As Mike Rizzo enters his ninth season as general manager of the Washington Nationals and fifth with the additional title of president of baseball operations, his team has established an excellent regular season reputation. Five years ago, that would have been a compliment. Now, it feels backhanded.
Three 95-win seasons in five years — as many or more than a third of major league teams have in the history of their franchises — cannot reasonably be considered failure. But because the Nationals have had three chances to do more and have failed to do so, three division titles do not feel like enough. Rizzo and the Nationals have come so close to glory, they made it easy to forget how far they came to get here.
The Nationals became winners with an unorthodox combination of fiscally careful owners, a bare-bones franchise and a complicated baseball town. They were led to success by a raw and fiery former scout in a position usually defined by polish. A hard-nosed and hard-headed baseball lifer took a midrange payroll and built a perennial winner from scratch. But will this team become more?
Rizzo’s vaunted rotation is aging, and Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark will be in their mid-30s when Rizzo’s contract expires after the 2018 season. Bryce Harper’s contract expires then as well, as does Daniel Murphy’s. Jayson Werth is a free agent after the 2017 season. Ryan Zimmerman’s recent struggles foster uncomfortable questions about whether he will ever be the same again. Dusty Baker is under contract through this season and has not said whether he would like to continue to manage after that.
Can Rizzo’s model buck baseball’s ebbs and flows and produce a World Series winner? The answers will come in the next two seasons, and with them, more clarity about the general manager whose fingerprints are all over one of this half decade’s winningest major league franchises — but who cannot shake the questions about why it has not won more.
After eight seasons as general manager, Rizzo is like a shortstop’s glove in its prime: not so broken in that the original shape is lost, but molded over time to fit its owner.
When former Nationals president Stan Kasten vetted Rizzo for the position of assistant general manager to Jim Bowden in 2006, he heard more than once that all Rizzo wanted was to become a general manager. Some executives would mark that as a sign of disloyalty. Kasten, who became the youngest general manager in NBA history with the Atlanta Hawks, saw no reason to deduct points for ambition.
“That was the only knock I could find,” Kasten said, “other than he had rough edges.”
Those edges dulled somewhat as Rizzo, now 56, grew into the position. Kasten said Rizzo is smoother now, a “little more sophisticated” after years of straddling the border between the corporate and baseball worlds. He has gotten more comfortable with the media, mastering the skill of using many words to say very little. Rizzo rarely speaks publicly about his team’s plans, or shares specific internal evaluations, careful to disclose exactly what he wants and nothing he doesn’t. The scout in Rizzo knows even the smallest piece of information can be an edge.
But glimmers of his competitiveness often slip through his more calculated exterior. He challenges reporters who ask grating questions. His voice peaks and his chest puffs somewhat when his judgment is questioned or his players are criticized. Rizzo might be more polished than he used to be, but he was never meant for tiptoeing.
“You can’t fake it,” Rizzo said. “You’re on stage too much. You’re in front of the camera too often to not be yourself. Your true personality and attitude comes through, whether you’re trying to fake it or not.”
Rizzo does not have the typical background for an MLB general manager. He jokes about his college education in Illinois, not the Ivy League schools attended by many GMs. Instead of slim-fitting suits and thin ties, Rizzo wears blinding green Nikes. Instead of Starbucks, Rizzo carries a styrofoam Gatorade cup of coffee out to the batting cage each afternoon. Instead of sitting in his office in the hours before batting practice when the stands are empty and the speakers silent, Rizzo makes phone calls on the outfield grass.
Rizzo also has a reputation as being slightly more involved with on-field happenings than most men in his position. Major League Baseball fined him for that involvement, specifically for accosting the umpires on the way to the Citi Field clubhouse in 2011.
Last year, again in New York, Rizzo met Jim Joyce in the tunnel to voice his displeasure with the veteran umpire’s interpretation of the slide rule. Sensing a pattern, Citi Field security guards now hold visiting executives and media behind the doors that lead to the tunnel until the umpires reach their locker room — “the Rizzo Rule,” unofficially.
“He’s not in the current trend, but it’s great that he is there and that successful because it makes the point that I’m always making — there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Kasten said. “You can do it new school, you can do it old school, you can do it with a combination. Mike is an example.”
Rizzo combines competitiveness with conviction, namely a strong belief in the power of the right people, and his ability to find them. When former Marlins GM Dan Jennings joined the Nationals in January 2016 as a special assistant, he chatted with Rizzo about expectations. Rizzo told him he had one rule.
“When I call,” Rizzo told him, “answer.”
Rizzo built the Nationals’ front office from a bare-bones conglomeration to a deep and loyal group of experienced baseball lifers. Instead of MBAs or math majors, Rizzo has surrounded himself with people who reached the highest levels of baseball management.
Last month, he added former Diamondbacks senior vice president of baseball operations De Jon Watson, also as a special assistant. His front office now includes seven former scouting directors, three former major league managers, a former president of baseball operations and a former general manager, most of them with playing or scouting backgrounds.
“A lot of people don’t like to have strong, opinionated people around them. They’d rather surround themselves with yes men,” Jennings said. “He’s done just the opposite.”
At first, Rizzo wanted to control everything. But many of his key assistants — scouting director Kris Kline, assistant GMs Doug Harris and Adam Cromie, vice president Bob Boone and many others — stayed with him from the early years. Continuity laid the foundation for trust, and Rizzo realized he could let go.
“That was the most difficult aspect of the job for me to grasp. You can’t see everybody,” said Rizzo, who developed ways of vetting prospects or big leaguers from afar.
