“It’s a great award. I’m humbled and honored by it,” Rizzo said before the annual dinner. “To me, an award like this is very gratifying for your career. But to me, it’s more than an individual award. It’s recognizing organizational excellence. This is obviously more than one individual person. It goes everywhere from the front office to the scouts in the field to the player development guys pounding the fungoes.”
Under Rizzo’s stewardship, two seasons after a stretch of losing 298 games over three years, the Nationals won the National League East and led the majors with 98 wins. Rizzo had the good fortune of drafting Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, but he surrounded his stars by investing heavily in the draft and focusing on player development. The Nationals’ farm system produced players such as starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann and second baseman Danny Espinosa. Rizzo made trades for Gio Gonzalez, Michael Morse and Kurt Suzuki. He signed free agents such as Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche.
“I think it’s recognition that we’re doing the right things,” Rizzo said. “You win the executive of the year award when your players perform and your management manages right and you win a lot of games. We don’t dismiss it. We don’t foo-foo it. We’ve come a long way, and we recognize it. This was a franchise not so long ago that wasn’t highly respected and kind of the joke of major league baseball. I think that we’ve turned that around to the point where teams are trying to emulate what we’re doing.”
Looking back at the rise of the Nationals, a team that in the past three years has jumped from 59 to 69 to 80 to 98 wins, Rizzo, a former scouting director, sees his primary success in working the draft. The Nationals poured resources (read: money) into scouting and signing amateur players in the years before the draft rules changed to inhibit big spending.
“The main success is drafting well,” Rizzo said. “We felt we really took advantage of those last few years before the collective bargaining agreement changed the landscape of the draft. To me, that was very intelligent baseball work. That’s something we very rarely speak about, but that was a big part of our vision when we took over. We saw an opportunity to make up for lost time, if you will, by really attacking the draft like few other teams had in the past.”
The Nationals have augmented their homegrown players with trades and free agency, most recently the signing of closer Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million deal. The contract pushed the Nationals’ opening day payroll to an estimated $115 million, the highest it’s been by far since baseball returned to Washington in 2005.