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General Manager Mike Rizzo gives Nationals an offseason makeover

The Washington Nationals continue spring training at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla.
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Thursday, February 25, 2010

VIERA, FLA.

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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.


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