This is part of a series of posts wherein we maul teams for their malodorous offseason miscues, and deify them for their deftly discerning deals.

Simply put, the Nationals under GM Mike Rizzo had an outstanding offseason.

Last summer I wrote that with the Phillies starting to age, the Mets in disarray, and some big contracts coming off the books for Washington this offseason, the Nats have a possible window for contention in 2010.

After assessing the Nationals strengths and needs, I wrote that in order to have hopes of taking advantage of this window, this offseason the Nats needed to find a front-of-the-rotation starter, a second baseman, and a closer. Estimating that the team might be able to find about $16 million or so to spend on free agents, I offered a scenario in which the Nats might sign John Lackey, Adam Kennedy, and Kevin Gregg.

The Nats basically went out and did everything I wanted, but even better and more sensibly than my suggestion. They actually scrounged up $17 million for free agents, and did go out and get a front-line starter, a second baseman and a closer. They actually did sign Adam Kennedy, just as I suggested (for a very reasonable 1 year, $1.25 million), but instead of getting Lackey (which was probably entirely unrealistic of me to even propose), they took very reasonable gambles on Jason Marquis (2 years, $15M) and Chien-Ming Wang (1 year, $2M), both of whom have shown front-line starter ability in the past, Marquis as recently as last year. Instead of Gregg for closer, they signed Matt Capps, who is coming off a down year but also was cheap, at only 1 year, $3.5 million, and thus a reasonable gamble.

The Nationals were also incredibly busy this offseason signing experienced veterans to minor league deals. If you are going to bring in some experienced vets for depth, this is the way to do it, as minor league deals involve no risk for the team. These are the kind of deals that don’t get much attention from the columnists at ESPN or wherever, and are often not made by lesser GMs, but which can make or break a team’s chances at the playoffs by providing essential depth when regulars inevitably wear down mid-season or succumb to freak injuries.

Minor league signings by the Nats this offseason include SP/RP Miguel Batista, UT Eric Bruntlett, OF Chris Duncan, SP Shawn Estes, RP Eddie Guardado, SP Livan Hernandez, SP Chuck James, OF Keven Mench, OF Jerry Owens, CF Willy Taveras, and RP Tyler Walker. Some of these guys are over the hill and others were never all that good to begin with (there’s a reason why they’re taking minor league deals), but all have significant major league experience and can probably be relied upon to step in and provide replacement level play for short periods, plus there is always the chance that one or two of them will discover some of the old magic at some point and become a significant contributor.

The one move by the Nats that I did not like was signing Ivan Rodriguez to a 2-year, $6 million deal. It’s not that much money, but even so, this deal struck me as overly long at two years, overly expensive, and not at all necessary, since Jesus Flores is quite good both offensively and defensively, and Pudge is no longer very good at all.

But overall it was a great offseason for the Nats. Mike Rizzo successfully recognized that the Nats have a window this season, correctly identified his his team’s needs, somehow cajoled ownership into giving him the necessary funds, and then made prudent, reasonable signings, all short-term deals that will not hurt the team going forward, and which, if gambles pay off, could put the team on the verge of contention this year.

A lot will still have to go right for the Nationals to reach the playoffs, obviously, but Rizzo did almost everything right this offseason, and is now officially my new favorite general manager.

Grade: A

Acquisitions: SP Jason Marquis, SP Chien-Ming Wang, C Ivan Rodriguez, RP Matt Capps

Losses: 1B Dmitri Young, OF Austin Kearns, C Josh Bard, RP Mike MacDougal, RP Saul Rivera

Projected Lineup, Rotation, and Closer

C – Jesus Flores
1B – Adam Dunn
2B – Adam Kennedy
3B – Ryan Zimmerman
SS – Cristian Guzman
LF – Josh Willingham
CF – Nyjer Morgan
RF – Elijah Dukes

SP1 – Jason Marquis
SP2 – John Lannan
SP3 – Chien-Ming Wang
SP4 – Scott Olson/Steven Strasberg
SP5 – Livan Hernandez/Garrett Mock/Craig Stammen/Ross Detweiler

CL – Matt Capps

– Hot Offseason Action Index –

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