Each week, District on Deck’s staff writer Matt Weyrich discusses the biggest question surrounding the Washington Nationals. This week? Why are Nats fans suddenly doubting Mike Rizzo?
The Washington Nationals appointed Mike Rizzo as interim general manager prior to the 2009 regular season. Jim Bowden, the incumbent GM, had resigned after reportedly being involved in an FBI investigation into the skimming of signing bonus money from Latin American players.
Rizzo took over command of the Nats’ front office and never looked back, earning a promotion to President of Baseball Operations in 2013.
It took Rizzo three seasons to put together a contender. The Nationals, frequent flyers of the NL East basement, had consecutive No. 1 overall picks in 2009 and 2010. Rizzo used those selections to draft Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, both of whom have made multiple All-Star teams since.
The team finally reached the playoffs in 2012, finishing with the best record in all of baseball before getting bounced in the NLDS by the St. Louis Cardinals. Washington wasn’t finished, however, and captured two more NL East crowns over the next four years.
Rizzo built the Nationals from the ground up. Bowden left him with a farm system among the worst in the league (subscription required), a team that had just lost 102 games and an incompetent manager that was fired by July. What Rizzo’s been able to accomplish with so little resources has been an astounding feat to see unfold.
Now, amidst a questionable trade, fans are calling for Rizzo’s head. At the winter meetings earlier this month, Rizzo signed off on a deal with the White Sox that brought in center fielder Adam Eaton for pitching prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning.
Giolito and Lopez were the team’s top two pitching prospects and Dunning was picked up in the first round of last year’s draft. Eaton, on the other hand, has never made an All-Star team but is respectable player with five years of control left on his very team-friendly contract. The deal appears very one-sided — and maybe it is — but this is not the first time Rizzo’s made a questionable move that’s worked out in his favor.
In 2010, the Nationals parted ways with infielder Cristian Guzman at the trade deadline amidst another losing season. Guzman had been with the team since it moved to D.C., but Rizzo decided to ship him to Texas for AA pitchers Ryan Tatusko and Tanner Roark. Guzman only played in 15 games the rest of his career, while Roark has become a fixture in the Nats’ rotation and is one of the most underrated pitchers in the MLB.
The Nats acquired Denard Span from the Twins prior to the 2012 season for highly-touted prospect Alex Meyer. Meyer has since compiled a 6.75 ERA in 28 career innings at the major league level, while Span went on to post a .759 OPS in three seasons with Washington. He set the franchise records in hits in a season in 2014 and quickly became a fan favorite.
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In one of Rizzo’s more underrated moves, the Nationals picked up starter Doug Fister in a trade with the Tigers. The then-30-year old right-hander cost them Ian Krol, Robbie Ray and Steve Lombardozzi. At first the Nats ownership blocked the trade, but eventually relented after Rizzo threatened to quit. None of the prospects Rizzo dealt amounted to much, while Fister finished eighth in Cy Young voting in 2014.
The Eaton trade makes Washington a better team right now. Trea Turner moves back to shortstop and Danny Espinosa is now an Angel. Bryce Harper is a popular rebound candidate and Max Scherzer is still pitching like an ace. The team is in a great position to make a run at the pennant next season.
Over the past five years, only the Cardinals have more regular season wins (461) than the Nats’ 458. They’ve won three division titles, boasted an MVP and Cy Young, and enter 2016 as the favorites to win the NL East once again. Mike Rizzo has done so much for this ballclub, that now is not the time to starting doubting him. Just ask the Padres, he’s got a trick or two up his sleeve.