VIERA, FLA. – With so much change at Washington Nationals’ camp – Dusty Baker in the manager’s office, an overhauled bullpen, a new shortstop for the first time in seven years – it’s almost more difficult to remember the constants. Ryan Zimmerman still holds the corner locker in the clubhouse, closest to the shower. Whatever becomes of this group, the franchise’s all-time leader in games played, hits, homers, doubles, RBIs – you name it – will see it develop, because he’s signed through 2019.
The other constant isn’t in the clubhouse, but three stories up, and has had more of an impact on the franchise than even Zimmerman. Mike Rizzo took the general manager’s job, and the fourth-floor office at Space Coast Stadium that comes with it, in the spring of 2009 in the middle of controversy and in between 100-loss seasons. He has overseen the drafting of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the signing of Jayson Werth and Max Scherzer, the trade for Jonathan Papelbon, and every other move along the way good, bad or indifferent.
Now, with his eighth season as general manager approaching, the Nationals face a decision with Rizzo. According to major league sources, Rizzo’s contract has a June 15 deadline to pick up a two-year option that would keep him in Washington through the 2018 season. So if this seems like an important season for the Nationals – what with the disappointment of last year still fresh – it is, from the top on down.
There are, essentially, three potential outcomes: the Lerner family, which owns the club, picks up the option as it is, and Rizzo keeps his job going forward under his current deal; the Lerners take the spring to negotiate a new, longer-term deal with Rizzo; or – and this seems unlikely – they pass, and Rizzo becomes a lame duck over the second half of the season, with the franchise’s future uncertain.
“It’s early,” Mark Lerner, one of the Nationals’ principal owners and the son of patriarch Ted Lerner, said Friday in a brief interview at Space Coast Stadium. Lerner said he expected that, when the team came north for the season, the Lerner family would huddle with Rizzo. The tenor: something will get done.
Rizzo, 55, declined to comment on his contract situation. But it has to be odd to oversee this franchise that is, without question, his, and not be completely certain about his future. With the departure of shortstop Ian Desmond, Zimmerman is the only player not acquired on Rizzo’s watch. He was, in fact, the Lerners’ first hire, snared from Arizona and given the title of assistant general manager and director of baseball operations, but in effect becoming the scouting director tabbed with rebuilding a barren Washington farm system, a wasteland due to years of neglect from Major League Baseball, which previously owned the club.
After Jim Bowden, the original Nats’ GM, was ousted in the midst of an age-changing scandal involving a Dominican prospect, Rizzo took over, first as the interim general manager, then into the big chair permanently. He even got a fancier title – President, Baseball Operations and General Manager – in 2013.
The trajectory of this franchise, during so much of that time, was on the rise – from hopeless to the glimmers of a future in an 80-81 season in 2011 to the division title in 2012 to “World Series or bust” the following year to another division title in 2014. Headed into 2015, what franchise would anyone who wanted to bet on a winner take over the Nationals? The Cubs? Careful, because at this time last year the kids hadn’t yet arrived, and as Theo Epstein, their architect, said this spring, “We’re a defending third-place team.” The Dodgers? Sure, they have an apparently bottomless pit of money and what is now ranked, by Baseball America, as the top farm system in the game. Pretty good choice. The Cardinals, with their apparently endless well of talent and ridiculously avid fan base. Sure.
Whatever the debate, the point is: it’s a short list. A year after the optimism of that spring, though, the Nationals are coming off an 83-win season that was either a blip or a trend. We don’t yet know. What we do know: the top winning percentages in the game, since 2012, belong to the Cardinals (.579), the Dodgers (.562) and the Nats (.560), and Washington can now back that up with a re-stocked minor-league system that Baseball America ranks as the fifth-best in the game.
We know, too, that Rizzo has developed a reputation as a shrewd trader of talent. A recent highlight, of course, was last winter’s deal that sent outfielder Steven Souza Jr. to Tampa Bay and somehow brought in return two stellar prospects – shortstop Trea Turner and right-hander Joe Ross – from San Diego.
“When we saw that trade come across, we started laughing,” one rival general manager said this spring. “We didn’t think it was real.”
Starting catcher Wilson Ramos, center fielder Ben Revere, lefty Gio Gonzalez and relievers Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero, Trevor Gott and Papelbon were also acquired by trade – as were past key contributors Doug Fister, Yunel Escobar, Denard Span, Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Morse. Even though fans would almost certainly rate the acquisition of Papelbon as Rizzo’s least-popular trade, he has yet to be bitten by what he gave away in a deal.
Quick, who’s the best player the Nationals have traded under Rizzo? Maybe catching prospect Derek Norris, who became an all-star with Oakland, which then immediately dealt him to San Diego? Certainly reliever Drew Storen, traded for Revere this winter, could have a fine season for Toronto, but this is his last year prior to free agency, and he would have almost certainly walked anyway. Yes, he has dealt prospects who became major leaguers — Billy Burns, Tommy Milone, Robbie Ray, etc. But what deal would Nats fans call out as lopsided against Washington?
The draft, too, has been a success. Sure, Rizzo benefitted from twice having the top overall pick – in 2009 to take Strasburg, still in the rotation, and in 2010 to take Harper, now the best player in the game. But last year, The Sporting News ranked the Nationals’ drafts over the past decade as the best in the game. And they haven’t been all top-heavy, finding major leaguers in the late round — pitchers Nathan Karns and Robbie Ray in the 12th and Burns, an outfielder, in the 32nd.
So maybe it is, as Lerner said, “early.” Maybe this is a formality, and Rizzo and the family will work out a deal. But three weeks from Opening Day, the man who built this team isn’t locked up beyond this season, which leaves at least a small bit of uncertainty going forward.