SAN DIEGO — Earlier this season, the Washington Nationals exercised their option to extend General Manager Mike Rizzo’s contract through the 2014 season, a move widely interpreted as a reward for Rizzo’s stewardship of a franchise that ascended from losing 297 games in three seasons to a 2012 division title.
But exercising the option may have created a potential fissure in the relationship between ownership and its general manager. Rather than discuss a new deal that would keep Rizzo in Washington long term at a price commensurate with his experience as a GM, Nationals ownership instead locked Rizzo into one more year on its terms.
In April, Mark Lerner, the Nationals’ principal owner, told the Washington Times that the team had begun talks to sign Rizzo to a multiyear deal. Those talks, according to people familiar with the situation, have not happened. Saturday, Lerner expressed optimism the sides would come to a long-term deal.
“We’re obviously talking extension with him,” Lerner said before changing course. “When everybody has the time to sit down in a room — it’s tough during the season. We’ll get it done. There’s no doubt in my mind. I know Mike wants it. We want it. We’re optimistic it’ll all happen in due course. There’s no news.”
Rizzo declined comment on his contract situation, saying only that he was proud of the direction of the franchise and that “I’d like to be here for the long term. I hope the Lerner family feels the same way.”
After the 2010 season, Rizzo’s first as Washington’s full-time general manager, the Nationals announced they had signed him to a five-year contract as GM and executive vice president. Last fall, The Washington Post reported the deal actually included three guaranteed seasons and two club options, for the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
Because Rizzo signed the contract with no experience as a top executive, he agreed to a salary that makes him one of the lowest-paid GMs in the league, according to a person familiar with the contract and MLB executive salary structure.
When the Lerners extended Rizzo for the 2014 season, it kept him in the bottom third of general manager salary and offered no additional security. The team’s option for the 2015 season would also keep him near the bottom of the league among top decision-makers.
“A lot of times, these teams, they get general managers on contracts on entry, like players,” said high-profile agent Scott Boras, who represents Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and several other Nationals players. “And once a general manager has established himself, they have all these options that are frankly — it’s not particularly good to offer them, because they could do a lot better in the open market.”
The Nationals’ on-field improvement has driven increased revenue and lifted the franchise’s value. In 2009, the year Rizzo took over as interim GM, the Nationals drew 1.8 million fans. This year, they are on pace to draw 2.6 million.
Lerner was noncommittal about if he wanted to simply extend Rizzo’s current deal or negotiate a new long-term contract.
“We haven’t gotten that far,” Lerner said. “That’s something that I’m sure we’ll sit down with Mike one day and figure it all out. We’ll sit in a room. We like him. He likes us. I think it’s a great match. He’s built this organization. I’m sure he wants to stick with it, hopefully win a few titles.”
If another club wanted to hire Rizzo away, it first would have to ask Nationals ownership for permission, which they almost certainly would not grant.
“Who knows what the future brings?” Lerner said. “Right now, it’s a great match. He loves what he’s doing. I think it’s the perfect place for him. He’s very proud of this, and he wants to see it through. When something happens, we’ll let you know. Everything takes time.”
Rizzo’s uncertain long-term future could have an impact on the Nationals’ ability to acquire talent. Boras said a tenuous situation at the top of the Nationals’ baseball operations would change the way he presents the Nationals to clients as a possible destination.
“Certainly, it makes a difference,” Boras said. “I can say more to players about winning. I can say more to players about development. Certainly, when players go to make their decisions, they’re going to have more comfort with the idea of knowing what the franchise is about, and of proven success in it.
“I let players make decisions. But when I go to give them a decision — what is their draft like, what is their minor league development like, what is their major league development like and what are they like in free agency — he’s pretty much been effective on all accounts. I don’t represent general managers. But I think he just did a pretty good job.”