After the 2009 season Mike Rizzo had the unenviable task of trying to
convince free agents to play for a team that had suffered over 200 losses in
the last two seasons. The Nationals looked like a moribund franchise
spinning rudderless in a widening gyre. The biggest challenge for the
Nationals was building a pitching staff. With Stephen Strasburg scheduled to
debut sometime during the 2010 season and Jordan Zimmermann recovering from
Tommy John’s surgery the future of the Nats rotation was on the way, but the
present was bleak. Mike Rizzo brought in veterans Jason Marquis and Livan
Hernandez to hold down to fort while Strasburg developed and Zimmermann healed.
The Nationals had little to no chance to
attract bigger names that wanted to play for a winner so they brought in
innings eaters like Marquis and Livo to be place holders. Rizzo also brought in
a couple position player veterans nearing the end of their careers in Ivan
Rodriguez and Adam Kennedy. The biggest decision Rizzo made during the
off-season though was to shift Cristian Guzman to second and allow rookie Ian
Desmond to be the everyday Major League short stop. It was a risky move to go
with a player that wasn’t fully defensively developed, but it was the type of
move a team in the Nationals position had the luxury of making.
The biggest issue in 2009 had been the
bullpen and Mike Rizzo did an admirable job of fixing it for the 2010 season.
He traded for Brian Bruney, signed Matt Capps and Joel Peralta, and most
importantly transitioned Tyler Clippard to the bullpen full time. While some of
Rizzo’s moves didn’t work out, like the signing of Brian Bruney, the Nats
bullpen had the fifth best combined reliever ERA in 2010. The 2010 bullpen ERA
of 3.35 was a dramatic improvement over a unit that had put up a miserable 5.09
ERA in 2009. Mike Rizzo was pushing the team in the direction he wanted it to
Some of Rizzo’s signings didn’t work
out. Jason Marquis was awful and then missed most of the 2010 season after
having bone spurs removed from his elbow. The greatest 2010 success for Mike
Rizzo was the signing of Matt Capps who had a decent enough season for the
Nationals but was traded at the deadline to the Twins for catching prospect
Wilson Ramos. Rizzo wasn’t able to accomplish everything he wanted at the
deadline however. The Nationals biggest trade chip was Adam Dunn and rumors
circulated as the July 31 deadline approached that he would either be traded
for Daniel Hudson or Edwin Jackson, but there was a rift in the front office.
While Mike Rizzo had full domain over
the baseball operations Stan Kasten was still the team president and more than
willing to stick his nose into Rizzo’s operations. Kasten wasn’t the out in
front spokesman he had been when the Lerners took over control of the team in
2006, but he still made his presence felt, and no more so than on Opening Day
of 2010. The previous summer Kasten had gone onto Philadelphia radio
and invited Phillies fans to come on down since as he saw it the Nats were having
trouble selling out Opening Day. In 2010 Phillies fans had more time to plan as
Kasten rolled out the red carpet for them. Group tickets were gobbled up by
Phillies blogs and bus companies ready to take over Nats Park, and so they did.
Nationals fans not only had to endure a beat down of John Lannan and
the Nationals at the hands of Roy Halladay and the Phillies, but they had to do
so in a stadium 80-90% full of Phillies fans cheering on their team and booing
When it came time for the trade deadline
and Rizzo wanted to trade away fan favorite Adam Dunn, Stan Kasten disagreed.
Kasten took his complaint and his advice to re-sign Dunn to the Lerners and
while the Lerners didn’t allow Rizzo to trade Dunn they didn’t re-sign him
either. It was a move that greatly angered many Nats fans at the time who
wanted to get a couple close to major league prospects for the slugger and
instead ended up with draft picks. As far as the 2010 draft went Rizzo was once
again picking first and took the obvious choice in Bryce Harper. The only
question that remained would be if Rizzo could work out yet another last minute
deal with Harper’s agent Scott Boras. Through the years Boras and Rizzo have
worked well on many negotiations and it all started with the drafting of
Strasburg and Harper.
As Harper was drafted, it was just about
time for more young players to make their debuts for the Nationals. Drew Storen
was the first Nationals prospect to debut and did so against the St. Louis
Cardinals striking out Matt Holliday in his debut, but as nice as it was to see
Drew Storen in the back of the Nats bullpen his debut wasn’t the big one. On
June 8, 2010 Stephen Strasburg debuted against the Pittsburgh Pirates and not
only lived up to expectations, but exceeded them. Strasburg struck
out 14 on the night and sent the crowd home happy as they got a glimpse of the
future of Nationals baseball. However the future was soon to be delayed.
Like Jordan Zimmermann the year before
Strasburg would wind up needing Tommy John’s surgery due to a tear of his UCL.
The other developing and disappointing story of the 2010 season was the self-destruction
of Nyjer Morgan. A player that had looked so promising in 2009 was falling
apart before Nats fans eyes. Morgan took his struggles at the plate and on the
base paths as a personal affront, and let it all out in emotional outburst. He
threw his glove on the ground and allowed Orioles Adam Jones to score an inside
the park homerun after missing a catch, he ran over catchers to show his
frustration with manager Jim Riggleman after being dropped in the line-up, and
he charged the mound after Marlins Chris Volstad threw behind him. If Nyjer
Morgan the player had struggled he may have gotten a second chance, but when
Nyjer Morgan the person struggled there were amends to be made.
Aside from Strasburg and Storen, 2010 brought
the debuts of Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos who put on a September show. Ian
Desmond was the rookie with the Nationals all season though and while he
struggled in the field he was above average with the bat. Mike Rizzo made a
commitment to letting Desmond develop at the major league level, and while the
Nats may have won more games without him it was important for him to learn the
position at the highest level and to see the best pitchers on a daily basis.
There was no other way for him to get better and Rizzo had the guts to let him
grow, and his place as the Nationals short stop was secured when Cristian
Guzman was traded to the Texas Rangers for two minor league pitchers, one of
which being friend of the site Ryan Tatusko.
It is hard to call 2010
a disappointment. Strasburg’s debut electrified and Mike Rizzo
continued to make moves that improved the future of the club. Stan Kasten
announced he was leaving and that gave Mike Rizzo full control without the fear
of meddling from an overwrought team president. The Nationals on field record
improved by ten games as they went from 59 wins in 2009 to 69 in 2010. It
wasn’t a great overall record, but the players of the future were starting to
arrive and the plan Rizzo had for the direction of the club was starting to
take shape. Mike Rizzo had built off of the moves he made during the 2009
season and was starting to give the Nationals an identity as his club, an
identity that would become more clear during the 2011 off-season.
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