Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Mike Rizzo should be re-signed as Nationals general manager

The Tigers’ Justin Verlander and the Giants’ Buster Posey, the central stars on last year’s World Series teams, agreed to contract extensions on Friday worth in the neighborhood of $350 million. No one was surprised. Opening day is an informal good-faith deadline to keep your most important key employee not just under team control but happy, too.

Also on Friday, Las Vegas gave its final preseason odds: Some touts had the Nationals as slight favorites to win the World Series at 7-1. Manager Davey Johnson, looking at the big picture, singled out one central figure for praise.

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The Washington Post’s LaVar Arrington, Mike Wise, Liz Clarke, and Jonathan Forsythe predict whether the Nationals will exceed their MLB-best 98 wins in 2013.

The Washington Post’s LaVar Arrington, Mike Wise, Liz Clarke, and Jonathan Forsythe predict whether the Nationals will exceed their MLB-best 98 wins in 2013.

“He’s a good man. He works hard. He knows every aspect of the game,” Johnson said. “He’s the one person in this organization that they can’t lose.”

“He” is not a player. It’s General Manager Mike Rizzo, who only has a contract, and job security, for another six months. The Nats have team options on Rizzo for 2014 and ’15 but that’s strictly a one-way street running in their direction and away from Rizzo.

Many in baseball consider Rizzo’s situation a minor point and that’s probably how it will work out. “Oh, I expect Riz’ll get his [option years] picked up,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, laughing. After all, those two years combined might not cost the Nats more than one percent of a Verlander or Posey deal.

But, a year ago, when Zimmerman got a $100 million extension, one that was negotiated against an opening day deadline, he didn’t think it was amusing. He thought he was getting a read on the Nats’ true loyalty to him.

There is no Rizzo problem. He’s not complaining. But then he wouldn’t. That’s not his style. Just be careful, proactive, that’s all. Bad GMs are forever. But everybody wants to poach the good ones, even if it’s years in the plotting. Baltimore neglected Pat Gillick. He left and won 116 games in Seattle.

Always check the biography, too. Rizzo has baseball roots everywhere — in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and Phoenix — and, therefore, nowhere.

Finally, the Lerners have a history of being years behind the curve in understanding the frustrations of their central employees. When Stan Kasten quit as president, nobody in baseball was surprised except the Nats’ owners.

Contract aside, this is simply an appropriate moment to note what Rizzo has done in just three years: 103 losses to 98 wins. The Nats’ rise came before Bryce Harper had a truly big year (he had just 59 RBI in 2012) or Stephen Strasburg pitched a full season (just 1591 / 3 innings).

The Nats themselves speak with one voice about Rizzo. “He put together the pieces of a quality team. But he also built a character team,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, whose career was blighted by errors until last season, his ninth pro year, when his nervous blunders finally disappeared and he was an all-star. “Actions speak volumes. He’s been supportive of me from Day One. I know a couple of hairs fell off his head due to me.”

The truth-teller jobs always fall to Rizzo, who once gave Harper the bad-cop chew out: Grow up or stay in the minors, talent or not. “He’s a competitor. If you’re not doing things the right way he doesn’t like it,” Harper says now. “It’s great to have that fiery GM on our side.”

As high as Rizzo is riding now, baseball is a bucking bronco that can throw anybody. On Friday, Yankees GM Brian Cashman explained his desperate strategy of signing vets like Vernon Wells for his injury-swamped team. “I call it my Statue of Liberty play. ‘Give me your tired, your weak. . . . It’s part of America, right on the Statue of Liberty,” said Cashman, accidentally switching “poor” to “weak.”

If Cashman, who once again runs the team with the highest payroll, can feel tempest-tossed and potentially homeless someday, too, what are the insecurities for other GMs? “This is a very volatile business,” he said.

Rizzo’s stock is high now, but where will it be in six months if the Nats miss the playoffs? There’s a line of gloaters ready to say, “Their big chance was ’12. But Rizzo took it on himself to shut down Strasburg.”

That’s why, in baseball, you show appreciation to a Verlander or Posey before he can start a season in a slump or get injured. And you often, though not always, show it to a GM who has done the truly remarkable. That’s how you build goodwill for the day — which always comes — when the leverage switches to the person on the other side.

Sometimes, the Lerners forget who takes the heat while they stay silent for years (but enjoy the 98-win product) and who makes the hard decisions for them, yet sometimes has solid baseball proposals rejected by them. Only a year ago, the grapevine buzzed about Rizzo going ballistic just to get the Gio Gonzalez deal done, using prospects that he and his staff had amassed.

In every aspect of the Nats’ operations where he has control, Rizzo tends to act decisively and quickly, often before other teams react, as in his early signings of Denard Span and Dan Haren, or opportunistically, as with Rafael Soriano and Adam LaRoche.

In areas where Rizzo doesn’t hold sway, not much happens — for years. Everybody knows that a top-tier team shouldn’t have spring training in Viera, Fla. The reasons range from ridiculously long rides to every away game to Viera’s lack of top-flight rehab facilities. Stephen Strasburg drove to Clearwater and back for one start. Haren, a veteran with back and hip problems, came up “stiff” after a 21 / 2-hour drive to pitch, got bombed, then had to face the drive back. That’s amateur-hour baseball.

Yet the Nats probably won’t find a new and better spring training home until 2015 or ’16. The team still isn’t putting up any money to make it happen.

When will the dispute over regional TV money between the Nats and MASN, the Orioles-owned network, be resolved? Ownership is handling that. Will the fight even be resolved before Commissioner Bud Selig retires? Oh, it couldn’t take that long, you say. Why not? It’s already two years late.

Rizzo has never been a squeaky wheel. When you’ve driven thousands of miles in the frigid upper Midwest as a lowly area scout, you keep your own counsel. But he’s not modest or meek, he’s just muted, strategic, glad to let you undersell him. Rizzo flies so low under the radar that the Nats’ own media guide mistakenly says he became GM in ’08. No, it was ’09. Rizzo, who obsesses about every other detail, didn’t proofread his own biography. Why would he? Every Nats player who won a major award is on the cover of that media guide — except the executive of the year, Rizzo.

“Mike’s a lot smarter than people give him credit for because he surrounds himself with smart people,” said Zimmerman, a backhanded compliment in itself.

Such people, who are microphone-shy, who enjoy praising subordinates, who forget to answer reporters’ phone calls, who make fun of their own bald heads, are easy to take for granted, easy to overlook, and someday, easy to misplace.

Don’t.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

 
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