On the heels of the best season in Washington baseball since the 1920s and in the midst of a sharp decline this season, the Nationals promoted franchise architect Mike Rizzo from general manager to president of baseball operations and awarded him a new long-term contract.
“Upon purchasing the Nationals, Mike Rizzo was our first hire and he has performed brilliantly,” Owner Ted Lerner said in a statement released by the team. “We started with an idea about how baseball teams should be built and he translated it into a reality far faster than many could have imagined. He knows the game, the players, and is a true professional. Under his direct leadership, the Nationals have become one of the most exciting and respected young teams in baseball.”
Rizzo becomes the Nationals’ first team president since Stan Kasten vacated the position in October 2010, although Rizzo’s duties will be different than Kasten’s, who worked more on the business side of the franchise. Rizzo will maintain the same duties as before but will be able to expand his role into other areas if he wishes, said Harolyn Cardozo, Rizzo’s longtime assistant.
Specific terms of the deal are not known at this time, but it is a multi-year deal with a club option at the end.
Rizzo had been working under a tenuous contract situation. He signed his first extended contract after the 2010 season. The Nationals announced it as a five-year deal, but in reality it was a three-year pact with two team options. In the spring, the Nationals exercised a team option in Rizzo’s contract for the 2014 season. The Nationals also held an option for the 2015.
Rizzo viewed the Nationals picking up his option as more of a disservice then a reward, a person familiar with the situation said at the time. Principal Owner Mark Lerner told The Washington Times in April the sides had engaged in talks for an extension, but multiple people close to the situation said in early May those talks had not actually transpired at that time.
Negotiations between the Nationals and Rizzo started shortly thereafter and have been taking place for the past few months, Cardozo said. The talks included starts and stops, delays Rizzo induced himself as he tended to team matters. In the end, Rizzo felt grateful and rewarded.
“In seven years I’ve worked with him, I don’t think I’ve seen him happier than he was today for about 10 minutes,” Cardozo said. “Then he went back to work.”
Rizzo, 52, joined the Nationals in 2007 as an assistant general manager in charge of scouting. He helped build the Nationals’ farm system and became general manager in 2009 after Jim Bowden resigned following a scandal in Dominican Republic. A career scout, Rizzo had the good fortune to draft Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper and also reformed the Nationals with a series of aggressive draft choices and savvy trades.
“I am truly proud to be a part of the Washington Nationals and excited to be able to continue what we’ve started here,” Rizzo said in a statement released by the team. “The task of building this club from nearly expansion level – at both the minor and major league level – has been challenging, but the Lerner family has been nothing but supportive.
“We’ve made significant progress toward our goal of competing for a World Series championship, and I intend to do everything in my power to one day hand that trophy to Mr. Lerner at Nationals Park. We’ve still got work to do, but I am pleased that ownership trusts me to get it done.”
One year after claiming the NL East with a jubilant, 98-win season, the Nationals currently sit at 52-56, closer to the last-place Marlins than the first-place Braves. Rizzo has been challenged recently by Manager Davey Johnson over the firing of hitting coach Rick Eckstein and by ace set-up reliever Tyler Clippard over the treatment of reliever Drew Storen.
The timing of the Nationals’ may appear odd with that background. But the Nationals had incentive to work out Rizzos’s contract now. Ownership wanted to cement Rizzo’s status before the Nationals hire a new manager this offseason, Cardozo said. The team did not want Rizzo to worry about his own contract as he negotiated with a new manager. It also believed the position would be more attractive if candidates saw long-term stability at the top of the organization.
Nationally, Rizzo may best be known for his role in the team’s voluntary shutdown of ace Stephen Strasburg during the playoffs last season. As Strasburg sat on the sideline while the Nationals protected his prized right arm two years after Tommy John surgery, the Nationals lost the 2012 NLDS to the St. Louis Cardinals in five games.
But the Nationals never would have made it to the playoffs in the first place without the guidance of Rizzo. His most high-profile moves have included signing outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract in December 2010, giving franchise third baseman Ryan Zimmerman a $100 million contract extension and trading four prospect for left-hander Gio Gonzalez.
Behind the scenes, Rizzo rebuilt the Nationals’ scouting department and front offices with an array of new hires, convincing the Lerner family to devote more resources to personnel. He also made a series of smaller deals, such as trading Ryan Langerhans for Michael Morse and signing Adam LaRoche as a free agent, that helped built the 2012 team.
The Nationals have backtracked this year as new additions like Dan Haren and Denard Span have underperformed. Johnson has been openly critical about the “balance” the Nationals bullpen lacked at the start of the season.
But Rizzo has undoubtedly brought the Nationals a long way since he arrived, taking over a 103-loss disaster and taking it to the postseason four years later. The team’s owners overlooked the current state of the team to give Rizzo say in how the franchise is run deep into the future.