What we learned about Rizzo from the LaRoche negotiations

The weeks-long staredown between Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and first baseman Adam LaRoche has concluded, with the free agent getting the two-year deal the Nats offered rather than the three-year contract he sought.

What did we learn from these negotiations?

(First, let’s just agree that we can call them negotiations, even though there was precious little give and take. Rizzo drew a line in the sand, didn’t waver and basically forced LaRoche’s hand. It wasn’t exactly a take-it-or-leave-it offer, but it was pretty close. That’s not really a negotiation, but for the purposes of this offseason, it masked as one.)

Once again, Rizzo demonstrated his conviction to a stance, however unpopular. The disappointment from the Nats’ National League Division Series loss to the Cardinals was barely wafting through the home clubhouse when LaRoche was telling reporters he wanted to return to D.C. and Rizzo was replying that the Nats wanted their slick-fielding, power-hitting first baseman back. But what appeared to be an easy match - sit down, agree on length, settle on money and put pen to paper - was anything but. And, strangely, not because either party changed their desire. LaRoche always wanted to return and Rizzo always wanted him back. But things aren’t always as simple as they seem.

While fans were clamoring for a speedy resolution to this major item on Rizzo’s offseason to-do list, Rizzo was correctly assessing the marketplace and realizing two important factors that tilted the scales in his favor: There really weren’t too many teams seeking to fill holes at first base, and those who were likely weren’t willing to part with a draft pick, the compensation attached to LaRoche since the Nationals made him a qualifying offer.

That seemingly innocuous Nov. 9 transaction set the stage for everything that’s happened since. The Nats wanted LaRoche to stay, so it made sense to try and make that happen. Their qualifying offer of a $13 million one-year deal, which was promptly turned down by LaRoche, may have been the key move of this offseason by Rizzo. Yes, LaRoche wanted a longer, more lucrative deal. No, the Nationals really didn’t expect him to take a one-year offer. But in extending the qualifying offer, Rizzo set in motion the painfully slow process that finally culminated with yesterday’s announcement of a done deal.

rizzo.jpgOne of a GM’s roles, though it’s often shuffled to the bottom of the job description, is to gauge the marketplace. Lots of executives try - and fail. They’re left scrambling as players are reporting to spring training to fill holes, or they find themselves at loggerheads with team ownership, which often doesn’t share their vision. But Rizzo showed he had a good handle on how the new collective bargaining agreement would affect teams’ machinations during the first go-round. And, in true Rizzo fashion, he kept that information close to the vest while people were crowing that he would lose LaRoche. Winning a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger should have enhanced LaRoche’s chances at receiving the multi-year deal he sought; instead, they barely factored into the equation. LaRoche became an attractive, productive player who found himself painted into a corner by factors beyond his control.

Having Michael Morse under contract also played a major role in these maneuverings, and allowed Rizzo to deal from a position of strength. Morse’s presence increased his leverage with LaRoche, particularly as his list of potential suitors shrunk. If LaRoche wanted to sign elsewhere, or even use the threat to try and extort a better deal out of the Nationals, Rizzo had an in-house slugger ready to take over at first base. And while Morse at first base may not have been Rizzo’s preference, having Morse on the roster at an affordable $6.75 million proved a huge bargaining chip. Give Rizzo credit for not signing Morse to a longer deal two offseasons ago - his two-year, $10.5 million contract was not only fair, but it didn’t clog the roster, preventing Rizzo from the maneuverability every GM covets.

We all know Rizzo is a shrewd negotiator, preferring to do his work in a vacuum, away from media and fan opinions. We saw this in December 2010, when the Nationals shocked baseball by luring outfielder Jayson Werth with a seven-year, $126 million offer. We saw it last winter with the protracted - and unsuccessful - dance with free agent slugger Prince Fielder (remember people asking what the Nationals would do with LaRoche and Morse if they inked Fielder?). And we saw it with the talks between the Nationals and LaRoche in the past two months. Rizzo was patient, allowing LaRoche to explore his options before finally nudging the free agent in recent days to suggest that the time for a resolution was at hand.

Rizzo does nothing without knowing the possible ramifications of each potential action. It’s like he has a flow chart in his brain, outlining every variable he might encounter and each imaginable reaction. This is more difficult than it sounds, given the sport’s ever-changing landscape of personalities, financial ramifications and hypothetical outcomes. From the perspective of a reporter covering the team, it’s maddening because Rizzo simply won’t communicate what he’s thinking. But why should he? Offering that information, even off the record, would unnecessarily inform his peers what he was trying to accomplish. Keeping those tidbits as private as possible may frustrate media and worry fans, but effectively running a team really isn’t about placating those two audiences. It’s about wins and losses and what you do to make sure there are more of the former than the latter.

Most of all, what the tango between Rizzo and LaRoche has done is reinforce the notion that only Rizzo knows what Rizzo’s doing. I’m sure he shares that information with trusted confidants, but I’m also sure not everyone in his inner circle knows everything that every other faithful lieutenant knows. As poker players go, there are few better, and in this encounter, Rizzo’s poker face helped formulate the resolution both sides always wanted.

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