Bryce Harper’s contract with the Washington Nationals expires after the 2018 season. So does Daniel Murphy’s. So does Gio Gonzalez’s. The list of Nationals staples who soon will be free to sign elsewhere is long, varied and potentially franchise-altering. But the soon-to-be free agent with the most potential to change the course of the team’s future is probably President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo, whose contract will expire next Oct. 31 if Nationals ownership does not extend it before then.
Nationals ownership historically has been averse to long-term commitment to anyone other than players. Both sides say they have not discussed an extension yet. Will they do so before the 2018 season? More importantly, will they do so before the 2018 offseason?
A few weeks ago, Nationals Managing Principal Owner Ted Lerner said he and his family would like Rizzo to stick around.
“I would hope [he would return],” Lerner told The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga. “We haven’t reached that stage yet. But we would hope to continue success with him.”
But if the Lerners genuinely want continued success with Rizzo, they will have to pursue him. The 56-year-old was unequivocal when asked about his contract situation, and whether he will initiate talks about a future deal.
“I will not. I will allow them to talk to me if they choose to,” Rizzo said. If the Lerners want their general manager of nearly a decade to extend his tenure, they will have to say so, verbally and monetarily.
Rizzo turned the Nationals from a 100-loss team to a playoff perennial with four division titles, plenty of star power and endless October intrigue. Under his watch, the Nationals have raised superstars and facilitated a reputation for relevance but also suffered a series of playoff failures.
While the Nationals likely will face some significant roster changes after the 2018 season, they still have secured enough of their core that they would be in position to retool, rather than rebuild. However, Rizzo would be doing so within what many in the organization have described as a maddening and unpredictable chain of command.
Rizzo has never said anything publicly about feeling restricted by the Lerner family in his team-building pursuits, but many of his colleagues within the organization have lamented the challenges he faces. Those hardships, according to people familiar with the organization’s internal dealings, include a budget that ranges from generous — the team had its highest payroll in 2017, one that crossed competitive balance tax for the first time in franchise history — to unpredictable.
Still, more than once, ownership has appeared to undermine Rizzo’s intentions. For example, he spent half the 2017 season adamant that the organization would extend the contract of manager Dusty Baker, only to have to explain why Baker was let go following a division series loss to the Cubs. Less visible examples of such pivots abound.
The Lerners picked up Rizzo’s two-year option in the middle of the 2016 season, and while the terms of that deal were not immediately available, The Post has reported that he will make $2.5 million for each of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Given the team’s sustained success, Rizzo should command a raise in his next deal.
For reference, Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein signed a five-year deal worth $18.5 million when he first joined the Cubs, and he is reportedly making more than $8 million annually in the five-year extension he signed last offseason. Andrew Friedman, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, signed a five-year deal worth a reported $35 million after the 2014 season. Rizzo’s Nationals teams have not had as much playoff success as either of those teams, but such comparisons will hover over any negotiations.
Rizzo negotiated all his Nationals deals, including the most recent one with that two-year option, and has therefore never made any public references about his salary. He will negotiate his next deal, too — if the Lerner family initiates the conversation. Whether Rizzo might have other suitors — or reciprocal interest — will depend on what other GM jobs are open.
The timing of any negotiations could be equally interesting. Next offseason’s free agent class includes not only the aforementioned Nationals but also a lot of other superstar talent. If Rizzo didn’t sign an extension before Oct. 31, the franchise wouldn’t have stability at the top of its baseball operations at a time when top players are searching for the right home. For example, Rizzo has been the team’s GM throughout Harper’s career, and scouted him as a teenager. Given the kind of mega-deal Harper likely will command, Rizzo’s status with the Nationals may not be a primary factor, but significant front-office change likely wouldn’t boost the team’s ability to project familiar stability.
Regardless, Rizzo insists the uncertainty does not affect him or his plans for this offseason.
“It doesn’t change anything,” Rizzo said. “I was an area scout for 13 years. I was on a one-year contract for 21 years in a row, and I’m fine with that … My resume is what it is, and it doesn’t change what we’re doing. We’re trying to win in ’18 and be a playoff-contending team for the long haul.”
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