World Series title may not be enough to save Nationals’ GM
Bob Nightengale column: Washington’s Mike Rizzo enters season as a lame duck.
Just 259 days ago, Nationals owner Ted Lerner and his family celebrated the franchise’s first World Series championship, pouring champagne on the field in Houston, parading down the streets in D.C., visiting the White House, and partying like it was 1924, the last time the nation’s capital had a baseball champion.
You would think that at some point during these last 36-plus weeks since hoisting the trophy, you’d want to tell your vice president/general manager that you want him around.
You could have done the same with your manager, ripping up his woefully cheap contract that barely pays him more than the minimum player salary and giving him an extension.
Instead, GM Mike Rizzo, the man who turned the Nationals into one of the game’s elite model franchises, is 109 days from being unemployed. Really.
The manager who guided the Nats to the improbable World Series championship, overcoming a 19-31 start, Davey Martinez hasn’t heard a word, either.
The Nationals have a club option that pays Martinez $1.2 million in 2021, but there have been no talks about an extension or ripping up his old deal and giving a new one. The Astros gave manager A.J. Hinch a new deal when he won the 2017 World Series. The Red Sox did the same with Alex Cora when he won a year later.
But, of course, those teams didn’t have a GM who’s a lame duck.
So here are the Nationals asking Rizzo and Martinez to lead them through an unprecedented sea of uncertainty, navigate a team through COVID-19 testing and safety protocols, with eight players missing since the start of camp – including their top two young stars in Juan Soto and Victor Robles and hitting coach Kevin Long – but unwilling to sit down and discuss a new contract.
It’s OK to have Rizzo out in front as the face of the $1.9 billion organization, scolding MLB for its testing procedures that drew considerable praise from his players, pleading not to furlough his employees, guilting ownership into paying the minor leaguers their full salaries and even making sure the top executives and scouts received the same World Series rings as the players, only to now have the same security as the stadium’s beer vendor.
It’s insane, but again this is the same ownership that fired manager Dusty Baker after winning back-to-back division titles. It’s the same owners who told Bud Black he was their new manager, only to offer him a one-year deal. The same owners who have perhaps the smallest and lowest-paid front office staffs in baseball.
The Nationals’ entire front office baseball staff has only one person – Rizzo ($4 million) – earning more than $500,000. Franchises such as the Yankees, the Cubs and the Dodgers are paying three or four times as much to their front office staff.
And yet no one in baseball has had more overall success than Rizzo since 2012, leading the Nationals to four division titles and eight consecutive winning seasons.
But you know what is Rizzo’s proudest accomplishment?
The Nats have had all this success without a single public scandal. No PED suspensions. No domestic violence suspensions. No discrimination lawsuits. Why, the only blemish was back in 2015 when outfielder Jayson Werth was arrested for a reckless driving charge going 105 mph in his Porsche traveling along the Beltway.
Rizzo simply will not tolerate anyone embarrassing or tarnishing the organization.
Remember when reliever Shawn Kelley angrily threw his glove to the ground in a blowout game in 2018 with Rizzo convinced the gesture was defiant toward Martinez? Rizzo challenged to him a fight, and then released him.
Remember when Rizzo believed that veteran reliever Brandon Kintzler was a leak to the media about clubhouse release? He immediately traded him to the Cubs for a low-level prospect.
It would be so easy now for Rizzo to stand on the rooftop of his home, walking distance from Nationals Park, and scream to the heavens how ownership isn’t reciprocating the same loyalty. It’s not happening.
Rizzo, 59, is old school. He realizes he’s still under contract. Not once has he approached ownership about his contract. He has too much pride to ask for an extension. If they want to keep him, they know where to find him.
Rizzo refuses to even talk about his contract situation. You ask about it, the interview is over.
Still, he undeniably wants to stay. This is his home. This is his town. This is his team.
He epitomizes loyalty. He’ll never forget that the Lerners, and former team president Stan Kasten, were the ones who gave him his chance. They could have grabbed a brilliant and savvy Ivy League graduate like everyone else. They instead gave him a chance, a kid from the streets of Chicago with a fiery personality, a rough exterior and who’ll pay more attention to his 70-year scout than an analytic spreadsheet out of a computer
He has the resume to receive a fiveyear, $50 million deal like some of his contemporaries, but if the Nats are adamant about offering less during this pandemic, he’d certainly listen. It would be nice to sit down and just have a conversation. If they don’t want to keep him, or try to offer another two-year, $8 million deal, hey, no hard feelings. He’s not afraid to walk away and explore the market.
There were as many as nine GMs considered to be on the hot seat this season before the pandemic hit, and surely there will still be a handful of openings, with a few owners already targeting Rizzo.
“Mr. Lerner is the envy of baseball because true baseball people in this game love working for Mike Rizzo,” said Nats special assistant Dan Jennings, the former GM and manager with the Marlins. “When we won the World Series we had every true baseball person in the game celebrating with us because we were working for a baseball guy who truly represents baseball people.
“He’s the best guy I’ve ever worked for, or worked alongside, by a long shot.”
It’s impossible to know if the Nationals’ record, or a return to the playoffs, will have any impact on Rizzo’s fate. The Lerners aren’t talking. Certainly, it’s their right to hire whoever they want, at whatever price they can get.
But this is a proud baseball franchise and shouldn’t be run like a construction site, sitting back and making bids to get the cheapest cost.
The crazy part in all this is that some of Rizzo’s scouts and front office employees have longer security than he does. Rizzo, uncertain what would happen to him, made sure they had contracts through 2021.
Then again, you’ve got to wonder, if Rizzo is gone, why would anyone want to stick around?
Mike Rizzo built the Washington team that won the 2019 World Series, but his job is not secure past this season.