that have already contributed on the major league level or are very close in the pipeline.
One of the organization’s focus has been to improve their team defense and Riggleman thinks this will pay huge dividends for his much maligned pitching staff as he explained, “The reason it’s so important for us to play good defense is because our pitchers throw strikes and the ball’s in play. We don’t strike people out. So the ball is going to be out there, so you’re going to have to make plays. I think we’ll get a little better feel how maybe our pitching is better than we gave it credit for if we do play better defense.”
Sticking with the topic of pitching, I asked him about the failure to land a top of the line starter and the concept of working back to front with his collection of strong relievers. He quickly dismissed that notion, “That’s not how we want to do it,” before he admitted he “burned out the bullpen a little” last season out of necessity. Riggleman is relying on strong campaigns by Jordan Zimmermann and Jason Marquis along with the continued return to form by John Lannan to avoid a repeat of the same thing this year.
There are a lot of question marks heading into spring training for the Nationals, but Riggleman knows they are closer than the casual fan has noticed and he believes the pieces are in place to carry this team for years to come.