During Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo's first two full years on the job, there have been commendable decisions and questionable ones. But there's no debating where Rizzo has made his mark.
He built his reputation in baseball as a talent evaluator, first as a scout and later as a scouting director tasked with running drafts and signing players. He landed Stephen Strasburg in the Nationals' first big set of draft deadline negotiations with Scott Boras - and landed the permanent general manager's job later that week. He signed Bryce Harper at the deadline last year, and shelled out over-slot signing bonuses for three other pitchers - second-rounder Sammy Solis, fourth-rounder A.J. Cole and 12th-rounder Robbie Ray.
And at this year's deadline, Rizzo's highwire act might have been his boldest yet. It was certainly his most expensive.
The Nationals signed their top five picks from this year's draft - Rice third Baseman Anthony Rendon, Kentucky right-hander Alex Meyer, Miami Dade College outfielder Brian Goodwin, TCU left-hander Matt Purke and Santa Barbara City College left-hander Kylin Turnbull - on Monday night, announcing their top four selections minutes before the midnight deadline. The top three picks were represented by Boras, and Rizzo handed out two major league deals to Rendon and Purke, who both slipped in the draft because of shoulder concerns that blotted out some of their considerable talent.
The total bill for the evening? Somewhere around $16.5 million.
Here's how it broke down: Rendon, the sixth overall pick, got a four-year deal worth $7.2 million, plus a club option for a fifth year, according to a club source. A team source also said Rendon got a $6 million bonus, and Meyer and Goodwin got minor league deals with $2 and $3 million bonuses, respectively. And Purke, who could have returned to TCU and been a first-round pick next year if he could have proved he was healthy, got a major league deal as a third-round pick after he let the Nationals run an MRI arthrogram on his left shoulder - a rare step for a draft pick.
The upshot of all this, once the dizzying dollar figures had finally settled, was this: Once again, it was clear Rizzo intends to be judged on his ability to draft, sign and develop talent. He's unafraid of doing business with Boras to make it happen, and he's not shy about taking risks, though he pointed out he also had Rendon's shoulder evaluated by team doctor Wiemi Douoguih and noted surgeon Lewis Yocum.
Some of his moves, like the seven-year, $126 million deal he gave outfielder Jayson Werth, can and will continue to be criticized. But let's remember where the Nationals ended their last draft before Rizzo took over: with about $900,000 separating them and first-round pick Aaron Crow, who went on to become an All-Star reliever this year after getting drafted again the next year by the Royals.
Rizzo, though, will ultimately succeed or fail on his choices in the draft. He could give out another big deal or two this winter, but if the Nationals take off, it will be because of homegrown players like Strasburg, Harper, Drew Storen, Ryan Zimmerman and now the picks they added this year. Rizzo drafted all of those players except Zimmerman, and armed with three picks in the top 34 this year, he wound up with a draft haul that assistant general manager Roy Clark called the best he'd seen in 27 years in the industry.
Whether Rizzo's big contracts will pay off remains to be seen. But once again, he made moves on Monday with all the boldness of a general manager who knows his livelihood is tied to his ability to deliver in these situations.
"We develop players, we develop them well, and we've got a system that's second-to-none," Rizzo said, in possibly as energetic a tone as he's ever used with reporters. "We're the talk of the industry right now. Before we signed these players, we had a minor league system where the needle was heading north in a big, big way. This solidifies us as, to me, one of the great scouting and player development organizations in baseball. We feel really good about ourselves tonight."