BOSTON — Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo strolled into a lobby bar at the Westin Copley Place, decked out in a black suit and red-striped tie. Three weeks before pitchers and catchers report for 2013, Rizzo would receive one more slice of validation that the Nationals arrived in 2012.
Thursday night, Rizzo accepted the executive of the year award presented by the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. The accolades from the Nationals’ first winning season will soon fade, but the event gave Rizzo one last opportunity to revel in the Nationals’ ascension.
“It’s a great award. I’m humbled and honored by it,” Rizzo said before the annual dinner. “To me, an award like this is very gratifying for your career. But to me, it’s more than an individual award. It’s recognizing organizational excellence. This is obviously more than one individual person. It goes everywhere from the front office to the scouts in the field to the player development guys pounding the fungoes.”
Under Rizzo’s stewardship, two seasons after a stretch of losing 298 games over three years, the Nationals won the National League East and led the majors with 98 wins. Rizzo had the good fortune of drafting Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, but he surrounded his stars by investing heavily in the draft and focusing on player development. The Nationals’ farm system produced players such as starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann and second baseman Danny Espinosa. Rizzo made trades for Gio Gonzalez, Michael Morse and Kurt Suzuki. He signed free agents such as Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche.
“I think it’s recognition that we’re doing the right things,” Rizzo said. “You win the executive of the year award when your players perform and your management manages right and you win a lot of games. We don’t dismiss it. We don’t foo-foo it. We’ve come a long way, and we recognize it. This was a franchise not so long ago that wasn’t highly respected and kind of the joke of major league baseball. I think that we’ve turned that around to the point where teams are trying to emulate what we’re doing.”
Looking back at the rise of the Nationals, a team that in the past three years has jumped from 59 to 69 to 80 to 98 wins, Rizzo, a former scouting director, sees his primary success in working the draft. The Nationals poured resources (read: money) into scouting and signing amateur players in the years before the draft rules changed to inhibit big spending.
“The main success is drafting well,” Rizzo said. “We felt we really took advantage of those last few years before the collective bargaining agreement changed the landscape of the draft. To me, that was very intelligent baseball work. That’s something we very rarely speak about, but that was a big part of our vision when we took over. We saw an opportunity to make up for lost time, if you will, by really attacking the draft like few other teams had in the past.”
The Nationals have augmented their homegrown players with trades and free agency, most recently the signing of closer Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million deal. The contract pushed the Nationals’ opening day payroll to an estimated $115 million, the highest it’s been by far since baseball returned to Washington in 2005.
Rizzo saw the rising payroll not as a function of big free agent deals, but rather an extension of their philosophy. The young, core players the Nationals have developed are moving from “zero-to-three” players making the league minimum going into arbitration.
“I think that if you really look at the construction of our payroll, in essence it’s kind of the escalation of the good, young players that we have now are making more and more money every year,” Rizzo said. “That’s really how this thing goes. When they’re young and at the lower levels of their earning capacity, your payroll is much cheaper. We went out and had the opportunity to pin-point and target certain, short-term resources that we wanted to get, be it Edwin Jackson last year, Dan Haren this year. We’ve got a couple of guys on two-year deals.
“But the core of players is the rotation and the core players on offense and defense, and even our bullpen pieces are all long-term assets. We’ve got control of those guys for a long time going forward. It not only gives us flexibility in roster construction. It gives us flexibility in payroll. Any year, you could be shedding X amount of dollars in your payroll.”
Aside from the seven-year, $126 million contract for Werth, the Nationals’ forays into free agency have been short-term. By the time Soriano’s contract is complete, for instance, Strasburg will be eligible for arbitration for the second time, and Harper will be coming up on his first arbitration-eligible year. As the payroll rises, Rizzo does not anticipate financial concerns breaking apart the Nationals’ nucleus.
“We’ve never had any mandate on any type of salary cap,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to do what’s best for the longevity of the franchise. I think that’s what we’ve done. I think the front office that we have and the staff we have, we’re good caretakers for the franchise’s longevity. That’s my job as GM. I know that’s the spirit in which we do all these deals — our eye on ’13, but our vision for long-term.”
The Nationals’ aim to repeat as National League East champions seemingly became more difficult Thursday, when the Atlanta Braves traded for Justin Upton. Rizzo, who while with the Arizona Diamondbacks drafted Upton with the first overall pick, considered what the Braves gave up — utilityman Martin Prado — just as significant as what they received.
“I haven’t had a chance to digest the whole trade yet,” Rizzo said. “But Prado is a terrific, terrific baseball player. He’s a different type of contributor than Upton would be. Upton is a terrific player and a guy I’m very familiar with and I love. He’s going to be a good player for them.
“He’s a great player. They had a good team before they got him. They’ve got a good team now. It’s going to be a different team than we’ve seen in the past because Prado is really a thorn in our side. He was always a tough out for us and really one of their most valuable players against us throughout his career.”