We're back with another edition of Nationals Matters with Nationals GM Mike Rizzo. The First-Year Player Draft begins on Monday, and for the third time in his career, Rizzo will be making the No. 1 overall pick, having taken Justin Upton in 2005 with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Stephen Strasburg with the Nationals last year.
Rizzo sat down with MASNSports.com Nationals beat writer Ben Goessling to discuss some of his favorite war stories from more than 25 years in scouting and player development, including the picks where he unearthed All-Stars, the potential Hall of Famers he missed, and what he thought of the Nationals' biggest stars the first time he saw them.
Ben Goessling: When you think back, what player comes to mind as one where you thought one thing when you scouted him, and he has really surprised you since he's gotten to the majors?
Mike Rizzo: I think there's a lot of them that either you missed and you should have taken, or you took them and you shouldn't have taken them. I think one of the great misses by me and the whole industry was Albert Pujols. He was a late-round, I think a 12th or 13th-round pick. He was a Dominican kid who went to a small junior college in Kansas. We didn't have any background on him, and to tell you the truth, he wasn't scouted very thoroughly, certainly by us (in Arizona at the time) and by the industry. And he may be the greatest right-handed hitter of our generation.
BG: How much had you scouted him?
Mike Rizzo: Our area scout had him in as a lower pick. We ran across him, I think, in a couple of junior college tournaments. But he wasn't a focal point by any means.
BG: What were the knocks on him?
Mike Rizzo: He was playing at shortstop, out of position. He was a very big, physical player that looked out of place at shortstop and was playing against a lesser level of competition at a Kansas junior college. He wasn't putting up anything gaudy to grab your attention. He was kind of a nice player, getting accustomed to the U.S. and that type of thing and didn't really jump out at our area scout. Those are the ground troops that raise the red flag when they see something special.
BG: What about a guy you drafted thinking, 'He's okay,' and he turned out to be something way more than you ever expected?
Mike Rizzo: We took Mark Reynolds in the 16th round, University of Virginia. It was a guy I saw play personally. I liked him. We had him much higher on our board. We did think he was going to be a signability problem, a college junior out of the University of Virginia in the 16th round. Our area scout, Howard McCullough - I 'll never forget this - called me three or four times during that draft and said, 'I can get him signed. I can get him signed for X amount of dollars.' I said, 'Come on, Howard. How are we going to do it for that kind of money?' He kept saying, 'He wants to play. He wants to play. He wants to get out.' I said, 'Fine.' We took him, and Howard had him signed for that exact amount of money the day after the draft. And without his input, we don't take the guy.
BG: Can you remember situations - and this is probably back more when you were a scouting director - but did you have situations where scouts say, 'We're not that crazy about him,' and you say, 'No, I like this guy,' and you take him anyway?
Mike Rizzo: I always make the statement when I was the scouting director - because I've seen most of the players - that being the director of scouting, I break all ties. So I can trump. It's happened on several occasions. But even those where I trump, it's not that you're going totally against your area scouts. Because to get to that conversation, somebody had to like him. I may override Player A for Player B when the room may have it the other way, but there's a respect there in the room that I have that option to do that. Because ultimately, your name is on the draft. If the general manager or the vice president of player personnel overrides you and tells you who to take, your name's on the draft, and you're not drafting the players you want to draft, it's not fair to them. Understanding that fully is the reason I believe I've left our amateur draft in good hands with those two guys (VP of player personnel Roy Clark and scouting director Kris Kline).
BG: Is there a favorite tie you've broken, or one you're particularly proud of?
Mike Rizzo: As recently as Jordan Zimmermann. I think I pushed that along. I think it was more of where he belongs in the draft, what area he belongs in the draft, rather than a specific player. It was a specific area of the draft board. I pushed him up the board pretty good.
BG: Is there a player you're most proud of drafting, or a guy that sticks out to you as being your favorite pick, or your best pick?
Mike Rizzo: I've been asked that a lot, and I love all the guys that we've drafted, the guys who have had success, and the guys who haven't reached the major leagues. Some of those picks are some of my favorite guys. The one that jumps out to me is probably Brandon Webb. He was an eighth-round pick out of Kentucky. And the reason I say that is, I really believe the process worked perfectly in that particular player. And with my dad having a lot to do with that particular pick, getting us on board with him and starting the ball rolling with him, and him being a Cy Young winner, two seconds, and being one of the best pitchers in baseball. If I had to pick a favorite one, that would be it. But I love Stephen Drew. I love Dan Uggla, Mark Reynolds. Those guys are all dear to my heart.
