Since taking over in 2009 as an interim GM, Mike Rizzo has turned the Washington Nationals from the biggest joke in baseball to a perennial playoff and World Series contender. Their 86-76 record in 2013 — a more than respectable record and one of the highest win totals for the Montreal/Washington franchise — was widely considered a colossal disappointment after a 98-win 2012 that followed an 80-win 2011. In fact, 2013 broke a streak of at least ten more Washington wins than the year previous, as Washington went from 59 wins in 2009 to 98 just three years later.
Steady, marginal improvement has been Rizzo’s plan since taking over. Every season Rizzo would implement a new piece of his plan, calling the Jayson Werth signing “part 2” of a plan he laid out to ownership. At that time Washington’s core had been implemented for the most part, and his dreams of pitching a defense as the foundation of the team were well on their way to coming to fruition. Rizzo’s background in player development is easily his biggest skill as he is able to evaluate players, and when he believes in exercising patience writers and fans alike should listen. Rizzo comes from scouting and has drafted players that are not far off from being major league ready. He does not believe in a long term waiting on prospects type of approach.
So going into Rizzo’s fifth season guiding the Nationals’ ship, how good of a GM is he and how highly does he rank among the top GMs in baseball?
General managers, at times, tend to benefit from coming into a really good situation as far as the major league roster goes, and it can be somewhat of a “don’t mess this thing up” mentality, much like Ruben Amaro taking the GM job with the Philadelphia Phillies. This is not the case with Rizzo, as he took over a team coming off of a 100-plus loss season and a team that lost another 100-plus games in his first season as the interim GM. The job did not seem very desirable; the team was just flat out bad with a rotation led by John Lannan, and Jordan Zimmermann had not had his Tommy John surgery yet. In short, the team was nothing short of a punchline. What Rizzo did in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 is nothing short of miraculous, especially for a Nationals fan who vividly remembers the dark ages of Nationals baseball.
There are not many GMs in baseball that really stand out above the rest. Two names that come to mind immediately are Andrew Friedman, who always tends to get his Tampa Bay Rays the best return on the top players his team cannot afford, as well as Moneyball visionary Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics, who is also the third longest tenured GM in baseball, holding the position in Oakland since 1997. Brian Cashman is another one, who has always been able to keep the New York Yankees competitive, though he will always get knocked because he is the GM of professional sports’ richest and most identifiable franchise.
Rizzo’s Nationals have really only been competitive for two years, which is still arguable after their down 2013. However, the mantra of steady, incremental improvement is something that makes Rizzo’s tenure as GM one of the most impressive, especially based on the team he took over. When Friedman took over, at 28 no less, his Rays were one of the worst teams in baseball and actually floundered for his first three seasons, showing no signs of improvement until 2008 when the team came out of nowhere to win 97 games and have won no less than 84 games every year since. Beane’s tenure started similarly, but much like Rizzo his A’s had incremental improvement, increasing their win totals every year from 1997 to 2002. As previously stated, every GMs tenure starts differently, but something should be said for this incremental improvement.
Rizzo is definitely one of baseball’s top GMs and has shown a proficiency for working in silence, striking when fans and writers least expect it. Nobody sees what he does coming, which is pretty opposite of how Friedman and Beane do business. Rizzo is not the top GM in baseball — yet. But he is definitely in the top five, and it would take a lot to drop him out of that list.