With a long offseason behind him and opening day now in the rear view mirror, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo took a few minutes yesterday to catch up with MASNsports.com to discuss his team’s postseason run in 2012, the changes to the roster made over the winter and his expectations for this upcoming season.
Rizzo touched on how he’s seen Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg evolve as players, whether his team is better set up for postseason success this year and what it would mean to send manager Davey Johnson out with a World Series title in his last season.
Here’s Rizzo, as he looks back at 2012 and ahead to what he hopes will be a special 2013:
Dan Kolko: Mike, last season, the Nationals won 98 games and took home the first NL East title in team history. The ultimate goal every season, though, is a World Series. That’s obviously what everyone shoots for. Did you then, and I guess do you now, view the 2012 season as a success?
Mike Rizzo: Well, I think it was a great success. We not only won the most games in Major League Baseball with, I think, the youngest team in Major League Baseball, with a lot of our core players under control for the long-term and a bright future. With the escalation of several of our players taking the next step in their development and becoming successful major league players, with all the postseason awards that the franchise won, I thought it was a very successful season. It didn’t end exactly the way we wanted it to, but it certainly was a great success.
DK: Jayson Werth said back in spring training he’s not sure he’ll ever get over the way last season ended. How long did it take you to get over the way it ended, assuming you have?
MR: It took me about two days to digest it and to think about it, and then I put it behind me and started thinking about how to improve ourselves so it doesn’t happen.
DK: What, I guess, are those two days like? It all ends so quickly and you have such high hopes for the postseason run.
MR: It was quite a letdown, and you’re depressed for a day or so, (but) then you think about all the good things and you start preparing for 2013. And that’s where I put all my energy and my thoughts, was the preparation for ‘13 and how not to allow that to happen again. Not forgetting about it, because I think it was a good learning experience for us, but I put all my energy and my thought process and my emotions into trying to improve us for ‘13.
DK: There’s a bit of a debate among baseball people as to whether experience means anything in the postseason. Some feel experience plays a factor, some feel you just go play and the most talented bunch will often come out on top. Now that your guys have the experience of playing in big games in a pennant race and in October, do you see that helping them this season?
MR: I think experiencing the playoffs will be a help to the younger players. I think talent is the ultimate and that’s how you win in the playoffs, but experience helps. It helps you in your preparation and how you ready yourself and how to control your emotions and that type of thing.
DK: This offseason, you brought in Denard Span, Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano. Do you think these additions made you a better team than last year, or maybe more specifically, a team better set up for playoff success given the speed and on-base percentage that Span brings and the depth Haren and Soriano give your pitching staff?
MR: I think it makes us a different team. I think it allows us to be more well-rounded. I think we’ll be a better defensive club with Span in center and Harper in left. I think we’ve upgraded ourselves tremendously defensively. I think we’ll have more speed, I think we’ll have more of a contact (approach) and we’ll strike out less, so that will help us. I think Haren is going to have a bounce-back season from last year and get back more closely to his career norms. And Soriano helps deepen a very deep and talented bullpen that we have already.
DK: Bryce Harper won the Rookie of the Year award at 19 last season. He went out (Monday) and clubbed two home runs in his first two at-bats and had a laser of a throw from left field. In terms of raw talent at his age, are there any other players you can remember scouting or seeing that compare to him, and at this point, does anything that he does surprise you anymore?
MR: I think that the big difference with Harp is turning tools and skills into performance on the field and the utilization of the tools. I think he utilizes his skill-set as well as anyone I’ve been around, and he’s got a great skill-set. I think he’s just scratching the surface of what he can be, and the way he plays the game and how hard he plays and what a high baseball IQ that he has, you compound that with the talent he shows on the field, there’s not a lot of things that he does that shock or awe you or surprise you. It certainly doesn’t shock him.
DK: He’s just 20, but does his baseball IQ get overlooked by some people because of how impressive his raw abilities are?
MR: I think so, just because you have to watch a player play for a long time to notice the nuances of his game. He certainly has that, and I think it does get overlooked. Everyone sees the power and the offensive capabilities, and then he runs stealing bases and throws hard and plays hard. So I think it does get lost in the shuffle a little bit, but I think it really assists him in how he plays the game and the real full set of skills that he has.
DK: Stephen Strasburg obviously hasn’t pitched a full season yet, but this will be his fourth season appearing in big league games. How have you seen his game evolve over the years?
MK: He’s definitely fine-tuned his game. He’s becoming more of a pitcher with terrific stuff rather than a stuff-pitcher that just throws. He’s really just scratching the surface. He learns very quickly and adapts. You compound his mental makeup and his character with his stuff, and he’s a pretty special package as far as top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers go.
DK: With Harper now at the major league level for a full season and Strasburg ready to go a full year, how gratifying is it to you to see the pieces really coming into place, with your quality homegrown talent meshing with some key acquisitions from outside the organization?
MR: We’re very proud of the ballclub that we’ve amassed. We’re proud of the way they perform on the field, but they’re good people on the field, off the field, in the clubhouse, in the community. They’re just good guys to be around. They’ve got great skills, they’ve got great passion for the game, they’ve got a great affection for each other and all that shows on the field, the way they play, the way they care for each other and the way they have really a selfless attitude towards the game. They don’t care who does it, they just want to win the games and they’ve really grown into a very cohesive, talented unit.
DK: You’ve got one of the most talented, if not the most talented, starting rotations in the majors. Are you comfortable with the guys beyond your top five starters, who could be called on to step into the rotation in the case of an injury?
MR: Oh, we definitely are. We think we’ve got a talented group of guys, some with major league experience, some without that can assist us if they’re called upon this year. We feel good about our depth, not only at the minor league level, but at the big leagues, as well.
DK: I know you and Davey are pretty close; you guys have a good working relationship. He’s obviously said this will be his last season as a manager. What would it mean to you to send Davey out with a title?
MR: Well, a title is what we’ve worked tirelessly for since we got here in 2006. Everybody wants to win the World Series, and we’re no different. Davey’s no different. We’re all competitors, and to win a World Series, period, is the highest accolade in Major League Baseball. But for Davey to do it to cap a Hall of Fame career for him would be the ultimate, and it would tickle me to have him be a guy that goes out on his own terms, winning a World Series and five years later getting in the Hall of Fame.
DK: Back at the Winter Meetings, Davey declared this season, “World Series or Bust.” We know where he stands on his expectations for this year. What expectations do you have for this team this season?
MR: To play terrific, to play great baseball the Nationals’ way. For each player to play up to their potential and their ability levels. We don’t expect players to go above their ability levels, but we feel that we’ve put together a team that if players take the initiative, playing up to their capabilities, each and every one taking care of their business, the 25-man roster that we’ve put together should win a lot of games and hopefully go deep into October, and we’ll see what happens there. But our expectations are high, we’ve got a great bunch of players, we’ve got a great manager and ownership group, and we’re looking forward to the grind and the marathon that is the 2013 season.