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General Manager Mike Rizzo gives Nationals an offseason makeover

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, February 25, 2010; D01

VIERA, FLA.

You feel General Manager Mike Rizzo's influence everywhere here. Invariably, his touch is measured, modest, mildly humorous and soaked in lifetime study of how a big league team should be built. But most of all, his emerging body of work is coherent and cohesive, the pieces interlocking.

As he and President Stan Kasten work together, each move of this offseason has complemented or anticipated the next. There really has been a plan. And every failure, so far, has revealed that a backup plan was ready. Less than a year after replacing disgraced GM Jim Bowden, Rizzo may soon be the most valuable National.

Somehow, Rizzo and Kasten are accomplishing this on a typical love-a-bargain Lerner budget of $67 million, before incentives, that would have ranked 25th among 30 teams in '09. The median GM has $81 million to play with. If Rizzo had a $75 million payroll, as he should, who knows what he'd do? But he doesn't.

So, for a day, swallow that frustration at an ownership that, while improved, still doesn't fully understand the cost of doing big league business. Instead, admire what Rizzo is constructing with economy materials. No moaning. The son of a scout, he's dreamed and worked toward this task his whole life. Just get the job done.

As the full Nats roster reported to spring training for the first time Wednesday, Rizzo's impact was visible in every corner of the room. In less than 365 days, he's signed or traded for Jason Marquis, Stephen Strasburg, Iván Rodríguez, Nyjer Morgan, Adam Kennedy, Chien-Ming Wang and an entirely new bullpen of Matt Capps, Sean Burnett, Brian Bruney, Miguel Bautista, Eddie Guardado, Tyler Walker and Drew Storen. And, as rotation insurance, he just signed Liván Hernández to a minor league deal.

In getting them all, including Wang, Kennedy and Hernández this month, Rizzo traded only three players: Lastings Milledge, Joel Hanrahan and Rule 5 player Jamie Hoffmann.

Also of value, but of little cost, the Nats now have the kind of depth you'd expect from a normal big league team. Many got minor league deals. But they're on speed dial. Eric Bruntlett, the former Phils utility man. Center field speedster Willy Taveras, a poor man's Morgan. Southpaws Shawn Estes, Victor Garate, Aaron Thompson and Ron Villone. Clearly, Rizzo doesn't think the deity created enough left-handed pitchers. So he's hoarding any that can stand upright.

As a result of all these moves, the Nats improved markedly as the miserable '09 season progressed. First, the Nats blew up the bullpen. From the date of the first save by Mike MacDougal (since replaced), the Nats went 42-56. Then Rizzo fired Manny Acta. From Jim Riggleman's first win on, the Nats were 33-36.

After the season, the Nats' front office finally hit high gear. After signing 17 new people, many of them "wise old owl" scouts who wanted to work for Rizzo, the Nats constructed a battle strategy -- though one that wouldn't boost payroll too much. If the mountain won't move, go to the mountain.

Add a solid durable starting pitcher? When free agent Jon Garland didn't warm to Rizzo's advances -- something about those back-to-back 100-loss seasons -- the GM switched to a hurler with an East Coast background who relished the D.C. challenge. Welcome aboard Marquis, a 15-game winner for $15 million.

"Why limit yourself with specific goals? Why say, 'I want to go 16-9 with a 3.70 ERA and 218 innings,' " says the compact, intense Marquis. "I always want to go 34-0."

Write down the first set of numbers. The Nats will take 'em now.

Get a vet catcher, since young Jesús Flores's shoulder problems seem worse than expected? Rizzo got that done fast. Enter Pudge Rodríguez. This week, Flores still couldn't throw the ball 60 feet back to a pitcher. Somebody had to do it for him. How does that two-year contract for $6 million to Pudge look now? Prescient?

Get a better closer than MacDougal? Say hello to Capps. Re-sign Scott Olsen and Hernández, that's now done, too.

If the Nats had pulled off their big secret shocker of the offseason -- signing Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, whom they offered about $23 million -- they might be a near-unanimous pick for the best offseason of any team. But, just as Rizzo thought his offer would be a winner, the Reds grabbed that prize at $30 million. In response, the Nats appear to have had a Plan B again, targeting Wang, 29, who, if he returned to his Yankee form, would be an alternative to Chapman.

The Nats' medical opinions on Wang rate him at a better-than-even chance to return to his previous 19-win form. That seems quite optimistic to me. But the risk-reward on a $2 million Wang contract, with $3 million in incentives, seems a sensible risk-reward proposition. Well, if (grrrr) you've got that frugal budget.

The Nats themselves seemed to have a nice buzz of anticipation about them as they gathered here.

"Last year was mind-boggling. How do you lose 100 games with that team?" said Adam Dunn, whose contract extension talks remain the Nats' biggest item of unfinished business. "I've been on pretty bad teams -- teams that didn't have as much talent as we did last year -- and they were still in the wild-card hunt in August. That was the weirdest year I've ever been a part of. We may be a lot better."

A Rizzo choice is in the manager's seat, too -- the even-keel, communicative Riggleman, a native Washingtonian. "If we had a game tomorrow, I'd know who the eight position players are. That might make you think, 'Well, aren't we full of ourselves after losing 103 games,' " said Riggleman. "You don't want to get ahead of yourself. We haven't played a game yet. . . .

"But we all just feel encouraged. The players felt we made some progress [the second half of] last season. With all the moves we made over the winter, it's like, 'Man, we got pretty competitive and now we get these new guys.' "

Even under best-case scenarios, the Nats probably aren't a .500 team in '10. Improving by 22 wins in a year is very rare. But, thanks to a smart and (finally) deep front office, the Nats finally have a sense of an improving future. By '11, assuming Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann (ligament-replacement surgery) and perhaps Wang are in the rotation, along with John Lannan and Marquis, while Storen joins the bullpen, the Nats could be one more productive offseason from being a winner. Especially if they get the additional Lerner support they deserve, but haven't quite gotten yet.

Seven months from now, if Rizzo and Kasten can come to their bosses and say, "Wasn't that fun? Didn't that work out pretty much as predicted?" maybe the purse strings, which have loosened appreciably in the last 15 months, will spread a notch wider.

Until then, the Nationals aren't waiting. They're better. They just don't know how much. But, on a marvelously humid Florida day, without a single six-foot Washington snow drift in sight, they can't wait to find out. Just 40 more days and the Nats believe, this time with reason, that they can start leaving their wilderness.

boswellt@washpost.com

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