Depending on your point of view, general manager Mike Rizzo is either a forward-thinking executive who just made a decisive move that landed the Nationals a front-line starting pitcher with the trade for Gio Gonzalez, or he's the overreacting fool who just mortgaged the club's farm system and future for a chance to win sooner rather than later. But Rizzo's latest deal, whatever it does or does not produce, is also perfect fodder for our "What if?" Wednesday discussion, which this week turns the way-back machine to the summer of 2009 and wonders how the Nationals' landscape might have changed if Jerry Dipoto, and not Rizzo, had been named the team's permanent GM.
Rizzo, you'll recall, had been serving since March as the interim replacement for Jim Bowden, who resigned so abruptly early on the morning of March 1 that his briefing with the media at Space Coast Stadium didn't even include a TV camera. The next day, then-president Stan Kasten gathered media members around a table in the lobby outside the press box at the Nats' Grapefruit League headquarters and announced that Rizzo had been given the GM duties on a temporary basis because, after all, someone had to perform those tasks since the season was getting under way in a month's time.
Having joined the Nats as an assistant general manager and vice president of baseball operations on July 26, 2006, Rizzo was no newcomer to the organization. He had spent seven seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks, rising as high as director of scouting. His eye for talent was well-known and Rizzo's first draft with the Nationals - where his first-round haul included left-hander Ross Detwiler, and lefty Josh Smoker and outfielder Michael Burgess in the compensation round, and right-hander Jordan Zimmermann in the second round - drew acclaim as the best in the game by Baseball America.
On June 20, 2009, while he still was interim GM, Rizzo engineered the trade that brought outfielder Nyjer Morgan and lefty reliever Sean Burnett from the Pirates in exchange for outfielder Lastings Milledge and closer Joel Hanrahan. The Nationals got an immediate boost atop the lineup by Morgan and Burnett was solid in the 'pen. The price - a struggling ninth-inning guy and an touted outfielder who hadn't panned out - wasn't high and the return was, in the short term, viewed as solid.
Rizzo grabbed Stephen Strasburg with the top overall pick in 2009's draft, and used the 10th selection given Washington for not signing Aaron Crow to nab and immediately sign future closer Drew Storen. His relationship with Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, was supposedly one of the reasons talks between the pitcher and the team went so smoothly. But even after signing Strasburg, Rizzo hadn't shed the interim tag. What's more, Kasten was actively shopping for a new front office leader, even if most of the machinations were done in secret and without comment to the media.
Rays GM Gerry Hunsicker supposedly talked to Washington, but decided not to pursue the job. Jed Hoyer, then part of Theo Epstein's staff in Boston, reportedly had multiple interviews in D.C. The Nationals couldn't interest Twins GM Terry Ryan. Few details of the search leaked out, save for mutual interest between the Nationals and Dipoto, who was a Diamondbacks vice president, overseeing scouting, and viewed as one of the game's front office stars in waiting. On at least a couple of occasions, premature and incorrect reports leaked about a marriage between Dipoto, for eight seasons a major league reliever, and the Nats.
Of course, it never came to pass. Rizzo was appointed senior vice president and general manager on Aug. 20, 2009 and, just 14 months later, got the title of executive vice president of baseball operations. He is viewed as a tough-minded executive who patiently deliberates potential moves, values the draft picks that have turned into players in his farm system and is always ready to think about new and different ways to improve his team.
But what would have happened had Dipoto, who has since taken the helm of the Angels' front office and negotiated their acquisitions of pitcher C.J. Wilson and first baseman Albert Pujols, gotten the job?
First of all, Dipoto's style couldn't be more different than Rizzo's, save for the fact that they both relish making the big, bold move and they like keeping their peers in the dark. Dipoto favors the splashy, unexpected move - the bigger, the better. Like when he was temporarily in the Diamondbacks' GM chair after Josh Byrnes was fired and Kevin Towers was hired - during two months in the lead front office role, he dealt All-Star right-hander Dan Haren to the Angels for four pitchers (ironically, he now has Haren again), then acquired righty Daniel Hudson and a minor leaguer from the White Sox in exchange for starting pitcher Edwin Jackson. A lot of inexperienced executives are wary of pulling off big deals early; Dipoto seemed to delight in the spotlight, something Rizzo has only begrudgingly come to accept. Rizzo's much more methodical and patient, often preferring for the action to come to him, or waiting for a proposed deal or negotiation to tilt in his favor.
While Dipoto likes the grand stage, it's unclear whether he'd have been able to deal as effectively as Rizzo has with Boras, whose penchant for trying to squeeze every last cent out of a team is the stuff of legend. Rizzo and Boras actually seem to enjoy working together - the Nats have agreements with Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Rick Ankiel, Danny Espinosa, Alex Cora, Brian Goodwin, Alex Meyer, Anthony Rendon and Ivan Rodriguez to show for the cooperation - and where Boras' presence is often a deterrent to deals, that hasn't been the case with the Nationals.
Where Rizzo hasn't been one to throw big bucks around to land free agents, save for the $126 million he gave to Werth, Dipoto has a reputation for being more willing to open the corporate coffers. That was never more evident than the last day of the Winter Meetings in Dallas, when he proudly took the stage in the media room to announce that he'd shelled out $254 million over 10 years for Pujols and $77.5 million for five years to Wilson. Rizzo will make an outlay of cash if he thinks it's both warranted and necessary; Dipoto seem to enjoy seeing jaws drop, and the deep pockets of Angels owner Arte Moreno can make that happen.
Who knows what would have happened had Dipoto, not Rizzo, gotten the lead role in the Nationals' front office? Maybe the Nats would have made a few bigger splashes that accelerated their climb up the National League East standings. But it's doubtful their farm system would have been fruitful enough to withstand the Gonzalez deal and whether some of their core building blocks - namely Strasburg and Harper - would have been in place to marry with still-developing players and provide such a bright future.
Whaddaya think? What do you remember about Rizzo's interim tenure? Did you feel like he'd get the job, or would you have preferred the Nats go in another direction? And if you have an idea for "What If?" Wednesday, leave it in the comments section. We'd like to extend this weekly feature until spring training starts.