August 8, 2013
Painting the Black
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.