In Rizzo we trust

Af­ter build­ing a win­ner, Nats GM could be fac­ing a de­ci­sive two-year stretch

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHELSEA JANES

As Mike Rizzo en­ters his ninth sea­son as gen­eral man­ager of the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als and fifth with the ad­di­tional ti­tle of pres­i­dent of base­ball op­er­a­tions, his team has es­tab­lished an ex­cel­lent reg­u­lar sea­son rep­u­ta­tion. Five years ago, that would have been a com­pli­ment. Now, it feels back­handed. Three 95­win sea­sons in five years — as many or more than a third of ma­jor league teams have in the his­tory of their fran­chises — can­not rea­son­ably be con­sid­ered fail­ure. But be­cause the Na­tion­als have had three chances to do more and have failed to do so, three divi­sion ti­tles do not feel like enough. Rizzo and the Na­tion­als have come so close to glory, they made it easy to for­get how far they came to get here.

Na­tion­als be­came win­ners with an un­ortho­dox com­bi­na­tion of fis­cally care­ful own­ers, a bare­bones fran­chise and a com­pli­cated base­ball town. They were led to suc­cess by a raw and fiery for­mer scout in a po­si­tion usu­ally de­fined by pol­ish. A hard-nosed and hard-headed base­ball lifer took a midrange pay­roll and built a peren­nial win­ner from scratch. But will this team be­come more?

Rizzo’s vaunted ro­ta­tion is ag­ing, and Max Scherzer and Tan­ner Roark will be in their mid-30s when Rizzo’s con­tract ex­pires af­ter the 2018 sea­son. Bryce Harper’s con­tract ex­pires then as well, as does Daniel Mur­phy’s. Jayson Werth is a free agent af­ter the 2017 sea­son. Ryan Zim­mer­man’s re­cent strug­gles fos­ter un­com­fort­able ques­tions about whether he will ever be the same again. Dusty Baker is un­der con­tract through this sea­son and has not said whether he would like to con­tinue to man­age af­ter that.

Can Rizzo’s model buck base­ball’s ebbs and flows and pro­duce a World Series win­ner? The an­swers will come in the next two sea­sons, and with them, more clar­ity about the gen­eral man­ager whose fin­ger­prints are all over one of this half decade’s win­ningest ma­jor league fran­chises — but who can­not shake the ques­tions about why it has not won more.

Smooth­ing the rough edges

Af­ter eight sea­sons as gen­eral man­ager, Rizzo is like a short­stop’s glove in its prime: not so bro­ken in that the orig­i­nal shape is lost, but molded over time to fit its owner.

When for­mer Na­tion­als pres­i­dent Stan Kas­ten vet­ted Rizzo for the po­si­tion of as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager to Jim Bow­den in 2006, he heard more than once that all Rizzo wanted was to be­come a gen­eral man­ager. Some ex­ec­u­tives would mark that as a sign of dis­loy­alty. Kas­ten, who be­came the youngest gen­eral man­ager in NBA his­tory with the At­lanta Hawks, saw no rea­son to deduct points for am­bi­tion.

“That was the only knock I could find,” Kas­ten said, “other than he had rough edges.”

Those edges dulled some­what as Rizzo, now 56, grew into the po­si­tion. Kas­ten said Rizzo is smoother now, a “lit­tle more so­phis­ti­cated” af­ter years of strad­dling the bor­der be­tween the cor­po­rate and base­ball worlds. He has got­ten more com­fort­able with the me­dia, mas­ter­ing the skill of us­ing many words to say very lit­tle. Rizzo rarely speaks pub­licly about his team’s plans, or shares spe­cific in­ter­nal eval­u­a­tions, care­ful to dis­close ex­actly what he wants and noth­ing he doesn’t. The scout in Rizzo knows even the small­est piece of in­for­ma­tion can be an edge.

But glim­mers of his com­pet­i­tive­ness of­ten slip through his more cal­cu­lated ex­te­rior. He chal­lenges re­porters who ask grat­ing ques­tions. His voice peaks and his chest puffs some­what when his judg­ment is ques­tioned or his play­ers are crit­i­cized. Rizzo might be more pol­ished than he used to be, but he was never meant for tip­toe­ing.

