When Mike Rizzo took over the job as Washington Nationals general manager in 2009 there weren’t a lot of reasons to be an optimistic fan. The team would win just 59 games in 2009, Mike Rizzo was a rookie general manager tasked with overhauling a roster that fielded just three players that hit more than 10 home runs and a pitching staff led by John Lannan. Over the next few years, with the help of some bad teams, the Nationals rebuilt their roster with the help of a couple of top picks and some astute free agent signings and trades. Mike Rizzo took the Nationals from nothing to World Series contender. He has also now seen them fall back to earth.
The Nationals are in danger of losing Bryce Harper this coming offseason as a free agent and the only legacy he will have left behind is one MVP award and the knowledge that the Nationals never won a playoff series during his time with the team. That won’t be Bryce Harper’s fault, however. That blame should rest at the feet of the very man who made the Nationals relevant, Mike Rizzo.
Since Harper broke into Major League Baseball in 2012 the Nationals, and Rizzo, have gone through four managers. Two of those managers, Davey Johnson and Matt Williams won Manager of the Year Awards. Three of the four won their division with Dusty Baker winning it twice in 2016 and 2017. However, the only thing that mattered to Rizzo was winning in the playoffs and none of the managers he hired did that.
The question really must be who is at fault for the Nationals falling short? Ultimately it lies at the feet of the one who wears the crown, Rizzo. He built a team up from nothing but never took it that extra step. There was always something lacking with the Nationals teams he built. Whether it was a lock-down bullpen arm or a leadoff hitter and center fielder something was always seemingly at the top of the shopping list and would be all but ignored by Rizzo until it was too late.
For as much respect Rizzo deserves for completely turning around the culture in Washington, he also deserves the backlash for never accomplishing anything. Making the playoffs wasn’t enough after 2012. The World Series became the goal especially with a rotation led by Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and an offense powered by 2015 NL MVP Harper. That goal might never be realized at this point with this current roster.
Rizzo, for several years, was able to deflect most of the blame by shifting it onto the manager. After all it was Davey Johnson who brought in Drew Storen who would give up the four runs in the ninth inning and take a 7-5 Nationals’ lead and turn it into a 9-7 defeat. To be fair, Johnson was never a long-term solution on the bench but he did lead some really good Nationals’ teams in 2012 and 2013. He would be replaced by Matt Williams, a rookie manager without a game of experience. Williams would watch his team fall apart and start fighting itself in the dugout. The culture in the clubhouse was allowed to rot and to be honest, it never really recovered.
Baker was brought in to help restore some credibility in the clubhouse, to give the Nationals a professional air about them and give the fairly young team some leadership. Baker was let go after last season because he couldn’t get the Nationals out of the first round in 2016 or 2017. So, what does Rizzo do? Does he go out and fortify the bullpen? No. Things are left as is for the most part with only middling arms brought in during the offseason.
Teams around the league are stockpiling arms in their bullpens and the Nationals are content with their mostly mediocre bullpen. The Nationals finished 23rd last season in bullpen ERA with a 4.41 mark. This season they are currently 12th with a bullpen ERA of 3.90.
Rizzo has watched teams time and again pass the Nationals by for services of elite relievers. Sure, Rizzo has addressed some issues but they always seem to be band-aids instead of long-term solutions. It also seems to be every year. The manager gets the blame though. Baker was let go despite stabilizing the clubhouse. Rookie manager Dave Martinez was brought in. It almost seemed like Rizzo was daring the baseball gods here, as if to say that the Williams years weren’t on him but rather the fault of the manager. Well, the clubhouse is under scrutiny again. Shawn Kelley was shipped off the team for throwing a mitt down during a blowout win over the New York Mets. Scherzer and Strasburg were seen yelling at each other in the dugout before going to the clubhouse together.
The immaturity seems to be back. The Nationals are falling well short of expectations and were the longest of long shots to make a playoff run this season. Still, Rizzo stood pat at the July 31st trade deadline. He didn’t commit one way or another and lost out on the opportunity to quickly reload his team. Now, on August 21, he is shipping off Daniel Murphy to the Chicago Cubs for Andruw Monasterio and letting the St. Louis Cardinals take Matt Adams away for nothing but the waiver claim. Murphy would have been arguably the best hitter on the market during the non-waiver deadline and could have fetched a decent prospect or two. Missed opportunity. That seems to be the modus operandi of Rizzo.
The blame can’t be laid at the feet of Martinez. It can’t be laid at the feet of the players. Though both certainly deserve some blame. The majority of the blame rest right on the shoulders of Rizzo and it is time for him to pay the piper.