In Mike Rizzo’s years as a player and scout, he got used to uncertain futures. He spent two decades working on one-year contracts, which he said made fluidity easier over time. But general managers with a decade of franchise-building to their name do not often have to wait. Rizzo is waiting now. His contract with the Washington Nationals expires the same day as a potential Game 7 of the 2018 World Series. He does not have an extension.
Rizzo has been clear about his stance: He will not campaign for a deal.
“I will not [approach them],” Rizzo said multiple times this offseason. “I will allow them to approach me.”
Nationals management has approached him, but a few early spring conversations didn’t yield a deal, or bring one to the edge. The Nationals have a new manager, a superstar in his contract year, a league-leading hitter unavailable for Opening Day, two legitimate Cy Young candidates and the most stable bullpen they have had in years. But people on the inside here are talking about Rizzo.
In hushed and not-so-hushed conversations around the ballpark, on the field and in the concourses, executives with this team and others are all wondering the same thing, their musings often punctuated with an expletive or two. Why haven’t the Nationals signed the guy they all call “Riz” to a long-term deal yet? How could they possibly let him begin this season without one?
More than one member of Rizzo’s front office has asked that question of those around him, or said he has had to answer it for executives of other teams. Star players are asking the question of leadership, too. Max Scherzer made his stance clear in an interview with the Washington Times earlier this spring when he said, “It’s really up to ownership to take care of this situation and make sure this doesn’t get sideways on us.”
Asked to elaborate on his thoughts late in spring training, Scherzer declined.
“I’m not going to keep talking about it or making quotes,” Scherzer said. “The ball’s in their court.”
Scherzer is not a man prone to distraction, but his words betray the reality of Rizzo’s contract situation for those who plan to be with this team long-term. The questions will keep coming, a nuisance at first — a frustration if they linger.
If Rizzo does not have a deal, uncertainty will hover over the organization as it positions itself to deal with the most vaunted free agent class in history. Should ownership prove unwilling to extend a man so many around the game and in the organization believe deserves it, what high-profile candidate would find the new vacancy enticing? Like former manager Dusty Baker’s contract situation loomed over the 2017 season, Rizzo’s will do the same until it is resolved — one way or another.
Rizzo, of course, has more impact on this organization than any manager ever could. His handpicked people populate the front office, minor league staff, analytics department and roster. His hard-nosed, old-school scouting approach permeates the whole group, a rarity in today’s stats-first game. And his drafting instinct and trade record stand up to scrutiny, too. Of the Nationals’ nine projected Opening Day starters, Rizzo originally drafted or signed five of them, including Scherzer, whom he drafted in Arizona.
“When you talk about teams around the league and what they’ve done,” Ryan Zimmerman said, “if he’s not at the top, he’s right up there. Obviously he deserves to be here if he wants to be here. That’s what it boils down to.”
Rizzo does want to be here. He bought a three-story house near Nationals Park this winter, a move that did not signal anything imminent — other than what he saw as a good business opportunity. He wants to stay, and would rather occupy that house long-term than not. But Rizzo knows how much real estate prices in that area are climbing, and he figured the resale value justified the investment regardless of his status with the Nationals.
Leverage is a complicated question when it comes to Rizzo’s situation. The Lerner family could use Rizzo’s real estate investment, or Rizzo’s obvious emotional investment in the Nationals, against him. He wants to be here and has said so repeatedly. He built this franchise from the ground up and has yet to achieve the final goal.
They could also use the fact that president of baseball operations jobs don’t open up much, either. If he doesn’t return to the Nationals, Rizzo might have to wait to find a job where he has so much say. Most of those jobs are going to the Ivy League-trained, analytics-minded prototypes.
Then again, few candidates have the résumé or long-standing connections in rival front offices that Rizzo does. Those who do — such as the New York Yankees’ Brian Cashman (a reported five-year, $25 million deal), the Chicago Cubs’ Theo Epstein (reportedly five years, approximately $9 million per year) and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Andrew Friedman (reportedly five years, $7 million per year) have earned money and longevity. Rizzo’s résumé lacks the playoff success of that trio but doesn’t concede them much else.
That résumé is Rizzo’s leverage, and if it weren’t for the blank space next to “World Series titles,” that résumé would vie for the title of best in the business. Since Rizzo took over before the 2009 season, he has transformed a cellar-dwelling eyesore into a standup franchise and annual World Series contender. Since 2012, the Nationals have averaged more than 92 wins per season and won the NL East four out of six seasons.
For every miss on a manager, Rizzo could show off a trade that looks more like robbery. For every free agent reliever that didn’t pan out, Rizzo can show off a young up-and-coming arm he sent elsewhere for big league talent. For every argument he would make, someone could counter with the fact that he hasn’t won a World Series. But few general managers have Rizzo’s history as a player and scout, and few garner the respect he has among those always-discerning baseball people.
“He’s a guy I can lean on, big-time. He’s always there for everybody in this clubhouse,” Bryce Harper said. “. . . He’s just one of the guys who really works hard with his job every single day. I can say he’s a hard-nosed GM who backs his players and never talks bad about any of his guys. When you have a guy at the helm who is pulling the same rope, it makes you want to come in every day and work hard for him. I think he’s a great guy. If he’s not here next year, somebody’s getting a great GM.”
From players to coaches, front office staff to scouts, the one word everyone uses when it comes to Rizzo is “loyalty.” Therein lies the part of his skill set few others see. As his bosses in ownership accrue criticism for their businesslike handling of their employees, Rizzo has become a shield of sorts. Stories fly around the organization about his assistants needing money, or some other kind of help, and Rizzo being the first to offer it. He looks out for longtime players and coaches, always willing to find a place for them, always open to second chances.
And he has mellowed somewhat over the years. At 57, Rizzo is more willing to admit mistakes than he was five or 10 years ago. Earlier this spring, for example, he admitted moving Erick Fedde to the bullpen last season didn’t help the rookie. He has admitted the Nationals rushed Koda Glover to the big leagues, and that perhaps it contributed to the injuries that have slowed his young career.
But he has never been willing to admit the existence of this window to win everyone seems to talk about with his team. As he sees it, with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in the rotation, with Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon under control, with young prospects like Victor Robles, Juan Soto and others on the way, that window is wide open. Plus, with nearly $80 million in payroll coming off their ledgers this winter, he has plenty of money to spend to prop it open.
The window for these Nationals, it seems, will be open as long as he is there to hold it there. He will head north from spring training without an extension. If he does not get one before the season is over, the future of this franchise will change because of it, and all those who work for him know it.
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