Acting GM Mike Rizzo has four-step plan to turn Nationals into a winner
GM Mike Rizzo might have the hardest job in Washington: fixing the Nationals
Washington is the laughingstock of baseball and is on pace to lose 114 games
With young talent and two top-10 pitching prospects, there's hope in D.C.
So much of success must start with a vision. For those faced with an unenviable task of seemingly overpowering enormity, it can and must be a source of sustainable energy and renewable hope.
Nowhere is that capacity for forward-thinking more necessary than in Washington, D.C., where dreams of achievement have always required healthy doses of optimism to balance out the numerable roadblocks that threaten any monumental task. And the most monumental task in the nation's capital these days is not being faced at Pennsylvania Avenue or the Capitol. It is down in the southeastern part of the city, by the Anacostia River where a seemingly impossible problem is waiting to be solved. The man trying to solve it is Mike Rizzo, the acting general manager of the Washington Nationals who just canned his manager. Rizzo has a vision, as he must. It is one of important games played in autumn chill, of a packed house at Nationals Park, of his team playing postseason baseball and proving wrong all those who wondered if it would ever happen.
"It is something that we're really seeing the beginning of," he says of his team's still-unpaved road to glory. "You have to look for not only success in the near future but have to have that vision for the long term."
Never mind that very few people share Rizzo's vision. One look at the team's 26-61 record at the All-Star break (nine wins fewer than any other club), 22 1/2-game deficit in the NL East (also the deepest canyon in baseball) and roster of either limited talent, limited experience or both, and it's easy to see why fixing the Nationals seems less likely than fixing health care.
But Rizzo believes it can be done, and that he is the man to do it. Whether he is foolishly optimistic, a very good salesman or simply delusional remains unclear. For anyone who has been to the brand-new but still mostly empty Nationals Park, where the residents are beating a slow march to what may wind up being the worst season in the modern-day history of the game, it seems especially ludicrous to suggest that this team is building anything other than a case as the worst team baseball has seen in years. At the moment they are on pace to finish with 114 losses, which would be the most in the National League since the lovably inept expansion New York Mets of 1962. On Monday Washington announced the firing manager Manny Acta, the poor soul charged with trying to mold a winning team out of such unforgettables, has-beens and never-weres as Anderson Hernandez, Austin Kearns and Daniel Cabrera.
Acta's firing is only the latest in a series of moves engineered by Rizzo to point the Nationals in a forward direction. Already this season he has released Cabrera, saying he was "tired of watching him," demoted Elijah Dukes, a talented but temperamental outfielder, and traded Lastings Milledge, another gifted young player, to the almost-as-woeful Pirates for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett, a deal that will not have any immediate change on their fortunes.
But history, if not much else, is on Rizzo's side, and in a sport that treasures its past like no other, that's as good a place to start as any. Should they finish with those 114 losses, the Nats would be just the eighth team in the past 70 years to lose 111 or more games. Of the other seven, all were in the postseason within eight years. If you take out the expansion Mets, who lost at least that many in three of their first four seasons, the road to October becomes even shorter:
This is not to say that time alone will cure the many, many things that are ailing Rizzo's Nationals. But there are seeds being planted, however invisible, that may in the years ahead yield what is all so difficult to see right now: a winning team in Washington. And so might it be not be so ridiculous after all to suggest that the Nationals will be playing postseason baseball in just a few years?
Rizzo thinks it is reasonable, and he is the man planting those seeds. He is a likable baseball lifer in his late 40s with more than a passing physical resemblance to Billy Joel. More importantly, he has a proven track record of building winners from scratch. While the Director of Scouting for the Arizona Diamondbacks, he brought the core of young stars that helped the D-backs win the NL West title in 2007, including Cy Young winning-starter Brandon Webb, Justin Upton, Conor Jackson and Carlos Quentin, who has since been traded to the White Sox.
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