Stan Kasten’s decision to step down as Nationals team president means the complexion of the organization will probably change more than it does when most baseball teams lose their president. A former NBA GM who helped build the Atlanta Braves’ championship teams of the 1990s, Kasten was an ever-present factor in baseball operations, never making the final call on big decisions, but also never far away.
When general manager Jim Bowden resigned on March 1, 2009, Kasten fielded trade offers, serving as the head of baseball operations for a few days until assistant GM Mike Rizzo took over those responsibilities. When Rizzo was on the phone with agent Scott Boras, hammering out Stephen Strasburg’s contract with the deadline to sign the No. 1 pick minutes away, Kasten was in the room - and made Rizzo the full-time GM the next day after running a five-month search for Bowden’s replacement.
He was there again this year with Rizzo, sparring with Boras once more on Bryce Harper’s contract. And after the deal was done, Kasten splattered Rizzo with a whipped cream pie in front of a roomful of reporters.
It was all part of it for Kasten, who never took an executive’s role to mean a departure from the action. He served in some ways as a second GM for the Nationals, probably working more smoothly with Rizzo than he did with Bowden, and now that he’s gone, the Nationals’ baseball operations department will have a different look.
“The two places I was a front-office executive (the Diamondbacks and the Red Sox), he was much more involved than most team presidents, just because he knows the game inside and out,” Rizzo said. “He knows players, he knows personalities and he knows talent, as much as he tries to say that he doesn’t. He’s a talent evaluator, and he has input on baseball-type of things. He’s very active in our offices, and really handled the people there very well.”
Kasten’s departure, then, will mean a change in the way the Nationals do things. His background meant he could work on both the business and baseball operations sides of the organization with a fluidity that most executives lack, and it’s unlikely the Nationals will find someone with that skill set.
In fact, it’s possible they may not even try. In January, the Nationals hired former NFL Players Association chief operating officer Andrew Feffer to the same role within their organization. Kasten had already informed the team of his plans to leave after the 2010 season when the Nationals hired Feffer, and sources within the organization have said throughout the season they expect a restructuring of responsibilities after this year that could leave Feffer in charge of almost everything outside baseball operations.
Rizzo’s autonomy in the baseball department has been steadily increasing, and in a sense, Kasten’s departure represents a graduation of sorts for the first-time GM. He assembled a group of experienced front-office lieutenants before last season, and the Nationals have enough baseball acumen in their front office to absorb Kasten’s departure.
But in the end, the decisions will be Rizzo’s, as they have been all year. Only now, he won’t have Kasten working as closely.
“I’m going to have to employ the things he taught me to take over, to take on the added responsibility,” Rizzo said. “I think that I’ve been well-trained for it, and Stan has given me the equipment to deal with things, and to run an organization.”
Bringing in Rizzo was one of the first things the Nationals did after Kasten came aboard, and when Kasten made his decision after last season, Rizzo was one of the first (and only) people he told. The two traveled together, argued over baseball decisions, shared victories and plenty more losses. Rizzo’s next step will come with Kasten a phone call away, but not right there to help him.
“He brought me here. He showed the faith in me to make me a general manager for the first time,” Rizzo said. “We interact on a daily basis, many, many times on a daily basis. I’ve been with him every day for four-and-a-half years. I’ll miss him personally and professional. And certainly, I couldn’t have been mentored by a better, more accomplished sports executive.”