Nationals Manager Davey Johnson: Im not the typical old manager who wants… (John McDonnell/The Washington…)
Since he took over as Washington Nationals general manager in March 2009, Mike Rizzo has planned for the future, more of an obvious necessity than a calculated choice. The bleak present he inherited made coming seasons the only priority. Hope was a more valuable commodity than victories.
Now, though, the Nationals no longer are trying to build a contender. They are a contender, a 98-win powerhouse in 2012 with the clear goal of a World Series in 2013. Rizzo’s mission now is one the Nationals — through “The Plan” and “Phase Two” and so many wasted, forgettable nights — have never considered before: How should they weigh a bright future and an urgent present?
“It’s the first year in our history where we’re on the positive side of this instead of scrambling,” franchise third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We almost have too many good players, which is a good place to be.”
Already one of the best teams in baseball, stocked with an enviable collection of young talent, Rizzo and the Nationals will walk into Nashville’s Opryland Hotel at the annual winter meetings with few needs. After they traded top pitching prospect Alex Meyer for center fielder Denard Span last week, the Nationals must add a starting pitcher and bullpen arms to complete their roster.
How they fill those holes and attack their other options, such as re-signing Adam LaRoche or keeping Michael Morse, will shed light on Rizzo’s vision. They have arrived at the juncture where how much to plan ahead or push for the coming season is a real decision. Rizzo believes the Nationals should stay their course, that future considerations should not trump immediate desires.
“We haven’t wavered from it,” Rizzo said. “We’ve traded some young players, like a Meyer, but for a guy we have some control over in Span. I don’t think we’ve wavered at all from a long-term philosophy. You always have to think globally. You do what’s best for the club for the immediate future, but you also have to think about not rushing things or tying your hands.”
Thinking of their core
One big-market general manager once said he could build a team capable of winning 125 games, but to do so he would be abdicating his responsibility. The juggernaut would require sacrificing future success, and, most problematic, once in the playoffs there would be little assurance the talent could trump the randomness of a five- or seven-game series. The best way to win a World Series, the GM said, is to get to the playoffs as often as possible.
In 1991, John Hart took over as the Cleveland Indians’ general manager. Over the next three seasons, Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Sandy Alomar, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Kenny Lofton would all join the Indians prior to turning 25. From 1995 to 2001, Hart oversaw the nucleus that helped the Indians win six out of seven division titles and make two World Series.
The Nationals’ collection of talent reminds Hart of his early days in Cleveland. He said it will require a balance to answer “the age-old sort of situation” of how to manage the importance of present success with long-term planning.
“In the case of the Nats and Mike Rizzo, I still think they’re early in this run,” said Hart, now an MLB Network analyst who will contribute to the station’s winter meetings coverage this week. “I don’t see necessarily the need to say, ‘We’re going to add a clubhouse guy.’ Right now, I think they can be in every game out there, from the top guy on the market. They’ve got options.”
With the Indians, Hart structured his roster — one of the best runs by a team that never won a World Series — by focusing on young talent and building around them. He had to remember the young, affordable talent would not remain affordable forever.
“You look at your own players, guys that you identify as core players,” Hart said. “That’s going to play a role to what you do at present.”
The Nationals are feeling the crunch of future salaries now. Many have focused on the potentially monumental salaries the Nationals will have to pay Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in order to keep them before they become free agents. But the hit will come before then, once both players become eligible for arbitration and join the large contingent of young Nationals receiving salary bumps.
This winter, based on estimates, the Nationals’ payroll will rise roughly $12.5 million with only raises to their seven arbitration-eligible players. Those increases will become steeper in the coming years, much steeper in some cases.
Next winter, Strasburg will become eligible for arbitration, and by his third and final arbitration-eligible season, assuming he stays healthy, Strasburg could find himself in a similar financial stratosphere as Tim Lincecum, who made $20 million in 2012 as part of a deal with the San Francisco Giants to avoid arbitration. Harper could command a similar figure in his later arbitration years.
‘A plan in place’