When the Nationals put Mike Rizzo in control of the baseball operations department in March 2009, while they were still sorting through the organizational wreckage left by their scandal in the Dominican Republic and the subsequent resignation of general manager Jim Bowden, the abruptness of the switch was evident to most around the team’s spring training complex in Viera, Fla.
Rizzo, effectively acting as the GM without the title of one, represented a breath of fresh air for a baseball operation that had been nicked by bad contracts and embarrassed in the Dominican, replacing the unpredictable working environment under Bowden with a sense of workmanlike calm. But if Rizzo had the temperament and the skill set to be GM, he still had to grow into certain aspects of the job.
In his first interviews with the media, he came off as uncomfortable, rocking back and forth and stuttering over his words. Anyone who has worked with Rizzo knows how confident he is in his baseball background - the pedigree developed by following in his father’s footsteps as a scout and the two dozen-odd years he’d spent combing the country for talent - but it didn’t come off that way at first.
How different things are now. This week’s Winter Meetings, when Rizzo gave outfielder Jayson Werth a seven-year, $126 million contract that polarized opinions around the game, revealed a general manager both completely confident in his own skin and wholly in command of his baseball department’s direction.
He read the reports taking hacks at the deal he’d given Werth, then decisively repeated his reasoning to reporters: He admitted he needed to overpay Werth, given the Nationals’ current position in the market, and he wouldn’t apologize for whatever that might have meant for other GMs. Then, he coolly deflected questions about the team’s interest in Cliff Lee and dispatched Nationals officials to the hotel lobby to do the same, wary of being used as leverage to drive up the pitcher’s price. The Nationals’ chances of landing Lee appear remote, but there would be no sideshows in their pursuit of the pitcher.
Seventeen months after being awarded the permanent GM’s job and 21 after unofficially inheriting it, Rizzo has become skilled at playing the games every GM must play in 2010. He answers questions calmly and adroitly, tipping his hand when it suits his interest and holding back secrets at other times. His assistants still chide him about his poise on camera, but his confidence with the media has grown by miles. He runs a baseball department full of industry vets, many of whom were personally recruited by Rizzo and came to the Nationals out of respect for what he is trying to build. With team president Stan Kasten having resigned, giving the controls of the baseball department and his blessing to Rizzo, the soon-to-be 50-year-old GM is unquestionably in charge of the Nationals’ future.
It remains to be seen where that future goes. The Nationals are chasing bigger and higher-profile free agents, which means Rizzo’s missteps will draw more attention and scrutiny. He was given a new five-year deal in October, but if he fails to produce a winner in that time, there will be no doubt whose fault that is.
That position, though, is the one Rizzo has chased his whole career. Friendly and direct on the outside but self-assured on the inside, he thrust the Nationals - and himself - into the center of baseball conversation at the Winter Meetings. And the rest of the game got to see a GM who is plenty comfortable being there.