Stability in baseball is a rare thing. It’s rare in the clubhouse. It’s rare in the manager’s office. And it’s certainly rare in the front office, where heads of baseball operations routinely find themselves under pressure to create success and then sustain it.
When Mike Rizzo took over as general manager in 2009, the Nationals had no stability. The Lerner family was only in its third year of ownership. Likewise for Stan Kasten, the team’s president. Jim Bowden had just resigned amid a Latin American prospect scandal. Manny Acta, who replaced Frank Robinson as manager in 2007, was on the hot seat and would be fired during the All-Star break.
A whole lot has changed since then, in both good and bad ways. What hasn’t changed is the man still in charge of baseball operations.
Come spring training, Rizzo will be entering his 15th season as GM. In his line of work, that’s an eternity.
And at this point, hardly anyone else in baseball has been in that position as long.
That’s because of several recent departures of longtime GMs and presidents of baseball operations. In the last few months alone, Dayton Moore (who started with the Royals in 2006), Jon Daniels (who started with the Rangers in 2005), Al Avila (who started with the Tigers in 2002 as assistant GM before ascending to the top position in 2015) and Billy Beane (who started with the Athletics way back in 1997) all moved on.
That leaves Rizzo as the fourth-longest-serving head of baseball operations in the majors. Only the Yankees’ Brian Cashman (1998), the White Sox’s Ken Williams (2000) and the Cardinals’ John Mozeliak (2007) predate him. And Williams and Mozeliak each hired replacement GMs over the years so they could move into a higher-up position overseeing the entire operation.
Rizzo, of course, remains not only the Nationals’ GM but also their president of baseball operations. He reports only to ownership. His staff includes four assistant GMs, two of whom work on the major-league side (Michael DeBartolo, Mark Scialabba) and two others in charge of amateur (Kris Kline) and international (Johnny DiPuglia) scouting. Plus a host of special assistants to the GM, most of them with decades of scouting and coaching experience.
It’s a setup that has worked for a long time. And for a long time, there was little reason to wonder if any major changes were necessary.
The events of the last two years, though, have at least raised the question for the first time. The team’s inability to sustain success following the 2019 World Series title, coupled with a failure to develop enough replacements through the draft and farm system, left Rizzo to tear down his championship roster and start over. Last winter, he overhauled the club’s player development system, putting former special assistant De Jon Watson in charge of the farm system. To this point, the scouting department led by Kline remains mostly intact.
This summer, the Lerner family picked up the 2023 options on both Rizzo and Davey Martinez (who enters his sixth season as manager when none of his predecessors even completed three). It was a show of faith in both men who were instrumental in winning the franchise’s first championship, but it also was evidence of the uncertain status of the entire organization, which has been up for sale all year.
Whether the Nationals are sold in 2023 or not, Rizzo and Martinez don’t know their fates beyond the coming year. If the team is sold, a new owner will have to decide whether to keep everyone in place or make changes. If the Lerners remain in charge, they’ll have to decide how to proceed as the rebuilding process churns along.
It all makes for a whole lot of uncertainty, for everyone who works for the ballclub and desperately wants to know how this is going to end.
The kind of uncertainty that has been far more common with other big league franchises over the years while this one has managed to maintain stability in a manner that’s increasingly rare.