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Nationals GM Mike Rizzo deserves to be executive of the year

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Major League Baseball’s individual award winners won’t be known for months, but the correct choice for executive of the year is already clear. Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo has actually been in a one-man race since the season began. Claiming his prize is all that remains to be done.

Trading for Gio Gonzalez and signing Edwin Jackson in free agency are exactly the type of major roster-improving moves that satisfy the award’s unofficial requirements. Rizzo’s biggest offseason acquisitions have powered the pitching staff’s rise from merely good to second to none.

Rizzo ignored outside chatter about the Nationals’ supposed lack of offense and stuck with the group he assembled. His patience was rewarded once Ian Desmond finally stopped tinkering with his swing and became an all-star and a well-timed cortisone shot helped Ryan Zimmerman regain his franchise-player form.

In fact, Rizzo’s blueprint for building the Nationals was so fundamentally sound, he didn’t need to make revisions. With Rizzo confident the Nationals have the right players to maintain their top-of-the-division standing in the National League East — the second-place Atlanta Braves now trail by 2½ games — they didn’t make any deals before baseball’s Tuesday trading deadline.

“We like who we are,” Rizzo said before Tuesday’s 8-0 loss to the Phillies at Nationals Park. “We didn’t see a whole lot of holes to fill.”

That’s how you roll when your team has game’s best record and Stephen Strasburg pitches every fifth day (for now, anyway).

For all of the things Rizzo has done correctly in quickly transforming the Nationals from a laughingstock to an admired franchise, tone-setting leadership has been among his most important contributions. When the self-described “emotional guy” blasted Philadelphia Phillies starter Cole Hamels for boasting about drilling rookie Bryce Harper on purpose in May, Rizzo publicly reinforced the message he has been delivering internally since he took over the baseball operation in 2009: The Nationals’ days as a doormat are over.

The commissioner’s office fined Rizzo — just as he expected — for the comments some baseball observers considered inappropriate. General managers aren’t supposed to start fires — let alone apply gasoline to ones already burning. But bold moves are necessary when you’re trying to change a losing culture. Rizzo believes he should be the first one up the hill. The Nationals are right behind him.

The coaching staff and players believe Rizzo “is really in it with us,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “He’s down there on the field with ya. He’s sweating out each pitch. He’s highly competitive . . . he’s a fighter. But don’t let that fool ya. I’ve been around a lot of general managers. Trust me, Riz is really doing a great job.”

Admittedly, Johnson is biased. He also happens to be right.

Rizzo’s vision for the Nationals has taken shape almost as fast as Tyler Clippard proved he deserved to be a full-time closer.

With a longtime scout’s eye for talent, Rizzo built the Nationals’ farm system from rubble. The big-league roster is full of the power-armed pitchers and athletic position players Rizzo figured the Nationals needed to eventually topple Philadelphia in the division (the Phillies’ injuries accelerated the process). When Rizzo thought the time was right to pursue a difference-maker, he had the prospects needed to persuade the Oakland Athletics to make the deal for Gonzalez.

Although the Nationals figured to have a strong pitching staff, Rizzo displayed his salesman ability in persuading the Lerner family to spend $11 million for Jackson. The Nationals’ fourth starter has performed more like a front-of-the-rotation standout. Ownership’s supportive move on Jackson’s big one-season payday showed “they understand what Riz is doing,” Johnson said, “and everyone sees his results.”

Rizzo has even made the correct call on something that hasn’t happened yet. Before the season began, Rizzo decided to cut short Strasburg’s first full one after recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Strasburg has often been dominant. For many fans and baseball reporters and broadcasters, it doesn’t make sense to consider shutting down Strasburg while he’s compiling double-digit-strikeout performances. Those people are living in the moment. They’re eager to see what Strasburg could help the Nationals achieve if he continued to pitch until the ballclub’s season ends. That’s understandable.

Rizzo, however, is in charge. He’s showing it by taking a long-term approach that’s best for Strasburg individually and the team. There’s no sense risking Strasburg’s future by pushing him too hard. Rizzo knows this, “and Riz doesn’t back down from what he believes in,” Johnson said. “When he gets something in his head, he trusts himself and goes with it.

“You look at our team right now. We talked a lot about what we needed this year [during the winter]. Riz went out and got the guys to add to what we already had. He did the work in the offseason to get us here.”

Obviously, removing Strasburg prematurely from the rotation will open a huge hole in the five-man group. I felt strongly that Rizzo should have pursued a star-caliber replacement for the star starter the team will be losing — as long as the price wasn’t too high. Ultimately, Rizzo decided against bringing in a costly short-term rental.

Former rotation fixture John Lannan is a starter-in-waiting at Class AAA Syracuse. Assuming the Nationals finish the job, a postseason rotation of Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Jackson would look just fine.

“We didn’t need to go out and make a big splash,” Rizzo said. “We made all our splashes this winter in constructing this roster.”

That was Rizzo’s plan. It was a winner from the start.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

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