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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 mid-November, with most of the hiring complete, Rizzo convened a four-day, staff-wide meeting at Nationals Park. The group analyzed every player in the organization and discussed all viable free agents. The first day alone, the front office bunkered down in a conference room for more than 10 hours. Robertson would later say that he hasn't had more fun in "10 or 15 years."

Two schools of thought

Baseball tends to perceive a fault line between old school and new school methods of player evaluation, a divide between the guys who love gut feelings and the guys who love numbers. Robertson falls on the old-school side. He's 52 years old. He started scouting with Philadelphia in 1983. He spent roughly a decade alongside John Hart in Cleveland. He impressed Rizzo over the years because he rarely gossiped with other scouts and seemed to show confidence in his own opinions. "I'm not the most congenial scout," Robertson said. "I'm going out there to beat your butt."

Several of Rizzo's recent hires talk about scouting as if it's an endangered species, and in turn they describe Washington as the one place it's protected. ("Your typical GM now, they're all Ivy League," Schueler said. "They haven't been through 15 years of backbreaking scouting. And that's what impresses me about Mike. He's been there and done that.")

Still, Rizzo is quick to point out, while Washington's front office skews old school, it has no unanimity. Clark, the assistant GM, earned his reputation as a talent evaluator while running Atlanta's drafts for 11 years -- but unlike Rizzo, who favors college talent, Clark tends to draft high school players. Meantime, Johnson calls himself a pioneer of sabermetrics. Even in his playing days with the Orioles (1965-72), he experimented with a simulation program that revealed Baltimore's optimized lineup.

"I've always used computers and numbers to give me another way to look at talent," Johnson said.

As much as Rizzo recruited experience -- Schueler, for instance, spent a decade as a GM with the Chicago White Sox -- he's also assembled a young group of office-based advisers. Minniti, previously of the Pirates, is 29. The team's chief sabermetrics expert, Adam Cromie, is 26. Sartori, the new resident expert on contract legalese and arbitration, is a 30-year-old with a background in investment banking.

Since those mid-November meetings, Washington has had its most productive offseason. And Rizzo correlates the free agent signings with the front-office additions. Minniti helped drive the Matt Capps signing. The Nationals felt comfortable signing Jason Marquis in part on the advice of McKeon, who knew the pitcher from their time together with Colorado. Robertson gave a hearty recommendation for reliever Eddie Guardado, whom he knew from Texas.

According to Rizzo, the Nationals are now operating at a higher capacity.

"When there's a question about evaluating a player, I guarantee you someone on our staff has a book on the player that we're talking about," Rizzo said. "Each guy we brought in has 25 years or so of experience in the game All these guys have been through every facet of baseball operations, and it shows when you pick up the phone to call them. You get information about the player you want to see. When I log into my computer, instead of one report I'll see six from [scouts] who have seen this guy somewhere along the line. So it's manpower and brainpower."

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