Mike Rizzo: The Man Who Laughs

When the dust had settled on the 2011 season the Nationals had won 80 games
and looked poised to take the next step. Stephen Strasburg and Jordan
Zimmermann were finally going to be in the same rotation, and Jayson Werth’s
return to his career norms in the second half of a season seemed a harbinger of
a 2012 bounce back. Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos both had promising rookie
years. Work had to be done in order to make the Nats into a contender though.
They had won 80 games, and Mike Rizzo had improved the team record by at least
10 games in his previous two seasons. The jump from 80 to 90 is a much more
difficult jump than the one from 69 to 80 and there were many that doubted if
Rizzo was the one who could do it.  

The 2012 off-season did not start out
well for the Nationals. They were linked to Jose Reyes as Ian Desmond had
struggled in his second season in the majors and many doubted if he would ever
be a viable major league short stop. With Steve Lombardozzi looking ready to
take over at second base one thought was that the Nationals could shift
Espinosa to his natural position of short and play Lombardozzi at second. Jose
Reyes was an easier and quicker solution. It is unknown how much, if any,
interest the Nationals had in Reyes, but when he signed with the Marlins there
was much concern.

The Marlins weren’t done by any
stretch. They had a shiny new stadium and they wanted to prove they could be
major players in the free agent market. The Nationals did need starting
pitching depth and did make a strong push to sign the veteran left hander Mark
Buehrle, but again missed out on him to the Marlins. The main issue was that
the Nationals weren’t willing to go to the years that the Marlins were, and
while the Marlins had little regard for the future of their franchise, the
Nationals did. Now that the Nationals were in a better position to negotiate
with free agents and getting locked into another Jayson Werth type deal was the
last thing they wanted.

Having missed out on Buehrle the
Nationals turned their search for a starting pitcher to the trade market. On
December 23 the Nationals pulled off the biggest deal in their history in
Washington and got the second Ace their rotation was lacking when they traded AJ
Cole, Derek Norris, Tommy Milone, and Brad Peacock to the Oakland A’s for Gio
Gonzalez. There were many doubts as to whether Gio was going to develop into an
Ace or not, but his control had improved over the last two seasons and he was
known as a pitcher who could go deep into ball games. It was unknown how his
stuff would transfer away from the spacious Coliseum, but going from the
AL to NL is rarely a negative move for a pitcher. Gio didn’t have to be any
better than he had for the A’s to help the Nationals, but Mike Rizzo thought he
could be, and gave up quite a bit of talent to acquire him.  

The rest of the Nationals off-season
wasn’t that exciting. They were linked to and thought to be a finalist for
Prince Fielder, but as Mike Rizzo tried to let the market drop to him the
Detroit Tigers jumped in a snagged Fielder off the market. The Nationals were
left with Adam LaRoche as their first baseman. This was not something that was
met as good news. Adam LaRoche had been injured for the entire 2011 season, and
few bothered to look back at his career track record as they insisted that
Michael Morse should be the Nats full time first baseman. Many thought that
Rizzo was making a mistake by entrusting first to Adam LaRoche and there were
doubts as to if his shoulder could hold up for an entire season.

The last off-season move the Nationals
made was to sign Edwin Jackson. When free agency started Jackson was thought to
be one of the top two or three starting pitchers on the market, but teams did
not think that way. Eventually his market collapsed to a point where
it made sense for him to accept a one year deal and for the Nationals to offer
one. With Edwin Jackson in the fold it suddenly looked like the Nationals had
too many starting pitchers, but as any baseball fan knows that is never a bad
thing. By the end of Spring Training one long time National would find himself
sulking away in the minors instead of pitching in the majors.  

Spring Training 2012 was a M.A.S.H.
unit. Michael Morse went down with injury early on, Drew Storen was lost
sometime during the middle of Spring Training, and Chien-Ming Wang injured his
groin tripping over himself on the way to cover first. The biggest story to
come out of Spring Training though was John Lannan being sent to the minors.
With the injury to Wang it all but looked like Lannan was going to be the fifth
starter, but he had an option remaining and Ross Detwiler had out pitched him.
When it came time for Rizzo to make the decision he was yet again unafraid to
make a possibly unpopular one and sent Lannan to AAA. 

Due to the absence of Michael Morse and
a nagging shoulder injury to Ryan Zimmerman the Nationals offense wasn’t able
to get going in April, but the pitching staff was magnificent. The combined
force of Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson, and Detwiler became known as
K Street and set records for how few runs they allowed in the month. Behind the
strong starting pitching the Nationals were able to jump out to an early lead
in the division, but as the team was predicted to finish with 86 wins at best
it wasn’t thought that it could last. The starting pitching was performing at
an unsustainable level and the offense appeared to be as lackluster as it was
in 2011, and the injury plague wasn’t finished with the Nationals yet.  

Towards the end of April Ryan Zimmerman
hit the DL to rehab his injured shoulder and in his place the Nats called up
top prospect, Bryce Harper. Harper burst on the scene and was an instant
difference maker. Not only was the power and offensive ability on display from
the start, but Harper played every game with the type of hustle normally
reserved for players of lesser talent. Combine Harper’s on field intelligence
with his pure raw talent and hustle and the Nationals had a difference maker on
their hands. As Harper was lighting up the stat sheet the Nationals were still
being decimated by injury. Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos were soon lost, and
with every injury the thought was that the Nationals season was going to start
heading downhill.

It never did. Nationals players may
have kept on getting injured but the performance of the team never slipped, and
then they started getting players back. Michael Morse returned toward the
beginning of June, Ryan Zimmerman received a cortisone shot, and soon after Drew
Storen and Jayson Werth were back. With their full complement of players the
Nationals not only had one of the best pitching staffs in the game, but one of
the best offenses as well. In April and May the Nationals overage 3.84 runs a
game and from June on 4.81.

This was the team Mike Rizzo had
envisioned, but they were still missing one piece. With Ramos injured the
Nationals were never able to get any sort of production from the catcher’s
spot. Jesus Flores had an OPS under .600, and so on August 3 the Nationals
traded David Freitas to the Oakland A’s for catcher Kurt Suzuki. Suzuki was in
the midst of the worst season of his career with the A’s, but as a Nat his
numbers slowly started to rise and before long he was performing to his career
norms.  

With the season winding down, the
Braves hot on the Nationals heals, and the playoff push approaching Mike Rizzo
made a, or more accurately stuck to an earlier, decision and on
September 8 he shut Strasburg down. The Nationals had the best record in
baseball and looked like a lock for the playoffs. A rotation of Strasburg,
Gonzalez, and Zimmermann would be hard to beat in a short series, but Mike
Rizzo wasn’t thinking about just one season. In the interest of precaution
and to limit the risk of future re-injury of Strasburg’s repaired UCL he was shut
down. It was a decision that came with much controversy, but Mike Rizzo
has never been afraid to make an unpopular decision when he feels that he is
right.

The Nationals ended up losing in the
NLDS to the St. Louis Cardinals, and while some in the national
media laminated the idea that Strasburg could have saved the Nats that
wasn’t the case. The Nats had a lead in the ninth inning with their closer on
the mound and lost. Strasburg wouldn’t have prevented that. Overall the 2012
season was the best season the Nationals have ever had. It ended in heartbreak,
but the echoes of a promising future were felt. Mike Rizzo built the Nationals
into contenders and now his job was to sustain this state as long as possible.  

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One comment

  1. Mark Lerner needs to fire Davey, Rizzo and trade Zim. Then he should sign himself to a contract and activate himself to be the Nats new third baseman. Worked in Major League, right?

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