BG: Do you get more excited about finding a gem in the middle rounds than hitting a home run in the first round?
Mike Rizzo: To me, an impact player's an impact player. It doesn't matter to me that Albert Pujols went in the 12th round. You got him. You liked him better than everybody else. To me, it doesn't dilute the fact that Brandon Webb went in the eighth round or Uggla went in the 11th or Reynolds went in the 16th or Justin Upton went 1-1 (first overall). We liked him the best, we took him, and we hit on him. I don't care where in the draft they come, as long as you're getting the impact player you're looking for. Sometimes that happens down the road in the draft, and sometimes it happens early in the draft. That's the essence of the draft game. I bristle at the fact when people say, 'It's a crapshoot.' I certainly believe that it is far from a crapshoot. If it was such a crapshoot, you wouldn't have the same four or five organizations dominating the draft each and every year like they have been.
BG: With Jason Heyward, there are these stories that go around about the way the Braves scouted him (in 2007). You have (former Braves scouting director) Roy Clark in the organization now. How much had you scouted him at the time, and how true are the stories about the Braves hiding him, so to speak?
Mike Rizzo: Jason Heyward was unique. I was the vice president of player personnel at the time (with the Nationals), and I never saw him play. Our scouting system, from the top, made a decision that he wasn't a guy that we were going to take with our first pick. As time constraints go, they didn't want to waste my time seeing players that we weren't going to take. So that decision was made above me, not to see him. It was a unique way of scouting by the Braves.
BG: The way they scouted him, how much of it was Roy directing the strategy there?
Mike Rizzo: It was all Roy directing the strategy. I don't know if he did anything spectacular as far as the strategy of it. He did something spectacular by taking the player, when industry-wide, he wasn't a consensus, slam-dunk guy, and he may end up being the best player in that draft. I don't know what went into his thinking about it, and what things he did to decide on that player. But the proof's in the pudding, and he's the one who took him. You talk about Heyward and (Tommy) Hanson and all those guys on that Atlanta Braves team right now, he's responsible for all of them.
BG: What was your impression of Strasburg the first time you saw him?
Mike Rizzo:: It was the summer prior to his junior year. When I go see an amateur player, I don't read any reports from anybody else. I try to go in as blank as I can. What jumped out at me was the size and physicality of the player, and the way he kept his delivery together for a big, physical guy. The ball came out of his hand terrific; the velocity and the stuff was there. He showed flashes of a brilliant breaking ball, be it inconsistent. That was my initial thought on him.
BG: Could you see right away that he was a rare top-shelf guy?
Mike Rizzo: Yes. That one wasn't that tough.
BG: Ryan Zimmerman - what were your reactions the first time you saw him?
Mike Rizzo: I did see him play at Virginia. I remember the game. It was the University of Miami, which had (Ryan) Braun, and a pitcher named Cesar Carrillo - he's with the Padres. So they matched up against Zimmerman. I was there to see Zimmerman and Braun. I remember writing this and saying this in my report (about Zimmerman), that he was as a professional-ready player as I'd seen in a long time. At that time, I was set. I was going to take Justin Upton. We had 1-1 (in Arizona). He was my guy the whole time. So I went in there to see him just in case something happened with Upton. He was a professional player with great skills, and just with a good demeanor about him.
BG: Did you get much time to talk to him when you went there, or did you just watch the game?
Mike Rizzo: I just watched the game. That particular time, I just watched the game. I ended up having a conversation with Ryan Braun by accident - they were staying at the same hotel - but I didn't get any face-to-face time with Zimm. We knew him inside and out. Our area scouts had him inside and out. It was that same scout, Howard McCullough. We knew him backwards and forwards, and had terrific reports on him. But again, I was locked in on Upton, so I didn't do a lot of face-to-faces other than Upton.
BG: All those Tidewater area guys - the Uptons (Justin and B.J.), Zimmerman, (Michael) Cuddyer, (Mark) Reynolds, (David) Wright - is it something in the water down there? What's the theme with those guys?
Mike Rizzo: I don't know, but we go down there every year, just in case. I think it stems from their early baseball, where they start their Peewee program and work their way up to Little League. You've got caring people who are coaches there. Manny Upton, Justin and B.J.'s father, they're into it, those parents are into this thing. And they invest in it, time and energy, and it shows. Because that little area has been fertile, not just with major leaguers, but impactful major leaguers.