Over the course of five days, we are examining the issues and characters that contributed to this disappointing Washington Nationals season — and how the team can avoid similar disappointment next season.
Mike Rizzo sipped green tea out of a Styrofoam clubhouse cup as he addressed reporters on the last day of the Washington Nationals' 2018 season. He had always been more of a coffee guy, but he took up green tea late in the season at the recommendation of the team’s nutritionist. Normal baseball seasons, let alone those as chaotic as this one, test the health of all who experience them. By the end of them, nobody is the same.
Rizzo, the Nationals' general manager, is no exception. His year began with a two-year contract extension, one many thought should be longer, or for more money, but secured Rizzo’s future through 2020. It ended with 82 wins, no postseason appearance and questions about his rookie manager’s job security.
“I’m the architect of this team. I create the roster that Davey [Martinez] has to put into play,” Rizzo said. “So yeah, there’s a lot of things we could’ve done different, should’ve done different, should’ve foreseen. But those are things that I’m responsible for. Win, lose or draw, it’s my team.”
Rizzo didn’t elaborate on exactly what he could have done differently. He has never been one to dwell on failures or even really to admit them; he rarely second-guesses moves in hindsight or claims mea culpa. But he has never dodged responsibility either. And he, like so many others in the organization, must shoulder some for the way this season slid into disappointment.
Concerns about the coaching staff, as outlined in Part II of this series, are largely the responsibility of ownership. If Rizzo had his way, Dusty Baker would still be the Nationals' manager. Then again, if Rizzo really had his way, Bud Black would probably be managing them. The GM’s employers ended up making those decisions.
But Rizzo is the architect, and he can be held accountable for flaws in his blueprint. And two parts of his team were not structurally sound.
The first was his rotation, the backbone of his Nationals, which pitched to its worst ERA since before the 2012 season. Rizzo always says that with good starting pitching, anything is possible, and without it, nothing is possible. This season, he didn’t get it.
When Rizzo was asked about the rotation this winter, he repeated that he thought the Nationals had plenty of depth with which to prosper. In Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, he had as good a top four as any team in baseball. In Erick Fedde, Jeremy Hellickson, A.J. Cole and others, he felt he had plenty of depth should one of them falter.
But in betting on the enigmatic Gonzalez, and on Roark to bounce back after a down year, and on Strasburg to stay healthy, Rizzo erred. The Nationals could have added Jake Arrieta to their rotation, or even paid less for stability in short deals with Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn, but they did not pursue them. Neither he nor anyone else around the team has suggested that the front office wanted to pursue another starter and was shut down for financial reasons. The Nationals began the season with the fourth-highest payroll in baseball. They ended it with the fifth-highest payroll, $181 million, a number that — when cast through MLB’s confusing competitive balance tax calculator — places them over this year’s threshold.
The bullpen design was also imperfect. The Nationals entered this season with the strongest, most complete bullpen they have ever had to start a season. But they also entered the season with a largely veteran group of injury-prone relievers that required frequent days off, couldn’t pitch on back-to-back days and couldn’t be optioned to the minors to clear roster spots for fresher (or more effective) arms.
Rizzo did target his bullpen early in the season. He attempted to alleviate the pressure on veteran relievers by acquiring Kelvin Herrera months before the trade deadline. But the more polarizing part of Rizzo’s handling of the bullpen came at the trade deadline, when he jettisoned Brandon Kintzler and Shawn Kelley in rapid succession in moves perceived as part of a clubhouse cleanse.
“If you’re not in, you’re in the way,” Rizzo said then. Kintzler struggled after the trade and did not make the Chicago Cubs’ National League wild-card game roster. Kelley pitched well and is headed to the American League wild-card game with the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday night.
Stepping out of character
With months of hindsight to inform them, neither deal is as surprising as it seemed at the time. Rizzo thought Kintzler was responsible for negative rumors about the state of his clubhouse but wasn’t sold on his performance and also felt he had plenty of back-end depth in Herrera and Madson. Kintzler’s 7.00 ERA in 25 games with the Cubs makes the deal hard to argue in retrospect.
As he has said since, Rizzo would have traded Kelley at any point, in any season, after he threw the tantrum he did in the Nationals’ Aug. 1 blowout. He showed up his manager, so he had to go.
And Rizzo is a man with no history of surrender, so no one was particularly surprised when the Nationals held pat at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. He and his front office had explored all their options — including a Bryce Harper deal — and presented them to ownership. Rizzo wanted to give his roster another month. Ownership agreed.
But when the Nationals suddenly traded Matt Adams and Daniel Murphy on Aug. 21, the moves surprised players, frustrated fans and puzzled executives around the league. Why, with 10 days before the Aug. 31 deadline, would the Nationals make those moves? And if, as Rizzo insisted later, those deals were not made merely to slide under the salary cap and the money involved calculated to the hour, why not wait 10 more days? The return was not going to suffer dramatically in that time. The Nationals did not get much in return.
Neither Rizzo nor ownership has offered much explanation for the timing of those deals. They were decidedly out of character for the Nationals GM, who is not one to sell, nor one to do things halfway. But if ownership mandated the sell-off, Rizzo could only advise them and execute their wishes. He has had to bite that bullet before. Whatever happened, the Phillies faded fast, starting at about the time those deals were made. The Nationals had shown no signs of life to that point, but then again …
Rizzo always thought this roster was built to be much better. Indeed, it always seemed to be, and Rizzo much receive credit for the positives, too. The Hellickson signing, seemingly a throwaway deal made midway through spring training, altered their fate. He acquired Herrera without touching any of his elite prospects, another coup. He had the guts to call up 19-year-old Juan Soto when many wondered whether he was rushing the kid out of necessity. Soto is a bona fide rookie of the year candidate. Rizzo has now called up two 19-year-olds in his career, and the other one was Bryce Harper.
Harper is the most complicated part of Rizzo’s management this season. Rizzo, like the rest of the organization, stood by Harper through thick and thin. Rizzo defended him through his first-half struggles. He praised him for his second-half renaissance. If the plan was to make sure Harper and the Nationals headed to his free agency winter on good terms, Rizzo made sure that happened. He got Harper’s arbitration deal done a year early. He never wavered in adamant and outspoken support of his star whenever criticism escalated.
But in that support, and the relentless support afforded Harper by the rest of the organization, Rizzo and others set up an uncomfortable double standard. When Harper didn’t run out groundballs or run hard after flyballs, Martinez could not do much but downplay the move. When Trea Turner didn’t run out a groundball, he was benched. Those decisions are Martinez’s, of course.
But he does not make them in a vacuum. This organization’s unique and more forgiving approach to its homegrown superstar is well-established, long-standng -- and not lost on others in the clubhouse. Then again, it is not unprecedented around baseball, either. Harper played in 159 games, more than all but one other player, all while under massive scrutiny. Who can blame the Nationals for occasionally circling around one of their own? Many teams do.
Rizzo didn’t say exactly what he thinks he needs to do differently. He also didn’t talk about the moves he wanted to make, but couldn’t because of ownership’s hesitations. His job is not to point fingers like that. He is the architect of this team, the man who must own its failures more than anyone else.
Then again, his blueprint was impressive enough to earn all those expectations in the first place, and solid enough that this roster needs only a remodel after this season to be able to challenge for the National League East title once again.
Rizzo might need to switch back to coffee soon — he has a lot of work to do.