There are many people responsible for the Nationals’ historic success this year. There is Bryce Harper, the teenage phenom who hit 22 big-league homers before he could even drink champagne. There is Davey Johnson, the veteran manager whose on-the-field leadership included a potent mix of patience, intelligence and swagger to manage the young team.
And then there is General Manager Mike Rizzo, who built the Nationals through the draft and its minor league farm system rather than spending gobs of money on free agents. Since joining the team in 2006, and then starting in 2009 as general manager, Rizzo has built and developed what is now the youngest team in the league. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule—Jayson Werth and his $126 million contract being one. But in a sports world dominated by instant gratification, Rizzo is that rare leader taking the long view, trading splashy investments for player development and making highly controversial calls to protect his players for the years to come, not just tomorrow’s game.
Rizzo’s focus on talent recruiting and development, rather than buying up league all-stars, has earned him top honors from the publication Baseball America for the farm systems he’s built at the Nationals and previously for the Arizona Diamondbacks. But it’s also becoming a model for other teams looking to build on the Nationals’ success. The Houston Astros, which have hired Nationals third-base coach Bo Porter to be manager next year, intend to rely similarly on the team’s farm system to grow their organization organically. The Houston Chronicle reported recently that “Porter said … he thinks teams that feature homegrown players are more invested in organizational success than teams made of primarily transients.”
Rizzo has also taken the heat for the call to shut down ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg in September after he reached 160 innings and began showing signs of fatigue. “The sports universe may never grow accustomed to this kind of deferred gratification,” writes Buster Olney in a profile (currently only available to subscribers) of Rizzo in the recent D.C. issue of ESPN The Magazine . Sports commentators have called foul, but Rizzo says he doesn’t care, telling Olney “I sleep like a baby, knowing we’ve done the right thing for Stephen Strasburg, and in a roundabout way, for the Washington Nationals. I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I did it any other way.”
Whatever happens in the postseason, that kind of philosophy is a rare one in sports today. The willingness of leaders to take short-term risks to build a team for the future is all too infrequent on any playing field—from sports to business to politics. And the benefits of developing homegrown players who stick with an organization over the long haul (look no further than the about-to-retire Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones) could very well have an intangible effect on team success that on-the-move free agents never will. Great managers may win games, pennants and even World Series. But great leaders build organizations that have a chance at doing so year after year.
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