Front-office overhaul gives Washington Nationals new respect

Mike Rizzo has compiled a front office with diverse preferences.
Mike Rizzo has compiled a front office with diverse preferences. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The decision that dictated Jay Robertson's 28th year in scouting and led him to the Washington Nationals was based, like so many other decisions in his sport, on a gut feeling. Robertson talks to younger scouts all the time about gut feelings. Much as scouting measurements translate into radar gun readings and batting averages, the sum -- at least among some baseball lifers -- is more a cryptic art. Good scouts trust that which they cannot describe.

"In our world," Robertson said, "we substantiate a lot through stats and statistical analysis. But sometimes, even in life, you have to go with your gut."

Last October, Robertson, let go after eight seasons with the Texas Rangers, needed a new employer. And the Nationals, after operating for years with a bare-bones front office, needed employees. Washington's new general manager, Mike Rizzo, with his own deep roots as a scout, still held a preference for guys with gut feelings. Given approval from the Lerners to expand his support staff, Rizzo had the chance to reconstruct his front office, creating hire-by-hire the unit whose opinions, arguments, biases and preferences would determine the future of the organization. For all the free agent signings to come, this was the most important part of Washington's offseason.

Veteran evaluators like Robertson don't stay unemployed for long, though, and when Rizzo called Robertson on a Sunday morning in late October, it was almost too late. Robertson had already committed "95 percent" to another team. He talked to Rizzo mostly as a courtesy.

And then he started listening. There he was, pacing through his garage in Surprise, Ariz., and the GM on the other line kept giving Robertson reason to nod. Rizzo, according to Robertson's account of the conversation, talked about the importance of the major league product: It's how we're judged, Rizzo said; We can't hide behind progress at minor league level. Rizzo wanted a front office of opinions, diverse preferences. He wanted guys who could be treated bluntly, guys who liked debate. When Rizzo got into the finer points -- talking money, car allowance -- Robertson raised his hand.

"Mike, stop right there," Robertson said. "I'm on board."

New respect

Having now made almost a dozen hires, the Nationals, for the first time since relocating to the District, have a complete front office -- fully stocked and respected. Though Rizzo's August appointment as permanent GM green-lighted the overhaul, only after the season ended did everything take form. This winter the Nationals hired two new assistant GMs, Roy Clark and Bryan Minniti; two new senior advisers, Ron Schueler and Davey Johnson; a new director of baseball operations, Jay Sartori; and a new director of player development, Doug Harris. They promoted a new director of scouting, Kris Kline, who replaces Dana Brown (now with Toronto). And they created several scouting positions that didn't previously exist, adding Robertson and Kasey McKeon, among others, all while expanding a department that had been ridiculed throughout the industry for its skinflint resources.

In previous seasons, the Nationals required even their lead scouts to cover both the amateur and pro levels. Manpower was so scarce, it left the team with a flimsy database of scouting material on the other major league clubs.

"There was a perception out there that [the Nationals] were running a skeleton staff in scouting, development, and so was that really that important to them?" Robertson said. "You need some identity, and I think they were void of that. That's what Mike has changed in the last six months."

The Nationals, beginning their sixth season in Washington, draw rightful criticism for waiting so long to fortify their organization behind the scenes. Until this offseason, of course, Washington always had a reason to hesitate. For a while the team didn't have its ownership in place. Then it waited on the revenues of a new stadium. Then it dealt with the various complications caused by former general manager Jim Bowden, who last spring resigned in the wake of a federal investigation. When the Nationals finally started hiring at the end of the 2009 season, the momentum surprised even Rizzo himself.

"I think the [recruiting] momentum started when they announced that I had the job," Rizzo said during a recent interview in his office. "There was a lot of well-wishes in the industry, because I was a guy who came from where everybody else started and ascended to the general manager's job, which was a good story, and along the way it wasn't an overnight thing. It took me 28 years to get here.

"People were happy for me. And then, with my years of experience in the game, I knew who I wanted to go after. A lot of people want to come here. And there is a momentum. There's a synergy here that's attracting people. If you'd told me coming off a 59-win season that we would have all this interest from people, it's really remarkable. People in the industry get it. They see what we're doing."

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