The Nationals and Braves have kicked off what should be a year-long battle at the top of the National League East this season, with the Braves currently sitting atop the division with a sparkling 14-5 record while the banged-up Nationals are tied with the Mets at four games back.
But let’s focus on the Washington Nationals and Mike Rizzo, their general manager of nearly four years. Rizzo took the job with a necessary air of confidence, and the track record of a hard-working baseball man who started as an area scout in 1986 and did not become a scouting director until the Diamondbacks promoted him in 2000. When Arizona passed over Rizzo in 2006 for the general manager vacancy, he left to become the assistant GM in Washington. After Jim Bowden’s resignation in March of 2009, Rizzo was named interim GM and claimed the job on a permanent basis only months later.
The timing of Bowden’s resignation was unexpected and rather curious. The 2009 MLB Amateur draft was just three months away, and the Nationals held the number one overall pick with a consensus top pick on the board in flame-throwing San Diego State starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg, in addition to the tenth overall pick in the draft (compensation for not signing Aaron Crow in 2008).
With the Nationals in the midst of a horrendous season, ultimately finishing with a 59-103 record, Rizzo displayed the patience that his predecessor appeared to not possess. Even in being a rookie GM with what one might assume is a short leash, Rizzo did not rush into a flurry of trades or transactions in his first summer, or even his first off-season, only completing one trade in his first 15 months on the job.
We’ll take a look at three categories of player acquisition: the amateur draft, trades, and free agency. Sit back, relax, and enjoy an overview of the genius that is Mike Rizzo, and the patient diligence that built a potential dynasty up from the ground in less than three calendar years.
July 2010: Nationals trade closer Matt Capps to the Minnesota Twins for catcher Wilson Ramos and minor-league pitcher Joe Testa.
As a Twins fan, this trade was tough to wrap my mind around. Capps had been released by the Pittsburgh Pirates over the winter, and Rizzo pounced. Despite a poor 2009 campaign, Capps had been largely reliable in posting a 3.04 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP in 210 games over the previous three seasons in Pittsburgh. The Nationals made Capps their closer, and after being named Washington’s representative in the 2010 All-Star game, Rizzo saw the perfect opportunity to flip an “All-Star closer” for a valuable building block.
Rizzo did just that in convincing the Twins to give up Ramos, Baseball America’s #58 prospect. With Ramos blocked by Joe Mauer (yes, the DH is a thing, but the Twins forgot that for a moment, I think), GM Bill Smith was persuaded into moving one of his top minor-leaguers for a decent relief pitcher. And the Nationals had their catcher of the future, all while giving up an expendable reliever….
December 2011: Nationals trade pitchers A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, and Tommy Milone and catcher Derek Norris to the Oakland Athletics for pitcher Gio Gonzalez.
After nearly giving up an even larger haul of prospects for Zach Greinke in a trade that was nixed by Greinke and his no-trade clause, Rizzo out-bid a number of other teams to land the services of Gio Gonzalez. The key to the deal, other than Gonzalez’ all around good-ness, was the fact that he is under team control until 2015. Greinke, on the other hand, would have required an immediate contract extension.
Peacock (#3 Nationals prospect at the time, according to Baseball America), Cole (#4), and Norris (#9), made up a good chunk of Washington’s up-and-comers in the farm system, but further stacking an already-stacked rotation (and cheaply, at that) was certainly worth the cost.
(Side note: Somehow, the Nationals were able to re-acquire Cole in December of 2012 in a three-way trade with Oakland and the Seattle Mariners. The Nationals gave up Michael Morse in the trade, but came away as the clear winners yet again.)
August 2012: Nationals trade catcher David Freitas to the Oakland Athletics for catcher Kurt Suzuki and cash.
After the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the Nationals got a solid all-around catcher from the Oakland Athletics for a marginal catching prospect that hadn’t played above Hi-A at the time of the trade. It will be interesting to see what the Nationals do with a Suzuki/Ramos time share moving forward, but it is likely already one of the better catching duos in the game.
