The Washington Nationals have come a long, long way since Mike Rizzo took over as the team’s GM on a permanent basis in August of 2009 after the sudden resignation of Jim Bowden left him in the interim position from March through August of that season. During that 2009 season, the Bowden/Rizzo combo witnessed the Fed City team finish in dead last in the National League Eastern division, 34 full games out of first place. Boy have times changed!
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One more last place finish the following season, and shrewd draft selections by Rizzo and his front office, and the Nats soon became contenders as early as 2012, when the team notched 98 victories, a team-first NL East division crown, but a shocking first round knockout three games-to-two at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals. What most fans remember is Rizzo’s controversial decision to sit staff ace Stephen Strasburg after he reached his pre-determined innings limit for the season, after returning from Tommy John surgery. Many point to that decision as being the turning point that prevented the Nats from a possible World Series crown. With Strasburg in 2012, does the team get past the Red Birds? Do they handle the opponent in the LCS and bring home that elusive title that hasn’t been in D.C. since 1924?
We can play the armchair quarterback game until the cows come home. Rizzo made the decision for the franchise, and the team and their fans now must live with those results. The team was expected to be just as good, if not better the following year in 2013, but the team stumbled in skipper Davey Johnson‘s final campaign in the dugout. A lack of consistent hitting, and bullpen woes saw the team finish 12 games worse than the previous season. Although the team finished in second place in the NL East, they missed out on the postseason.
Last year, the Nationals under first-year manager and former World Series champion third baseman Matt Williams were hitting on all cylinders once again, winning the division by winning 96 games. Continued bullpen issues plagued the team at different points during the regular season and contributed to the team’s early exit from the playoffs once again, losing to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants in four games. The team hit .164 in the series and recorded as many extra base hits (7) as they had runs scored for the entire series. Who does the blame lie with for the team coming up short in two of the past three seasons? I’ll argue it’s Mike Rizzo, and anything short of a World Series appearance in 2015 should put the target squarely on Rizzo’s chest.
The team went through transition this past winter, choosing to let first baseman Adam LaRoche walk away via free agency, sliding franchise mainstay Ryan Zimmerman across the diamond to take over and ensuring that superstar in the making, Anthony Rendon is now the full time man at the hot corner. Yunel Escobar was acquired to take over at second base. The outfield remains intact, led by Bryce Harper and veterans Jayson Werth and Denard Span. Of course, the biggest move of the off-season not only for the Nats, but in all of baseball, was the signing of former Cy Young winner Max Scherzer.
On the surface, Rizzo should have nothing to worry about, as this roster is built to win, and win now. The fans should expect an extended run into October, but just under the surface, some lingering feelings from past failures, along with the pending free agency of shortstop Ian Desmond has to be on Rizzo’s mind. After all, the 2012 Nats dominated the division, and looked poised for a title run as well, but came up short. The following season, the hangover, and then last year, another choke job.
With ownership investing this much money into the roster and allowing Rizzo to make 100 percent of the calls in terms of personnel, should he be on the chopping block if this team doesn’t perform up to expectation in 2015? What if the signing of closer Casey Janssen blows up in Rizzo’s face? What if Drew Storen can’t find the consistency he once showed? What does Rizzo do with Desmond if this team fails to hit and is struggling at the trading deadline in July? Does he blow the whole thing up, or should he hold on to Desmond and hope the team figures it out in August and September?
A starting rotation of Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Strasburg, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez should almost guarantee a 100-win season and a division title. What if the team does win 100-plus games, and then gets banged out in the first round again by some upstart Wild Card team? Does Rizzo survive as GM to try and put the pieces back together? Should he even be given the chance? Injuries and an inconsistent bullpen could be the team’s–and Rizzo’s undoing. They are built to win, and to win now. If they don’t, there is nobody else to blame but Mike Rizzo.