The Washington Nationals have one of the best general manager/manager combinations in MLB with Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson. They have taken a franchise that was literally an expansion team just nine year ago and turned it into a legitimate World Series contender. They are the best thing to happen to the Nationals since The Lerner Group bought the franchise in 2006.
When the Nationals arrived in Washington from Montreal (where they were the Montreal Expos), they were a team in name only. Washington had not had a baseball team since 1971 and their new one was not competitive until Rizzo took over as GM in 2009 and hired Johnson as a special assistant. Their original plan was to evaluate talent and build a solid organization, but when Jim Riggleman resigned in June of 2011, Johnson became the field manager.
Under Rizzo and Johnson, the Nationals have gone from a laughing stock to one of the most talented teams in baseball. Rizzo had the ignominious luxury of having the number one pick in the amateur draft in 2009 and 2010. He did not miss on either as Washington got pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper respectively. Both helped contribute to Washington’s 98 win NL East Division championship in 2012 with Harper being named NL Rookie of the Year.
Rizzo and Johnson seem to know exactly what the Nationals need and when. They have a keen eye for talent and know how each individual fits into the team dynamic. When Washington needed a power hitter to take the place of Adam Dunn in 2011, they replaced him with Michael Morse. Morse had a career year and led the team in home runs and RBI.
In 2012, Rizzo and Johnson made two major deals with the Oakland Athletics. One was an off season trade which brought left handed pitcher Gio Gonzalez to Washington. He became the first 20-game winner in Nationals history. The other trade came in August when Washington acquired veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki from Oakland. He immediately took over behind the plate and is the incumbent starter going into the 2013 season.
Rizzo and Johnson do not listen to outsiders when making decisions. When Strasburg returned last season from 2010 Tommy John surgery, he was put on a 160 innings pitch limit. Rizzo and Johnson stuck to it even though the Nationals were in a pennant race and had a chance to win the World Series. Strasburg was coming back from a serious elbow injury and needed to stick to his rehab protocol. Rizzo and Johnson shut down their ace in September and took a lot of heat from baseball people and the press.
The Nationals brass is not afraid to take chances with personnel, but does only when it will benefit the player and team. When others believed that the then 19 year old Harper was too young to jump from the minors to the majors, Johnson lobbied to have him start the 2012 season in Washington. Instead, he and Rizzo agreed to let Harper start at Triple-A Syracuse. They did this, because Harper is a slow starter. Rizzo and Johnson did not want him to have to face the media while going through early season struggles.
Rizzo and Johnson have built a team in Washington that improved its win total by more than 10 games in 2011 and 2012. They have instilled a confidence in the young Nationals bordering on cockiness.
The Nationals have gone from the cellar to being a contender, because they are led by one of the best general manager/manager combinations in baseball.