December 2012: Nationals trade pitcher Alex Meyer to the Minnesota Twins for center fielder Denard Span.
This trade was a finishing touch, and almost a luxury, to complete the best all-around lineup in the league. The talent level swap here may lean slightly in the Twins’ favor, as Meyer has ace/superstar potential, though he had never pitched a game above A-ball at the time of the trade. Span will never be a superstar, per se, but he is one of the top leadoff men in the game. He is an above average fielder with a good arm in center field, very good speed on the bases, and has always had a very good on-base percentage from the lead-off spot.
2009: Stephen Strasburg (#1), Drew Storen (#10)
2010: Bryce Harper (#1)
Yes, drafting is a pretty simple thing if you have the number one overall pick with a consensus number one prospect. Imagine having that scenario play out two years in a row. That happened to Rizzo and the Nationals, and having two consecutive 100-loss seasons certainly paid off in a big way.
Other Nationals players that were drafted by the organization pre-Rizzo include Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmermann, and Ross Detwiler. That’s a pretty good home-grown track record, and Rizzo has hit on his high picks and traded middling-to-topish-tier prospects for legitimate major-league-ready talent.
Rizzo has done a great job filling in the Nationals roster over the past few seasons with one to two-year stop-gaps that are easily tradable or are low-risk, high-reward players that become expendable, but in general, free agency has been somewhat of a mixed bag for the club.
In a highly criticized move coming after a 69-93 season, Rizzo signed former Phillies’ outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract in December of 2010, running through Werth’s age-38 season. In 2011, Werth hit just .232/.330/.389 and looked very much like a rapidly declining player that had just cashed in on a big contract. In 2012, Werth’s batting average bounced back to .300, but he hit just 5 home runs in 344 plate appearances due to a wrist injury that sapped much of his power.
Tossing the first three weeks of this season into the equation, Werth is hitting .257/.348./409 for the Nationals over the past two-plus seasons. Not very good (and certainly not worth the ridiculous contract), but given the amount of money that Rizzo has managed to save in other areas, it appears to be an over-pay that shouldn’t cripple them too much moving forward.
Last year, Rizzo struck gold with Adam LaRoche’s best year since 2006. This year, Rizzo took what could turn out to be a fantastic gamble on a one-year, $13 million contract for Dan Haren, in addition to a more substantial gamble on closer Rafael Soriano (2 years, $18m with a $14 m team option for 2015). Now that the Nationals are a bonafide contender and a potential dynasty, look for Rizzo to spend money if he sees an opportunity that fits his vision for the Nationals.
How great can the Nationals be? Sky’s the limit, really. It sounds crazy, but the lineup is well-rounded with speed and on-base percentage at the top with Span, Werth, and Harper, pop in the middle with Harper, Zimmerman, and LaRoche, and a good mix of power, potential, and some speed towards the bottom with Espinosa, Desmond, and whoever starts at catcher.
The lineup is solid defensively, with Harper and Span covering for Werth’s declining range in right field, and a young double-play combination up the middle. Both Ramos and Suzuki are solid catchers, and Zimmerman has always been one of the best-fielding third baseman in the game.
The rotation has the potential to be the best in the game, if it isn’t already. Strasburg/Gonzalez/Zimmermann is likely the best 1-2-3 punch in the league, and Haren and Detwiler as 4-5 starters is almost ridiculous. The bullpen is solid and has the potential to be spectacular with Clippard and Storen setting up for Soriano.
The farm system has been drained somewhat in landing some of the key cogs on the big league roster, but if they stay relatively healthy, the Nationals have a shot at an early-to-mid-1990s Atlanta Braves run, or potentially a late 1990s New York Yankees run if they have better luck in the playoffs. Our collective hats should be off to the job that Mike Rizzo has done in his four short years at the helm of the Nats. The current ability and overwhelming potential of D.C.’s squad will be a treat to watch, both this season and beyond.