The Nats entered last off-season coveting aging free agent Mark Buerhle. Because they were outbid, they were still in a market for a staff ace when Gonzalez, far younger and with better stuff, was available. At the very moment the Nats’ farm system went from atrocious to top-ranked, they had exactly the four prospects they needed to land Gonzalez.
Just as the Nats thought their winter was finished, World Series starterEdwin Jackson, seeking a five-year $75 million contract, found himself alone in a buyer’s market, in need of a soft place to land for one year. His agent, Scott Boras, on fine terms with the Nats, did a quick $11 million deal and, suddenly, Washington’s staff went from strong to “contender worthy.”
The Nats even took a long shot chance on Chien-Ming Wang, who twice won 19 games for the Yankees, hoping he’d make an unprecedented recovery from experimental shoulder surgeries that left him with a dozen pins, screws and whatnot in his shoulder. It took two years and what looked like $3 million in wasted money. But, for now, Wang’s back and in the rotation.
How did all this happen? At least we know where it started.
Three years ago, GM Jim Bowden resigned under fire. Hamstrung by low budgets, he’d been reduced to dumpster diving. Rizzo took over — spotlight-shy, unschooled in negotiating with famous agents such as Boras and unaccustomed to the Bad Cop truth-teller role he would frequently be forced to play from the locker room to the manager’s office to the owner’s box.
But Rizzo was the first piece of a new foundation because he had unshakable confidence in his one area of expertise: scouting. The son of a career scout, he believed what he saw with his own eyes. And he knew everybody in baseball whose eye might be as good or better than his own.
Nothing beats simplicity — if it’s the right simplicity for the time and place. Bowden could talk you deaf. Kasten was polished. But Rizzo knew what he wanted: power arms on the mound, athletes up the middle of the diamond and “guys who can bang” on the corners. And he knew what he despised: selfish players, dumb players and anybody who lacked confidence.
Just as vital, he knew how he was going to get what he wanted. Eight months into the job, just a few days after teams were allowed to sign employees of other clubs, Rizzo announced that he had raided — sorry, signed — 17 people to fill 11 new full-time slots in his front office.
“We just had a great offseason,” he said. The future started there.
That rebuilt front office, with Roy Clark as right-hand man, has been the cornerstone of trades, over-slot amateur signings and free agent deals. Almost all have worked, except the biggest: Werth (so far).
To the general fan, a fast-rising team often looks suspect. The structure hasn’t passed its first weight-bearing test. It might collapse, right?
Fundamentally sound construction, of a home or a building, starts with a foundation, built below grade, which is easy to overlook. Yet it sets the stage for walls and a roof to leap upward so quickly it seems to happen overnight. The finishing work takes time, and will for the Nats, too. But the shape of the house is clear. Move-in day is three weeks away.