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August 8, 2013

Painting the Black

Rating Rizzo

by R.J. Anderson

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On the night of the trade deadline, the Nationals lost by 10 runs and fell to 11 games behind the division-leading Braves. News broke, less than 24 hours later, that general manager Mike Rizzo had agreed to a long-term extension, which gave him a new title (President of Baseball Operations) to go with a presumed raise. The announcement came at an inopportune time: Washington had dropped nine of its 13 contests since the All-Star Game, and 14 of its past 20 overall. The popular preseason pick entered Wednesday with 2.3 percent postseason odds. Predictably, Rizzo's extension caused a few to express incredulity:

Ascribing Rizzo's success to blind luck is an oversimplification, albeit one with merit. Rizzo did have the good fortune—and good sense—to draft Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper first overall in consecutive drafts. However, that is not reason enough to deride his tenure as the decision maker in D.C. Luck is never more of a four-letter word than when used to describe someone's achievements. Yet every successful GM has benefited from good luck at some time or another, and Rizzo is no exception.

In fact, there are parallels to be drawn between Rizzo and two other well-regarded GMs. But first it's worth noting how overstated his role in obtaining those top picks is. Rizzo joined the Nationals front office in 2006; he became the GM in March 2009. By then Washington had earned the Strasburg pick, which they would make a few months later*, and the Nationals were assembled to repeat as the league's worst team. Rizzo got the Nationals moving in the right direction in time: after choosing first in back-to-back drafts they selected sixth in 2011 and then 16th in 2012—those picks netted them two talents of questionable health in Anthony Rendon and Lucas Giolito.

*The Nationals also picked 10th and selected Drew Storen.

Compare Rizzo with Andrew Friedman and there are a few similarities. Friedman became the Rays GM in November 2005 and inherited a bare bones roster. Months into his tenure the Rays selected Evan Longoria—their franchise player—third overall en route to finishing with the league's worst record in consecutive seasons. The Rays nabbed another generational talent when they chose David Price first overall in 2007. Unfortunately, for Friedman, 2008's selection of Tim Beckham has become maligned in the five years since. Still, the Rays, like the Nats after them, snagged two all-star talents thanks to opportunities created by the previous management.

There are plenty of differences between Rizzo and Friedman, too. One is in how their internal processes are perceived. When the breaks go Friedman's way it's because, as Branch Rickey once said, "Luck is the residue of design." The thing about design is that it's tough to evaluate externally. Consider another popular GM: Jeff Luhnow.

Luhnow's plan with the Astros is unknown, but the outsider's notion goes something like this. Luhnow is tanking to secure high draft picks. Assuming Luhnow uses those picks well, he'll then have a collection of cheap, young players with which to staff his big-league roster. From there the surplus talent can be traded for desirable, in-their-prime players to buttress his core. Along the way Luhnow's budget savings will come in handy, should he decide to splurge on a free agent or two. This sequence is called rebuilding the right way, and it's what Rizzo did with the Nationals.

Granted, Rizzo took over a better situation than Luhnow. Ryan Zimmerman and Jordan Zimmermann were already in place, with other legitimate young talent nearing the majors. As a result Rizzo was able to accelerate the rebuilding plan by signing Jayson Werth to a seven-year deal worth $126 million in his second winter as GM. A year later he traded four prospects for Gio Gonzalez, a youngish middle-of-the-rotation starter. This past winter, after seeing his team melt down in the NLCS, Rizzo signed Rafael Soriano to a two-year deal (costing him a first-round pick) and traded for a true center fielder in Denard Span. Despite mixed results—Werth has dealt with injuries, Span has struggled his first year in D.C.—those are moves contenders make to bolster their cores.

Make no mistake: Rizzo has erred. He traded Mike Morse without finding a suitable replacement on the bench, paid Yunesky Maya $8 million for 16 big-league appearances, and gambled $13 million—to date unsuccessfully—on Dan Haren's achy body. There is a legitimate chance Werth's injuries add up and the deal, with four years and more than $80 million remaining, becomes the burden everyone feared it would. And any conversation about Rizzo's errors must include last season's decision to shut down Strasburg in advance of the postseason. Depending on the artist, Rizzo was myopic and overconfident in his team's future odds, or selfless for his willingness to prioritize his ace's health over short-term success. You decide.

Rizzo's done his fair share of undeniable good, too. Be it signing Adam LaRoche the first time, trading Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos, or not trading Ian Desmond or Ross Detwiler. And while he shouldn't receive all the credit for last season's success, neither should he take all the blame for this season's failures, either. The Nationals have dealt with uncharacteristically poor performances from a number of key contributors—including Drew Storen, Danny Espinosa, and the training staff—making the 2013 season, in a sense, the inverse of 2012. The opposite of good luck.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Washington Nationals

3 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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jcjohnson

I think that you're selling Rizzo a bit short here. It's fair to set aside the "luck" of getting Strasburg and Harper. But most of Rizzo's other major moves have been pretty significant positives.

For example, Gio Gonzalez is the 10th best pitcher in MLB by fWAR (7.0) since he came to the Nationals. Calling him a "middle-of-the-rotation" guy significantly underplays it.

Aquiring Ramos for Matt Capps was almost criminal, as was getting Morse for Ryan Langerhans. He also traded Morse at the right time, re-acquiring the best prospect in the Gonzalez deal as well as a PTNB (Ian Krol) who has provided more value to the Nats this year than Morse has to the Mariners. I would have given him more credit for those moves than you seem to.

Maya and Haren were errors, but they weren't high cost ones. Werth's contract is the biggest mistake he's made, in my view, and Werth is having an excellent year (it's the $80m remaining that I'm worried about).

Anyway, I appreciate that this piece is a defense of Rizzo's record. I just think his record is even better than it appears from the above. Thanks for the discussion.

Aug 08, 2013 07:23 AM
rating: 3
 
lonechicken

Gio's not mid-rotation. Even his A's days showed that.

The innings weren't my issue with Strasburg. I defended it with anyone who argued otherwise last year. My beef was, he pitched from day 1 instead of say, Mid-May. Or should have gotten shut down because of a hang nail for a month in July. It may not have won that final game against the Cards, but they may have already won the series before getting to that game with Stras on the playoff roster while still short of his innings limit.

Aug 08, 2013 10:27 AM
rating: 1
 
balticwolf

Rizzo has been lucky with one aborted deal: at the end of the 2011 season Rizzo tried to acquire John Danks from the White Sox for basically the same group of prospects that were dealt to the A's.
Danks told the ChiSox that he signed an extension with them because he wanted to stay in Chicago and vetoed a trade to Washington.
Gio Gonzalez was Plan B.

Right now, it looks as if Plan A had been consummated, it would've been a bad move for the Nats, both financially and on the field.

Aug 08, 2013 20:55 PM
rating: 0
 
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