Rizzo ignored outside chatter about the Nationals’ supposed lack of offense and stuck with the group he assembled. His patience was rewarded once Ian Desmond finally stopped tinkering with his swing and became an all-star and a well-timed cortisone shot helped Ryan Zimmerman regain his franchise-player form.
In fact, Rizzo’s blueprint for building the Nationals was so fundamentally sound, he didn’t need to make revisions. With Rizzo confident the Nationals have the right players to maintain their top-of-the-division standing in the National League East — the second-place Atlanta Braves now trail by 2½ games — they didn’t make any deals before baseball’s Tuesday trading deadline.
“We like who we are,” Rizzo said before Tuesday’s 8-0 loss to the Phillies at Nationals Park. “We didn’t see a whole lot of holes to fill.”
That’s how you roll when your team has game’s best record and Stephen Strasburg pitches every fifth day (for now, anyway).
For all of the things Rizzo has done correctly in quickly transforming the Nationals from a laughingstock to an admired franchise, tone-setting leadership has been among his most important contributions. When the self-described “emotional guy” blasted Philadelphia Phillies starter Cole Hamels for boasting about drilling rookie Bryce Harper on purpose in May, Rizzo publicly reinforced the message he has been delivering internally since he took over the baseball operation in 2009: The Nationals’ days as a doormat are over.
The commissioner’s office fined Rizzo — just as he expected — for the comments some baseball observers considered inappropriate. General managers aren’t supposed to start fires — let alone apply gasoline to ones already burning. But bold moves are necessary when you’re trying to change a losing culture. Rizzo believes he should be the first one up the hill. The Nationals are right behind him.
The coaching staff and players believe Rizzo “is really in it with us,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “He’s down there on the field with ya. He’s sweating out each pitch. He’s highly competitive . . . he’s a fighter. But don’t let that fool ya. I’ve been around a lot of general managers. Trust me, Riz is really doing a great job.”
Admittedly, Johnson is biased. He also happens to be right.
Rizzo’s vision for the Nationals has taken shape almost as fast as Tyler Clippard proved he deserved to be a full-time closer.
With a longtime scout’s eye for talent, Rizzo built the Nationals’ farm system from rubble. The big-league roster is full of the power-armed pitchers and athletic position players Rizzo figured the Nationals needed to eventually topple Philadelphia in the division (the Phillies’ injuries accelerated the process). When Rizzo thought the time was right to pursue a difference-maker, he had the prospects needed to persuade the Oakland Athletics to make the deal for Gonzalez.