Since he took over as Washington Nationals general manager in March 2009, Mike Rizzo has planned for the future, more of an obvious necessity than a calculated choice. The bleak present he inherited made coming seasons the only priority. Hope was a more valuable commodity than victories.
Now, though, the Nationals no longer are trying to build a contender. They are a contender, a 98-win powerhouse in 2012 with the clear goal of a World Series in 2013. Rizzo’s mission now is one the Nationals — through “The Plan” and “Phase Two” and so many wasted, forgettable nights — have never considered before: How should they weigh a bright future and an urgent present?
“It’s the first year in our history where we’re on the positive side of this instead of scrambling,” franchise third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We almost have too many good players, which is a good place to be.”
Already one of the best teams in baseball, stocked with an enviable collection of young talent, Rizzo and the Nationals will walk into Nashville’s Opryland Hotel at the annual winter meetings with few needs. After they traded top pitching prospect Alex Meyer for center fielder Denard Span last week, the Nationals must add a starting pitcher and bullpen arms to complete their roster.
How they fill those holes and attack their other options, such as re-signing Adam LaRoche or keeping Michael Morse, will shed light on Rizzo’s vision. They have arrived at the juncture where how much to plan ahead or push for the coming season is a real decision. Rizzo believes the Nationals should stay their course, that future considerations should not trump immediate desires.
“We haven’t wavered from it,” Rizzo said. “We’ve traded some young players, like a Meyer, but for a guy we have some control over in Span. I don’t think we’ve wavered at all from a long-term philosophy. You always have to think globally. You do what’s best for the club for the immediate future, but you also have to think about not rushing things or tying your hands.”
One big-market general manager once said he could build a team capable of winning 125 games, but to do so he would be abdicating his responsibility. The juggernaut would require sacrificing future success, and, most problematic, once in the playoffs there would be little assurance the talent could trump the randomness of a five- or seven-game series. The best way to win a World Series, the GM said, is to get to the playoffs as often as possible.
In 1991, John Hart took over as the Cleveland Indians’ general manager. Over the next three seasons, Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Sandy Alomar, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Kenny Lofton would all join the Indians prior to turning 25. From 1995 to 2001, Hart oversaw the nucleus that helped the Indians win six out of seven division titles and make two World Series.
The Nationals’ collection of talent reminds Hart of his early days in Cleveland. He said it will require a balance to answer “the age-old sort of situation” of how to manage the importance of present success with long-term planning.
“In the case of the Nats and Mike Rizzo, I still think they’re early in this run,” said Hart, now an MLB Network analyst who will contribute to the station’s winter meetings coverage this week. “I don’t see necessarily the need to say, ‘We’re going to add a clubhouse guy.’ Right now, I think they can be in every game out there, from the top guy on the market. They’ve got options.”
With the Indians, Hart structured his roster — one of the best runs by a team that never won a World Series — by focusing on young talent and building around them. He had to remember the young, affordable talent would not remain affordable forever.
“You look at your own players, guys that you identify as core players,” Hart said. “That’s going to play a role to what you do at present.”
The Nationals are feeling the crunch of future salaries now. Many have focused on the potentially monumental salaries the Nationals will have to pay Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in order to keep them before they become free agents. But the hit will come before then, once both players become eligible for arbitration and join the large contingent of young Nationals receiving salary bumps.
This winter, based on estimates, the Nationals’ payroll will rise roughly $12.5 million with only raises to their seven arbitration-eligible players. Those increases will become steeper in the coming years, much steeper in some cases.
Next winter, Strasburg will become eligible for arbitration, and by his third and final arbitration-eligible season, assuming he stays healthy, Strasburg could find himself in a similar financial stratosphere as Tim Lincecum, who made $20 million in 2012 as part of a deal with the San Francisco Giants to avoid arbitration. Harper could command a similar figure in his later arbitration years.
Even without their two first-picked superstars, the Nationals will face increasing salaries for Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann and other players whose rights they control for years to come. When the Nationals dabble in free agency — such as their pursuit of a fifth starter — those looming pay hikes linger over the negotiations.
“Certainly, we have to take all that into consideration,” Rizzo said. “We have a plan in place and we have approximates of what guys are going to make down the road. All of those things go into place. It’s part of building a consistent winner for years to come.”
It already has had a real effect. When LaRoche spoke with Rizzo about his desire for a three-year contract, Rizzo mentioned the contingent of young Nationals who will soon receive raises as a rationale for offering only two years to the first baseman.
“As far as their plan over the next few years, we talked some about it,” LaRoche said. “There’s going to be a lot of money coming up with Harp and Stras and Zimmermann. They’ve got to think for the future.”
The Nationals already have Jayson Werth and Zimmerman signed to nine-figure contracts. If they stay healthy, Harper and Strasburg will command two more if the Nationals do not want to lose them in free agency. They are emerging as a large-market team, and the Lerner family ranks among the richest owners in sports. But every team has limits, and the Nationals’ salary commitments may force them to be selective.
They would love, for example, to make a run at Zack Greinke, the top starting pitcher available on the free agent market. But his price tag is expected to reach or exceed $150 million, which gives the Nationals pause — especially when they have four quality starters already.
“There’s other teams that are on the cusp, and to get to that next level, they have to spend on a high-level free agent to get them over the top,” said former Mets and Orioles GM Jim Duquette, now a host on the MLB Network Radio channel on Sirius XM. “The Nats have already been there. You have to make sure you don’t upset the balance that you have by bringing up someone that’s an unnecessary piece. As much as you’d love to have him, that’s not how you got to this point.”
The Nationals have one unique circumstance to consider. Davey Johnson will turn 70 this season, and he and the Nationals have announced Johnson will retire from managing after this year. If the Nationals are tempted to sacrifice future considerations for a better chance to give Johnson a second World Series ring in his final season in the dugout, the manager will not allow it.
“I’m not the typical old manager who wants everything now,” Johnson said. “You need to understand that. If we don’t win, it’ll be my fault. I want it to be a solid base for a long time. I’m not trying to hold on to all the chips to protect my [butt]. I don’t worry about my [butt]. I think we can win with whoever we got.”
Johnson’s confidence, coming off a first-place finish, has merit. The Nationals know they will be good next year. The question for Rizzo, the one he will start to answer this week, is not how good the Nationals can be, but how good for how long.
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