Previously unknown Rizzo turning heads at winter meetings
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When meeting turned to dining on Monday night, managers and general managers began streaming into Shula's Steakhouse off to the side of the Dolphin hotel lobby, a congregation of suits still sizzling from the industry-rocking seven-year, $126 million free-agent contract Washington gave Jayson Werth the previous day.
The currencies of the winter meetings are dollars and deals, so when two general managers approached -- one having won the World Series one month ago, the other having handed out the incriminating contract one night ago -- it was the Giants' Brian Sabean who congratulated the Nationals' Mike Rizzo.
Though many anonymous executives had blasted the deal in the press, a dozen baseball insiders from other clubs nevertheless formed a makeshift receiving line for Washington's GM, each approaching to offer his own greeting of "Congrats, Rizz."
"Forget how you feel about the [Werth] contract," Stan Kasten, who left his post as Nationals team president after the season, said the next morning. "Separate yourself from it -- and I know how the industry feels, I understand that -- but if you're a Nats fan, there's nothing better than what's happened this week."
Rizzo defended the Werth signing by explaining he knowingly gave an above-market deal in years and money to lure a highly sought-after free agent to a last-place team. That move, combined with a report the next morning (though later debunked) that the Nationals were the first team to offer a seven-year contract to free-agent starting pitcher Cliff Lee, unwittingly turned the low-profile Rizzo into the grand marshal for most of Major League Baseball's winter meetings.
Even if Washington doesn't land Lee, a possibility Rizzo told reporters was a "longshot," the club has money to spend. On Wednesday afternoon a source told Fanhouse that the Nationals are "being aggressive" in discussing a trade for Royals ace Zack Greinke. They also could land first baseman Adam LaRoche very soon.
"Mike's got guts," said Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik, a fellow former scout who first met Rizzo about 20 years ago. "I give Mike a lot of credit. He's not afraid to roll the dice. He's a good talent evaluator."
The Nationals received plenty of due this summer for the debut of Stephen Strasburg and the drafting of Bryce Harper, but those future franchise cornerstones were the product of last-place finishes turning into No. 1 overall draft picks. In other words, a lucky happenstance.
The Werth signing, on the other hand, is, as Rizzo called it, "Phase Two" of the Washington development plan -- the aggressive luring and acquiring of major-league talent -- to follow Phase One, which focused on scouting and development in order to rebuild a depleted farm system.
And who is the man leading this Nationals' transformation from downtrodden losers to heavy-spending players? It's Michael Anthony Rizzo, who will celebrate his 50th birthday next week and is in just his first full year as their fulltime general manager. In interviews with former bosses, peers and agents at the meetings this week, three recurring themes emerge about Rizzo: his tireless work ethic, his friendly disposition and his focused ambition.
Rizzo, whom the Nationals did not make available to SI.com during the winter meetings, grew up in the game because his father, Phil, was a longtime scout for several teams (and now works for his son as a special assistant to the GM). Mike Rizzo played three years of minor league ball, batting .247 in the low levels of the Angels system, before he too became a scout, first for the White Sox, for whom he helped sign Frank Thomas, and later for the Red Sox and Diamondbacks.
Rizzo joined Arizona at the franchise's inception in 1998 and after two years as a scout made the jump to scouting director under then-general manager Joe Garagiola, Jr.
"He impressed us as a hard worker, a good talent evaluator and he struck me as having the organizational skills to run a department," said Garagiola, now MLB's senior vice president for on-field operations. "He seemed to be someone who believed in his convictions. That's ultimately what he has to do -- on draft day he's the guy who sits in the room, listens to a bunch of opinions and says, 'Okay, we're taking him and not him.'"
The Diamondbacks made the playoffs in three of the franchise's first five seasons and won the World Series in 2001. While the majority of the key players on those teams were veterans, Rizzo simultaneously stocked the farm system through his tireless effort. Garagiola noted that there were times when Rizzo would watch a high school or college game in south Florida one night, fly to the Dominican Republic the next morning to watch a workout at the team's academy and then fly back to Florida that afternoon to watch another amateur game in the evening.
When Rizzo took over as scouting director in 2000,
Several of the players signed under Rizzo -- Drew, Upton, starter Barry Enright and a few international free-agents like catcher Miguel Montero and outfielder Gerardo Parra -- remain with the team
"I'm the beneficiary of some of his very nice draft picks," Kevin Towers, the new Diamondbacks GM, said.
Garagiola said Rizzo quickly grew to be part of his inner circle and encouraged the initiative of his underling, who plainly wanted to advance his career and become a general manager.
"Down here at these winter meetings, he was just indefatigable in terms of working the lobby," Garagiola said. "First guy there, last guy to leave. He'd have all the rumors. He worked it and became somebody that was definitely in the discussions, whether it was trades, free agency, because I respected his opinion and because he worked to acquire useful knowledge."
In early 2006, when Garagiola left the Diamondbacks and Josh Byrnes became the new general manager, Rizzo received a promotion from scouting director to vice president of scouting operations. That post was short-lived, as Rizzo was hired by then-Nationals general manager Jim Bowden that July to be his assistant general manager.