“You can’t fake it,” Rizzo said. “You’re on stage too much. You’re in front of the cam­era too of­ten to not be your­self. Your true per­son­al­ity and at­ti­tude comes through, whether you’re try­ing to fake it or not.”

Rizzo does not have the typ­i­cal back­ground for an MLB gen­eral man­ager. He jokes about his col­lege ed­u­ca­tion in Illi­nois, not the Ivy League schools at­tended by many GMs. In­stead of slim-fit­ting suits and thin ties, Rizzo wears blind­ing green Nikes. In­stead of Star­bucks, Rizzo car­ries a sty­ro­foam Ga­torade cup of cof­fee out to the bat­ting cage each af­ter­noon. In­stead of sit­ting in his of­fice in the hours be­fore bat­ting prac­tice when the stands are empty and the speak­ers silent, Rizzo makes phone calls on the out­field grass.

Rizzo also has a rep­u­ta­tion as be­ing slightly more in­volved with on-field happenings than most men in his po­si­tion. Ma­jor League Base­ball fined him for that in­volve­ment, specif­i­cally for ac­cost­ing the umpires on the way to the Citi Field club­house in 2011.

Last year, again in New York, Rizzo met Jim Joyce in the tun­nel to voice his dis­plea­sure with the vet­eran um­pire’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the slide rule. Sens­ing a pat­tern, Citi Field se­cu­rity guards now hold vis­it­ing ex­ec­u­tives and me­dia be­hind the doors that lead to the tun­nel un­til the umpires reach their locker room — “the Rizzo Rule,” un­of­fi­cially.

“He’s not in the cur­rent trend, but it’s great that he is there and that suc­cess­ful be­cause it makes the point that I’m al­ways making — there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Kas­ten said. “You can do it new school, you can do it old school, you can do it with a com­bi­na­tion. Mike is an ex­am­ple.”

‘When I call, an­swer’

Rizzo com­bines com­pet­i­tive­ness with con­vic­tion, namely a strong be­lief in the power of the right peo­ple, and his abil­ity to find them. When for­mer Mar­lins GM Dan Jen­nings joined the Na­tion­als in Jan­uary 2016 as a spe­cial as­sis­tant, he chat­ted with Rizzo about ex­pec­ta­tions. Rizzo told him he had one rule.

“When I call,” Rizzo told him, “an­swer.”

Rizzo built the Na­tion­als’ front of­fice from a bare-bones con­glom­er­a­tion to a deep and loyal group of ex­pe­ri­enced base­ball lif­ers. In­stead of MBAs or math ma­jors, Rizzo has sur­rounded him­self with peo­ple who reached the high­est lev­els of base­ball man­age­ment.

Last month, he added for­mer Di­a­mond­backs se­nior vice pres­i­dent of base­ball op­er­a­tions De Jon Wat­son, also as a spe­cial as­sis­tant. His front of­fice now in­cludes seven for­mer scout­ing di­rec­tors, three for­mer ma­jor league man­agers, a for­mer pres­i­dent of base­ball op­er­a­tions and a for­mer gen­eral man­ager, most of them with play­ing or scout­ing back­grounds.

“A lot of peo­ple don’t like to have strong, opin­ion­ated peo­ple around them. They’d rather sur­round them­selves with yes men,” Jen­nings said. “He’s done just the op­po­site.”

At first, Rizzo wanted to con­trol ev­ery­thing. But many of his key as­sis­tants — scout­ing di­recThe tor Kris Kline, as­sis­tant GMs Doug Har­ris and Adam Cromie, vice pres­i­dent Bob Boone and many oth­ers — stayed with him from the early years. Con­ti­nu­ity laid the foun­da­tion for trust, and Rizzo re­al­ized he could let go.

“That was the most dif­fi­cult as­pect of the job for me to grasp. You can’t see ev­ery­body,” said Rizzo, who de­vel­oped ways of vet­ting prospects or big lea­guers from afar.

