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.
Rizzo came to Washington in 2006 as an assistant general manager, the first baseball operations hire in the new regime of the Lerner family that owns the team. Rizzo was made acting GM upon JimBowden's resignation earlier this year. There have been many rumors that it is only a matter of time before he is given the job permanently, and although he claims has not discussed his future with the Nationals owners, he says: "I'm very confident in my abilities as general manager of the Washington Nationals. I've taken ownership of it, and I'm treating it like it's mine long-term and I make my decisions long-term."
To that end, Rizzo has a four-step plan to build the Nationals into a contender. It's similar to plans used by struggling teams everywhere, but given his track record and the fact that it is already being implemented, it is one that has a strong chance to succeed.
Step 1: Scouting and player development
As recently as 2007, Baseball America ranked the Nationals organization as the worst in baseball. But that year, Rizzo's first being involved with the draft, the team selected Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann, both of whom have already moved into the team's rotation. The entire draft was so successful that just one year later, Baseball America had bumped the Nats up 21 spots to ninth overall, the second biggest jump in the rankings this decade. If Washington has anything resembling a solid foundation, says Rizzo, "This is the start of it."
Step 2: The 2009 draft
The Nats took a pair of right-handed pitchers with their two top 10 picks. They got Stephen Strasburg, owner of an amazing 102-mph fastball and an equally amazing amount of hype, at No. 1, and Stanford righty Drew Storen at No. 10. Both are, in the estimation of Rizzo and scouting director Dana Brown, "quick-to-the-big-league guys."
"It's a franchise-changing decision," said Brown of this year's draft. "It's the first time ever we've had two picks in the top 10. We felt this would be an opportunity to jumpstart the organization."
The biggest key now will be singing Strasburg. Last year, the Nats were unable to reach a deal with righty Aaron Crow, and received the No. 10 pick this year as compensation. Not signing Strasburg would be a disastrous blow not only to the rebuilding process, but also to the reputation of Rizzo. The GM says he's pursuing a "cautiously aggressive" course in the contract negotiations with Strasburg and his advisor, Scott Boras, but said that aside from an initial conversation around the time of the June 9 draft, "Honestly, we haven't really talked since then."
Step 3: "Developing the core of young players at the major league level"
"We have a young, accomplished staff that have really high-ceiling capability and potential, to really be impact starters," says Rizzo. "Whenever you can draft and sign your own you have a surplus of good young starters you're ahead of the game."
The question, of course, is just how good are those starters? Detwiler, 23, John Lannan, 24, Zimmermann, 23, Shairon Martis, 22, and Craig Stammen, 25, are all extremely young and untested, and aside from the occasional glimpses of brilliance (like Lannans' 8 1/3 innings of shut-down ball against the Yankees in New York in June), still looking for consistent success at the major league level. Only Lannan has an ERA under four (3.70), and Martis is the only pitcher on the staff with a winning record (5-3), albeit with a 5.25 ERA. Nationals pitchers have also walked more batters than any team in the National League while ranking next-to-last in strikeouts. That last category is one that Strasburg figures to improve significantly, if and when he reaches the big leagues with Washington, which almost certainly will not be before next year. The Nats have already fired pitching coach Randy St. Calire this season, replacing him with Steve McCatty, and with Acta's firing, another overhaul of the coaching staff seems imminent, either this season or before next.
Step 4: "Add depth and inventory at the major league level"
Rizzo's wish list here is long -- "We have to attack the pitching and turn our bullpen into a major league bullpen," he says. "We have go get more athletic, be faster and be a lither body ball club in the future. And, since playing here in Washington pitching and defense go hand in hand, we have to get more athletic and better defensively" -- and it may be his biggest challenge and most sizable obstacle. He has almost no tradeable parts. Shortstop Cristian Guzman has batted .328, .313 and .333 his last three seasons in Washington and might be attractive to someone, but will teams really want to take on an $8 million contract next season for a 31-year-old shortstop? Similarly, first baseman Nick Johnson's name has been bandied about the rumor mill, but he has had serious injury problems (missing all of the 2007 season and playing just 38 games in 2008) and will turn 31 in September.
The one player who would draw the most interest from clubs would be third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the former college star at the University of Virginia who to this point has been viewed as the face of the franchise. Zimmerman signed a five-year, $45 million contract extension in April that would keep him in D.C. through 2013, and his 30-game hitting streak at the start of the year brought some much needed goodwill toward the club still searching for a bankable star. If the Nationals were presumed to have one untouchable player, it would be Zimmerman, but Rizzo disagrees.
"I don't think there ever is an untouchable player," he says. "Now there are certainly players on our club that would be very, very painful to trade but you have to have an open mind because if you can improve your ball club by getting several very good players you have to listen to any and all deals. There are certain players you'd be very reluctant to move. Can't say in all my years in baseball there's ever been one player that was completely untouchable to trade."
Trading Zimmerman may be painful, but if it happens, it will be just another move in what has already been a painful process for Rizzo and for Nationals fans. But the man has a vision, and he can still see it, no matter how difficult that might be these days even for him.
"We don't want to be a one-time winner, we want to be a consistent winner. There's no short cut to building a front line organization and front line franchise," he says of his plan. "We're in the mix of working all those scenarios. We have a long way to go, and I know our record this season is not very good."
"But," he adds, "I do see a lot of positives."