He grills scouts with questions and tests their commitment to players in question. He also studies his staff. Rizzo knows which scouts grade hard and which grade easy. He knows that when one scout says “that guy’s a pretty good player,” that player is probably a future all-star. He knows which scouts pound the table more often, with a little more zeal. He knows which scouts see pitching best, and which know hitters. And he knows how important it is to give them freedom to scout their way, beholden only to that one phone call they must never miss.
“There’s no shrinking violets in the room. They tell me exactly what they think,” said Rizzo, who has been known to eschew classic four-letter words for more creative, multisyllabic linguistic experiments in dealings with top assistants — then laugh about it with them later.
“My background was in the construction business, and I now know words that I didn’t know then,” special assistant for major league operations Harolyn Cardozo said. “[Mike’s] been my vocabulary coach.”
Rizzo’s network of scouts, built by a scout, gives him the information he needs to find steals in the draft or value in trades. But Rizzo also takes chances. Sensing an opportunity to preserve value by keeping players healthier, he led an overhaul of the team’s medical staff. Feeling the tide turning toward data, Rizzo has expanded the Nationals’ office of baseball research and development. Cardozo was surprised to see Rizzo not only taking their information but asking questions to shape it.
“He’s become more of a nerd than anyone would ever expect. He’s able to digest the analytics better than he ever thought he would be able to,” Cardozo said. “But the surprising part is that he likes it.”
Always reliant on human evaluation, increasingly willing to trust data, Rizzo and his staff developed a reputation as smart drafters and smart dealers.
“You keep a scoreboard, and his track record is pretty damn good,” said Jennings, who said he discussed many trade possibilities with Rizzo over the years, but never made a deal, in part because Rizzo would establish a value for a player and would not budge.
“I think Mike sets his mind early on about what’s right and you’re not going to get him to vary off it, even if he’s wrong,” Kasten said. “If he feels strongly about it, he’s going to stick to that, and move on if he doesn’t get the deal.”
When Rizzo feels something is right, he does it, regardless of the industry-wide consensus. After the Nationals picked injured-and-plummeting Lucas Giolito in the first round of the 2012 draft, Jennings texted Rizzo to say that taking chances such as that one is what leads to greatness.
“My grandfather used to say all the time, ‘You can’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is,’ ” Jennings said. “Mike Rizzo is not afraid to go out on a limb.”
So when Rizzo decided Adam Eaton was a better fit for the Nationals’ outfield than Andrew McCutchen, he traded Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez — both elite pitching prospects — to Chicago, a move that was openly criticized by many at the winter meetings. Rizzo’s legacy could well pivot around the deal, considering the talent he gave up and the increasing pressure on the Nationals to make more of a postseason run.
As Rizzo walks the fine line between conviction and stubbornness, he bends for almost no one. But he is not an independent operator, and in his job, conviction only goes as far as the money supplied to fund it.
The Nationals’ managing principal owner Ted Lerner and his family try not to attract the spotlight, but for all their public reticence the Lerners are deeply involved in baseball operations. Rizzo is in charge, but he works within their financial parameters. That arrangement is the norm around baseball. But the Lerners are more careful spenders than most.
The Lerners do spend. They committed nearly $150 million to their roster for each of the past three seasons, a payroll right in the middle of the major league pack. They chipped in an as-yet unclear amount to a new (and rushed) spring training facility. They committed $210 million to Scherzer and $175 million to Stephen Strasburg over the past few years, and long-term deals to Werth, Zimmerman and others.
But after the Nationals spent just $4.9 million on free agents this offseason, agents grumbled about the family’s unwillingness to pay when their roster seems a player or two away from title contention.
Rizzo always insists the Lerners give him the money he needs to field a competitive team, and for the past five seasons, they have. In the process, he and the Lerners have maneuvered through many tests. Rizzo, for example, threatened to quit in 2014 when the Lerners balked at giving up three players, including highly regarded prospect Robbie Ray, in a trade for pitcher Doug Fister.
Rizzo’s contract includes club options for this season and next, and the deadline for extending those was last June. The Lerners waited until mid-May before doing so, and the wait became a league-wide topic of discussion. Neither side, however, gave any indication of trouble.
“As time passes, it might be easy to forget that Mike was the first significant hire our family made after assuming ownership of the team,” principal owner Mark D. Lerner wrote in response to questions about Rizzo, shared through a Nationals spokeswoman.
“But I think about that fact a lot, because it was the starting point for so much of what our team has accomplished. From that day, he’s been absolutely integral to what we’ve built.”
Kasten interviewed Rizzo alongside the Lerner family, and he describes both Ted Lerner and Rizzo as “crusty, down to earth, candid people, which works between the two of them.” Because the Lerners are so private, Rizzo is often the face of the organization. But he is not flying solo.
“Everybody thinks [Rizzo and I] make all the decisions, and we make most of them. But the same name is on the bottom of my check that’s on the bottom of everybody else’s check,” Baker said. “The bottom line goes back to who signs the check. That’s the boss. Like Bob Dylan said, ‘Everybody’s gotta serve somebody.’ ”
When Rizzo was named full-time GM in 2009, one of his goals was building long-term sustainability. He wants to build a farm system stable enough to withstand deals such as the Eaton trade. He wants to build a front office cohesive enough to stick to its mission. And he wants to build a big league roster versatile enough that the loss of one key player does not doom it.
“He’s aggressive in his actions, but he’s very respectful of the needs of the organization in the future, not selling the farm for today,” Baker said. “Blowing it up, starting all over? I don’t think you have to do that. Insert one here. Insert a kid there. Maybe take a long shot on a guy over here.”
If the Nationals’ window of opportunity is starting to close, Rizzo hopes the organization he built can prop it open long enough to give the team more chances to chase a world title. Win or lose, that will define the Nationals’ legacy — and his own.