He grills scouts with ques­tions and tests their com­mit­ment to play­ers in ques­tion. He also stud­ies his staff. Rizzo knows which scouts grade hard and which grade easy. He knows that when one scout says “that guy’s a pretty good player,” that player is prob­a­bly a fu­ture all-star. He knows which scouts pound the ta­ble more of­ten, with a lit­tle more zeal. He knows which scouts see pitch­ing best, and which know hit­ters. And he knows how im­por­tant it is to give them free­dom to scout their way, be­holden only to that one phone call they must never miss.

“There’s no shrink­ing vi­o­lets in the room. They tell me ex­actly what they think,” said Rizzo, who has been known to eschew clas­sic four-let­ter words for more cre­ative, mul­ti­syl­labic lin­guis­tic ex­per­i­ments in deal­ings with top as­sis­tants — then laugh about it with them later.

“My back­ground was in the con­struc­tion busi­ness, and I now know words that I didn’t know then,” spe­cial as­sis­tant for ma­jor league op­er­a­tions Harolyn Car­dozo said. “[Mike’s] been my vo­cab­u­lary coach.”

Rizzo’s network of scouts, built by a scout, gives him the in­for­ma­tion he needs to find steals in the draft or value in trades. But Rizzo also takes chances. Sens­ing an op­por­tu­nity to pre­serve value by keep­ing play­ers health­ier, he led an over­haul of the team’s med­i­cal staff. Feel­ing the tide turn­ing to­ward data, Rizzo has ex­panded the Na­tion­als’ of­fice of base­ball re­search and devel­op­ment. Car­dozo was sur­prised to see Rizzo not only tak­ing their in­for­ma­tion but ask­ing ques­tions to shape it.

“He’s be­come more of a nerd than any­one would ever ex­pect. He’s able to di­gest the an­a­lyt­ics bet­ter than he ever thought he would be able to,” Car­dozo said. “But the sur­pris­ing part is that he likes it.”

Al­ways re­liant on hu­man eval­u­a­tion, in­creas­ingly will­ing to trust data, Rizzo and his staff de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as smart drafters and smart deal­ers.

“You keep a score­board, and his track record is pretty damn good,” said Jen­nings, who said he dis­cussed many trade pos­si­bil­i­ties with Rizzo over the years, but never made a deal, in part be­cause Rizzo would es­tab­lish a value for a player and would not budge.

“I think Mike sets his mind early on about what’s right and you’re not go­ing to get him to vary off it, even if he’s wrong,” Kas­ten said. “If he feels strongly about it, he’s go­ing to stick to that, and move on if he doesn’t get the deal.”

When Rizzo feels some­thing is right, he does it, re­gard­less of the in­dus­try-wide con­sen­sus. Af­ter the Na­tion­als picked in­juredand-plum­met­ing Lu­cas Gi­olito in the first round of the 2012 draft, Jen­nings texted Rizzo to say that tak­ing chances such as that one is what leads to great­ness.

“My grand­fa­ther used to say all the time, ‘You can’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is,’ ” Jen­nings said. “Mike Rizzo is not afraid to go out on a limb.”

So when Rizzo de­cided Adam Ea­ton was a bet­ter fit for the Na­tion­als’ out­field than An­drew McCutchen, he traded Gi­olito and Reynaldo Lopez — both elite pitch­ing prospects — to Chicago, a move that was openly crit­i­cized by many at the win­ter meet­ings. Rizzo’s legacy could well pivot around the deal, con­sid­er­ing the tal­ent he gave up and the in­creas­ing pres­sure on the Na­tion­als to make more of a post­sea­son run.

Fi­nan­cial lim­i­ta­tions

As Rizzo walks the fine line be­tween con­vic­tion and stub­born­ness, he bends for al­most no one. But he is not an in­de­pen­dent op­er­a­tor, and in his job, con­vic­tion only goes as far as the money sup­plied to fund it.

The Na­tion­als’ man­ag­ing prin­ci­pal owner Ted Lerner and his fam­ily try not to at­tract the spotlight, but for all their pub­lic ret­i­cence the Lern­ers are deeply in­volved in base­ball op­er­a­tions. Rizzo is in charge, but he works within their fi­nan­cial pa­ram­e­ters. That ar­range­ment is the norm around base­ball. But the Lern­ers are more care­ful spenders than most.

