Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo makes some slips on a steep learning curve
By Jason Reid,
He’s often praised for his significant role in building the Arizona Diamondbacks through the first-year player draft. Rizzo, they say, is better than most at that part of the game, but some express doubts about his ability to lead an entire baseball operation. And after Rizzo’s bumpy start this season, the questions are valid.
Rizzo has made major mistakes quickly, showing he has much to learn. Despite his impressive scouting background and strong work ethic, Rizzo, at this point, has a lot to learn regarding some of his most important duties. His dealing with the media is at best awkward and at worst antagonistic, which won’t make his on-the-job training any easier.
Since officially being given full control of the Nationals in October, Rizzo grossly overpaid for right fielder Jayson Werth, assembled a batting order with baseball’s fourth-worst on-base percentage and for several weeks prohibited hitting coach Rick Eckstein from speaking with reporters.
He erred in choosing Werth to be an out-front guy, giving a merely good player superstar money and expecting him to lead. Rizzo displayed questionable judgment in constructing a defense-heavy, offense-light roster that is primarily responsible for the Nationals again occupying last place in the National League East. He also exhibited alarming naivete about how the news media functions and instigated an unnecessary fight over access to Eckstein, which is concerning on many levels.
At the request of the Baseball Writers Association of America, the commissioner’s office became involved in the situation, and the Nationals are now permitting Eckstein to share his thoughts from time to time.
Eckstein is in his third season as the person primarily responsible for Washington’s performance on offense. He spent five seasons coaching in the minor leagues, including four in the Nationals’ organization. He’s not some wide-eyed newcomer incapable of answering a few reporters’ occasional questions.
Eckstein is a big league coach who has been on the job long enough to understand that accountability comes with the gig. Each day, Eckstein tutors players who are critiqued publicly by fans and the media. By explaining his batting philosophy and approach, Eckstein provides context and insight into the process when things are going well or poorly.
That’s why reporters interview managers and coaches as well as players. It’s actually a fairly simple concept, though it seems lost on Rizzo.
Asked earlier in the week to explain why Eckstein was off-limits, Rizzo told reporters they don’t need to speak with him because they never speak with other coaches. Informed he was incorrect, Rizzo offered this gem: “When you’re the GM, you can do whatever you want. And I don’t want you guys talking to Rick Eckstein.”
The most ludicrous part of this is that Eckstein was willing to be interviewed. Obviously, Eckstein has the right to decline to comment, but true baseball professionals understand the media plays a role in the game’s success as a conduit to fans.
Those guys are always available in the clubhouse, win or lose. They say what’s on their minds with names attached. They shoulder responsibility instead of offering hints about what others could be doing better, and that’s what Eckstein did Thursday when the muzzle was finally removed.
“I’m going to blame myself,” Eckstein told reporters before a trip-opening 6-1 victory over Arizona. “That’s the way I’ve always been. I don’t point fingers.”
Rizzo had good, although wildly misguided, intentions in trying to protect Eckstein, a high-ranking baseball official told me the other day. Rizzo believes in Eckstein and thinks he has a bright future. Rizzo figured it would be best for Manager Jim Riggleman and the players to absorb the heat while the Nats’ on-base percentage hovers around .300, instead of everything being focused on Eckstein.
This isn’t New York. It’s not Chicago or Los Angeles, either. This just isn’t the type of media market in which Eckstein would face a daily volley of difficult questions about his role in the offense’s failure.
Rizzo’s actions put Eckstein under the microscope. Rizzo’s shortsightedness in forcing an issue with reporters stirred much more scrutiny than Eckstein would have otherwise received.
As poorly as the Nationals have played for most of the season’s first half, Rizzo shouldn’t concern himself with trying to shield professionals from imagined enemies. He should focus on helping to bolster the offense, possibly with trades if the current warm streak continues.
At best, the Nationals are the third team in a mostly burgundy-and-gold sports market. Presumably, the Lerners would like to grow their baseball business and one day challenge the NFL’s Redskins for the top spot — or at least move ahead of the NHL’s Capitals. For that to happen, Rizzo must develop a better grasp of the big picture.
Werth is a solid, albeit not spectacular, player who probably will help the Nationals for several seasons, and Rizzo isn’t the first inexperienced general manager to be overmatched negotiating with agent Scott Boras. The hitting has improved the past few days, and even gold-standard GMs such as Boston’s Theo Epstein and the Yankees’ Brian Cashman make roster mistakes.
With a guaranteed five-year contract, Rizzo has time to find his way, and someone in a new job deserves some patience. He also needs to demonstrate some progress.