Rizzo builds Nats into a Washington monument
Veteran leadership, young talent, savvy skipper come together in winning chemistry
VIERA, Fla. -- Looking back on it, one of Mike Rizzo's most impressive accomplishments as general manager of the Washington Nationals has been not just in building a very good team. He did that, and you can look it up. The Nats had the best record in baseball last season at 98-64. They had the best rotation in the National League and were solid in pretty much every other area, too.
After six straight losing seasons, after years of drafting smartly and adding pieces from here, there and everywhere, they were a finished product, led by manager Davey Johnson, an unshakeable, calming influence who has the ability to get players to relax and perform at their best.
As impressive as all of that was, perhaps Rizzo's best job was in constructing a clubhouse that worked. It had a terrific environment, one in which players worked hard and played hard and believed in one another. His hiring of Johnson, obviously, was a huge part of that equation.
When Rizzo acquired veteran players, he got guys who would set the right example for all those Draft choices who were on their way. Roster building is more an art than a science, and Rizzo got it exactly right.
"A lot of us have been together a while," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I've known Ian [Desmond] for almost 10 years. A lot of us have grown up together. Guys like [Jayson] Werth and Adam [LaRoche], we spend a lot of time together. We go out to dinner together on the road. That's true of pitchers and position players, too. Most teams, you may have two or three guys who stay to themselves. We don't have that here. We all hang out together. It makes it easier to come to the field every day when you enjoy everybody's company."
Rizzo said he noticed examples of such a dynamic throughout the season as veteran players like LaRoche and Zimmerman and Chad Tracy and others exerted influence in ways seen and unseen. Chemistry matters on every team, but chemistry especially matters on a club that's winning for the first time, one that has never gone through the grind of staying atop a division through the difficult days of August and September.
"It was the way the young guys and the veterans molded together," Rizzo said. "We had a good clubhouse. We were one of the youngest teams in baseball, and we sprinkled in some veteran presence. The way the veterans kind of took care of the young players and mentored them and talked to them, it was plain to see. At certain times during the game, when Davey turned and asked for a pinch-hitter, Chad Tracy and Mark DeRosa and those guys more or less had those guys ready to enter the ballgame. They had them prepared."
Those are things the Natonals hope will carry over into this season. Johnson believes they will.
"I've said it before, the makeup of this ballclub is one of the most impressive things about it," he said.
The Nationals are again widely viewed as one of baseball's best teams after an offseason in which Rizzo kept his core together and made significant additions to the starting rotation (Dan Haren), bullpen (Rafael Soriano) and top of the lineup (center fielder Denard Span). With the innings limit lifted off ace Stephen Strasburg, with Bryce Harper now all of 20 years old, the Nats will begin the season with huge expectations.
"That's all on paper," LaRoche said. "We can't get caught up in, 'Look at the personnel. There's no way you don't win the whole thing.' We've got everything here to do it. If we don't, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves."
Injuries could derail the whole thing, but what made last season's 98-win run even more special was the fact that the Nationals were gutted by injuries in the early part of the season. Johnson was without every member of his infield at one point and also the middle of his batting order. But, as he pointed out, the starting rotation stayed intact until Strasburg, on the comeback from Tommy John surgery, reached his 160-innings limit in early September.
It finally all ended with a Game 5 loss to the Cardinals in the NL Division Series. Once it was over and once the disappointment of that defeat subsided, Rizzo was able to look back and feel nothing but pride at how far the franchise had come and how much fun all those nights with huge crowds at Nationals Park had been.
"When you see a blueprint that started on a dryboard, and then you see it on the field four years later, it was very gratifying to me and my staff," Rizzo said. "Once we had a chance to really step back and take a look at the entirety of the season and take a look at the plan we'd set in place and how we implemented it, we were very pleased and proud of the players and the staff.
"I think the greatest thing about going into the postseason and having success is we brought in everybody in the organization to see those playoff games. To see those guys and their families being invested in this, all the miles and the drills and all that stuff, that's the reward. That was the fun part of it."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.