As Interim GM, Mike Rizzo Brings 'More Professional' Approach to Nationals

As acting GM, Mike Rizzo made improving the Nats' bullpen a priority.
As acting GM, Mike Rizzo made improving the Nats' bullpen a priority. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

VIERA, Fla., March 30 -- In early December 2008, Mike Rizzo, acting on behalf of his boss, called an agent named Joe Sroba. It was supposed to be a routine call -- a dalliance, really. The Washington Nationals had potential interest in Sroba's client, relief pitcher Joe Beimel. Rizzo told the agent as much.

At that moment, Sroba broke off the inquiry.

Like many within the baseball industry, the agent viewed Rizzo's boss, then-general manager Jim Bowden, as a flagrant salesman, willing to say anything until the time came to back up his words. Sroba, in that conversation, called Bowden a "bottom-fisher," and told Rizzo not to call back unless he could deliver something better than a low-ball offer.

Months passed with only silence. When Rizzo finally called back four months later, the Nationals were a different team.

For one month now, Rizzo has served as acting general manager, replacing Bowden, who resigned on March 1. Separated from Bowden's flamboyant personality, the Nationals now operate with less carnival color but more corporate predictability. Within the clubhouse, players talk with appreciation about the change. Their general manager no longer walks into their domain, coffee in hand, cracking barbs about a guy's latest 0 for 5. Rizzo keeps a steadier profile, very much willing to sign players for the clubhouse, but unwilling to sit on its sofas. "More professional," is how two veterans describe the atmosphere.

Though Rizzo has not received official general manager duties, many within baseball believe he will get the job. Until then, he's simply playing the role. In March, Rizzo signed pitchers Kip Wells and Julián Tavárez and catcher Josh Bard to minor league contracts; he released Shawn Hill and placed Wily Mo Peña on waivers; he optioned 11 players on the 40-man roster to the minor leagues; he placed Dmitri Young on the 40-man roster; also, he signed Beimel to a one-year, $2 million deal.

When Rizzo called Sroba for the second time, it was March 2. With Bowden gone, Sroba no longer viewed the Nationals as a last resort. Rizzo said that the Nationals, again, might have an interest. But several variables muddled the situation, Rizzo warned. The front office was in flux. The team did not yet know its budget restrictions. If Beimel had a better, immediate offer, he shouldn't wait on the Nationals.

"He was very honest with me from the very first step," Sroba said. "The tone of his voice, a straightforwardness, honesty -- I think those things are very obvious in the course of human interaction."

From the moment he took over, Rizzo knew his top priority: He wanted to improve the bullpen. Beimel, he believed, could help more than anybody remaining on the free agent market. The left-hander had three consecutive stellar seasons with the Dodgers. He was equally effective against lefties and righties.

The Nationals, with a thin bullpen, needed an eighth-inning reliever -- not just to protect leads, but to protect the psyches of their five young starting pitchers. A blown 4-1 lead registers on the morning after in a way a blowout does not. Beimel was insurance against that, and in a mid-March meeting with ownership, Rizzo explained as much.

He received approval to spend more money.

On March 15, Rizzo called Sroba and told of the internal approval. Negotiations began with the sides more than a million dollars apart, and Beimel was toying with an offer from a West Coast team. But by March 18, they had a deal.

Rizzo, speaking on Monday, connected his month of roster moves to one goal: "The long-term good of the organization," he said. Since Bowden's departure, the Nationals have not moved toward a win-now mentality, he said.

Even the signing of the 35-year-old Tavárez and 31-year-old Wells? "What they do is give you depth and inventory where I don't have to take a young pitcher and rush him to the big leagues before he's prepared to be here," Rizzo said. "When you have young starters, at times they're not going to give you the five or six or seven quality innings that you need. So you're going to need a guy that can take multiple innings and has a rubber arm and can bounce back. And that way you don't have to worry. Because over-pitching Tavárez -- it's impossible; you can't do it. Yeah, it looks like a short-term answer and a Band-Aid, but it really has long-term ramifications, because now we protect our young starters better."

Beimel? "You can't have those [starters] succeed and then have the bullpen blow a lead and cost them games and cost them confidence and that type of thing. It deflates a team, and it really demoralizes you. And that's what we have to guard against. And we're not there yet. We're not done yet. There's much, much more to do. But baby steps. We're getting better inch by inch by inch, and put all the inches together, and all of a sudden you're a better club."

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