The Lern­ers do spend. They com­mit­ted nearly $150 mil­lion to their ros­ter for each of the past three sea­sons, a pay­roll right in the mid­dle of the ma­jor league pack. They chipped in an as-yet un­clear amount to a new (and rushed) spring train­ing fa­cil­ity. They com­mit­ted $210 mil­lion to Scherzer and $175 mil­lion to Stephen Stras­burg over the past few years, and long-term deals to Werth, Zim­mer­man and oth­ers.

But af­ter the Na­tion­als spent just $4.9 mil­lion on free agents this off­sea­son, agents grum­bled about the fam­ily’s un­will­ing­ness to pay when their ros­ter seems a player or two away from ti­tle con­tention.

Rizzo al­ways in­sists the Lern­ers give him the money he needs to field a com­pet­i­tive team, and for the past five sea­sons, they have. In the process, he and the Lern­ers have ma­neu­vered through many tests. Rizzo, for ex­am­ple, threat­ened to quit in 2014 when the Lern­ers balked at giv­ing up three play­ers, in­clud­ing highly re­garded prospect Rob­bie Ray, in a trade for pitcher Doug Fis­ter.

Rizzo’s con­tract in­cludes club op­tions for this sea­son and next, and the dead­line for ex­tend­ing those was last June. The Lern­ers waited un­til mid-May be­fore do­ing so, and the wait be­came a league-wide topic of dis­cus­sion. Nei­ther side, how­ever, gave any in­di­ca­tion of trou­ble.

“As time passes, it might be easy to for­get that Mike was the first sig­nif­i­cant hire our fam­ily made af­ter as­sum­ing own­er­ship of the team,” prin­ci­pal owner Mark D. Lerner wrote in re­sponse to ques­tions about Rizzo, shared through a Na­tion­als spokes­woman.

“But I think about that fact a lot, be­cause it was the start­ing point for so much of what our team has ac­com­plished. From that day, he’s been ab­so­lutely in­te­gral to what we’ve built.”

Kas­ten in­ter­viewed Rizzo along­side the Lerner fam­ily, and he de­scribes both Ted Lerner and Rizzo as “crusty, down to earth, can­did peo­ple, which works be­tween the two of them.” Be­cause the Lern­ers are so pri­vate, Rizzo is of­ten the face of the or­ga­ni­za­tion. But he is not fly­ing solo.

“Ev­ery­body thinks [Rizzo and I] make all the de­ci­sions, and we make most of them. But the same name is on the bot­tom of my check that’s on the bot­tom of ev­ery­body else’s check,” Baker said. “The bot­tom line goes back to who signs the check. That’s the boss. Like Bob Dy­lan said, ‘Ev­ery­body’s gotta serve some­body.’ ”

When Rizzo was named full­time GM in 2009, one of his goals was build­ing long-term sus­tain­abil­ity. He wants to build a farm sys­tem sta­ble enough to with­stand deals such as the Ea­ton trade. He wants to build a front of­fice co­he­sive enough to stick to its mis­sion. And he wants to build a big league ros­ter ver­sa­tile enough that the loss of one key player does not doom it.

“He’s ag­gres­sive in his ac­tions, but he’s very re­spect­ful of the needs of the or­ga­ni­za­tion in the fu­ture, not sell­ing the farm for to­day,” Baker said. “Blow­ing it up, start­ing all over? I don’t think you have to do that. In­sert one here. In­sert a kid there. Maybe take a long shot on a guy over here.”

If the Na­tion­als’ win­dow of op­por­tu­nity is start­ing to close, Rizzo hopes the or­ga­ni­za­tion he built can prop it open long enough to give the team more chances to chase a world ti­tle. Win or lose, that will de­fine the Na­tion­als’ legacy — and his own.

RICKY CARIOTI/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

PHO­TOS BY JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Man­ager Dusty Baker, above left, be­lieves GM Mike Rizzo can keep the Nats in con­tention even if Bryce Harper, top, and Daniel Mur­phy, above right, be­come free agents af­ter two more sea­sons. “Blow­ing it up, start­ing all over? I don’t think you have to do that,” he said.

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