"He's very organized and structured," said Bowden, now a radio analyst for XM and Fox Sports. "He ran his scouting department as professionally as you'll ever see."
Said Kasten, "Early on we identified him as a talent we wanted to have in our front office. We didn't know necessarily that he'd be the GM, but we knew he could be and he wanted to be. That was a knock on Mike when he was a scout, that he spent too much time trying to be a GM and wanting to be a GM. I don't know, I didn't see that as a negative. A guy with initiative and ambition -- I don't hold that against people."
As Bowden's assistant in Washington, Rizzo had the opportunity to gain even more administrative experience, something he was eager to tackle.
"The issues that always arise when a scout takes the next step," Kasten said, "are, Can you take that step? Can you be an administrator? Can you lead people and not just have great eyeball judgment? In his role [in Arizona] he didn't lead a lot of people. He was scouting director but mostly he was a sounding board to the GM. It was clear that he was learning more about administration, contracts, rules -- things the scouting director doesn't have to deal with."
It was a pattern that continued in Washington, with Rizzo logging long nights in the office on a regular basis.
"He's there 18 hours a day," Bowden said. "He grinds out all night. A lot of that GM job isn't fun. He was willing to put the hours in. He not only had the talent, but he had the desire."
An opportunity to ascend to general manager, the job he's wanted since his playing days ended, came in 2009, when Bowden abruptly resigned in the wake of reports that the team's top international free agent had lied about his name and age and that Bowden himself was linked to a federal investigation about bonus skimming. (He was never charged and said he resigned only because he didn't want to be a distraction to the club.)
Rizzo overhauled the Nationals' operations in the Dominican and, less than a week later, became the interim GM after Bowden resigned.
"I told the owners on that day," Kasten recalled, "I predicted when we're done, you're going to hire Mike to be the fulltime GM."
But Kasten acknowledged that he owed it to the organization to complete a thorough search, with interviews of front-office personnel across baseball, just to make sure. This continued during a pivotal summer for the Nationals, who had drafted Strasburg and endured the belabored negotiations with agent Scott Boras for his services, finally signing Strasburg just before the deadline. (The following year signing Harper -- also a Boras client -- was equally harrowing.)
It wasn't his first protracted negotiation. Garagiola and Rizzo worked tireless hours to sign Drew in Arizona, also a Boras client, who took nearly a year to agree to a contract.
"He's always had negotiating skills," Bowden said. "He's very aggressive, but he also knows when you've got to close the deal, which is key for a GM."
Agent Joe Longo of Paragon Sports International, who has periodically bargained with Rizzo since 2002, wrote in an email, "He was and has been one of the better GMs in doing a good job of 'selling' you on why your client is a good fit for his team. He is one hard GM to resist when he starts talking. Players like him too. He doesn't talk down to players and communicates with them and they respect him for that too."
The Strasburg signing came on Monday, Aug. 17, and Kasten was convinced Rizzo was his man. On Tuesday he spoke with Rizzo and finalized terms for him to become the club's fulltime general manager. In his 27th season of pro ball, Rizzo's dream of running his own team had been fulfilled.
But he then had to wait one more day. The introductory press conference was delayed until Thursday because one Washington executive was out of town. In the meantime, Yahoo! Sports reported late Tuesday night that the Nationals were set to hire a different finalist, Jerry DiPoto, for the job. When Rizzo walked into the office on Wednesday, on what should have been a joyful day as he prepared to take the stage on Thursday, he instead found a dour staff who thought their boss had been passed over and that they may lose their own jobs too.
"Mike walks into the office and all his guys, the baseball operations staff, is so glum they couldn't even look at him," Kasten said. "Mike knew he had got it, that it was already done -- but we hadn't told anybody [else]. [He said,] 'Guys, perk up, don't believe everything you read.'"
Rizzo even had to reassure his family that he had indeed been offered the job, which ultimately was consummated publicly the next day.
In October, ownership has rewarded Rizzo wtih a five-year extension, what Kasten called "confirmation of the Lerners' faith in Mike." The Nationals seem to be moving in the right direction, though many holes remain. The contract to Werth was received by baseball insiders as a serious overpay, but he does fill the need of a power bat and lineup protection for star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Shortstop Ian Desmond, starter Jordan Zimmermann and reliever Drew Storen are among the other young major leaguers on the rise in Washington.
And while Strasburg and Harper rightfully garner most of the hype, the Nationals have several other important prospects that they drafted after the first round, such as lefty pitchers Sammy Solis and Robbie Ray, righthander A.J. Cole, catcher Derek Norris and shortstop Danny Espinosa.
General managers often have three key responsibilities: scouting and drafting, building a major league roster and serving as the public face of the front office. Rizzo's track record on the first count is strong, while the second is now being put to the test and the third has been worked on, too. Early in his tenure, Rizzo spoke quickly and appeared nervously, though those stammers are gradually being worked through.
"We worked with Mike," Kasten said. "He's had some advice and training, media-wise. [We've told him], 'Don't put on an act or a show.' Some people do that. I do that. That's not Mike. You're great at being you. Just be the sincere, straightforward scout you've always been."
Of course, Rizzo is no longer just a scout. In little over a year at the job he waited for his entire professional life he's proving pretty good at that, too.