But Rizzo won’t be going to South Capitol Street to catch a game. He’s there to run the show in his 10th year as general manager and his 12th with the team.
In a town where every other GM either has a recent contract extension (the Caps’ first-rate Brian MacLellan) or job security that seems eternal, Rizzo, who has performed the best of the brunch, will be a lame duck left dangling in his walk year when the Nats’ new season begins in just 11 days.
Kirk Cousins and many others have trundled through this town, making their living off pro sports but never feeling powerfully connected to the city itself despite its huge range of neighborhoods, marble majesty or rainbow diversity. Rizzo is different. He’s a transplanted Chicagoan who has fallen hard for D.C. He gets that it’s a home town to millions, not just some cheap-shot politician’s punchline about “running against Washington.”
Of course, falling in love can be very costly. And it may cost Rizzo. The GM has poured his life into the Nats until his fingerprints are on every inch of the organization. Here in spring training, Rizzo tried “to think of one person who’s here that I didn’t have some part in hiring.” He could only come up with a couple.
When your boss knows you love your job and pour in an insane number of hours, including unnecessary ones, just to make the polish shine, when that boss knows you can’t be hired away for a few bucks more or by some recruiting flattery, then your own virtues can lead to you being taken for granted.
Many in Washington, and around baseball, think that the answer to a Rizzo contract extension, for several more years, is obvious: Of course.
Some players, especially those who will be Nats for the next several years, are annoyed that it’s even an issue. They see a bright future, a strong pipeline of young talent here in spring training and a window to be contenders for the next several years, not just 2018. They know the name of the master builder, too: “Riz.”
Three weeks ago, three-time Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer told the Washington Times that it was “up to ownership” to make sure that the Rizzo situation does not “get sideways on us . . . [he has] demonstrated that he is one of the best GMs in the game. . . . Obviously, he has earned his next contract.”
The price of reaching an extension is no mystery. The best GMs make $3 million to $10 million per year and get contracts for four or five years. Because the Nats have never advanced in the postseason, Rizzo is nowhere near the top, especially in dollars. But after inheriting a 102-loss team in ’09, and helping turn it into the second-best regular season team in MLB for the past six years (555 wins), with four NL East titles, he’s not at the bottom either.
Further simplifying the issue, those who know Rizzo understand that “years” mean more to him than “money.” He wants to stay in D.C. so much that it may hurt his leverage, even though, if he ever left, he’d be someone else’s GM, maybe even someone in Baltimore, in hours or days, not weeks or months.
Friends tease Rizzo that the Lerners will be able to sign him relatively cheaply because he is so close to creating a legacy in D.C. that would define his whole baseball life in glowing terms. Start over somewhere else after so much work?
“You want a statue in front of the ballpark someday,” they needle him. My variation on that theme is to remind him that, to date, no team has ever erected a statue to a not-so-tall bald man who only seems to own sneakers and polo shirts.
The Lerners need to simplify the core questions about Rizzo. If the Nats have a poor season that leaves a bitter aftertaste, like 2013 and 2015, would they fire Rizzo?
Or if the Nats end this year with a first-round playoff exit after a thrilling but exasperating Division Series, like 2012, 2016 and 2017, would they let Rizzo’s contract run out, essentially firing him, as they did with Dusty Baker last season?
If the Lerners would fire their GM in either of those eventualities, then there is no need to do anything right now. If they think 2018 is a litmus test of whether Rizzo is one of the best GMs, if they can’t make up their minds about him after watching him for a dozen years in their front office, then just sit on your hands.
But if the Nats dither and dawdle, taking for granted the man who keeps the entire baseball side of their operation glued together, motivated and highly competent, then I think they are nuts. They fail to see the danger of inaction.
Since Rizzo is in the last year of his contract, he is essentially a free agent, just like Harper. That could backfire in a huge way. There is a chance, low probability, but far from zero, that Rizzo would feel so unappreciated that instead of hoping a contract gets done, his private thought would be, “I’m out of here.”
Don’t say it can’t happen. Ex-team president Stan Kasten told friends a year ahead of time that he was leaving D.C. because of frustrations with the Lerners. He liked them, but he couldn’t work for them anymore. The owners were still in the dark just days before he announced his departure. Did Kasten founder without the Nats? Or did he put together the ownership group that bought the Dodgers, beat the Nats in the 2016 playoffs and went to the 2017 World Series?
The difference is that Kasten thought the Lerners were lucky to have him while Rizzo is deeply grateful. This week the GM said, “The Lerners gave me this chance [to be GM], when I don’t know if any other team in baseball would have.”
If the Lerners intend to keep Rizzo, based on his entire body of work, then they would be best served to do the deal soon. There are no lame-duck shopping malls; but there are lame-duck GMs. No team is helped by having one.
Ted Lerner tends to do his best baseball work on the biggest decisions. He was correct on contracts worth $100 million to $210 million on Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Scherzer. But he’s left hundreds of other important decisions, such as deals that added Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, and Howie Kendrick last summer, to Rizzo’s excellent judgment.
Now, Lerner could lock down one of the best GMs in the game for four or five years for one-tenth of the price that he’s paid for a couple of his free agent megadeals. That would qualify as an exceptional return on investment.
It would also continue a complex but extremely productive partnership between Ted Lerner, 92, and Rizzo. I am sure that each appreciates the other, but maybe not quite as much as they should. As one example, many of the Nats stars are represented by agent Scott Boras, hardly an easy fellow to deal with. Yet both Lerner and Rizzo, in different ways, have excellent working relationships with him. Perhaps the elderly Lerner and Rizzo, both blunt, rough-edged, self-made men, complement each other, and need each other more than they realize.
If just a couple of plays in Game 5 in 2012, 2016 or 2017 had gone differently, the entire context of this discussion would be far different. And the last thousand Nats regular season games would be shiny indeed, rather than slightly tarnished.
Baseball has myriad moving parts and mysteries. In sports, it is a perfect example of the saying, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
Don’t break the Nationals by trying to fix them.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell