Why hire a new GM at all? Why not just make Mike Rizzo the permanent GM? He's done a good job, right? Brought in Beimel. Traded Beimel. Traded Johnson. Scraped together a passable bullpen (insert your own scare quotes). And look at the results of his biggest trade -- the Nats are 19-21 since Nyjer Morgan's July 3 Nationals debut. With all the holes in the Nats roster, that's got to be considered some kind of argument for keeping Rizzo (and Riggleman) on, right? Surely, Rizzo deserves a shot at the job without the interim tag hanging over his head, right?
Here are my problems with Rizzo:
1. Rizzo overemphasizes makeup when evaluating players
Watching Debbi Taylor interview Rizzo last year about the trade for Emilio Bonifacio, I was a little surprised that instead of puffing about Bonifacio's tools or potential, Rizzo spent almost the entire interview talking up what a high-energy guy Bonifacio was and how Bonifacio would be a great guy to have around the clubhouse. Maybe Emilio will pick you up at the airport, but he sucks as a baseball player.
When Rizzo flipped apparent war criminal Lastings Milledge for Nyjer Morgan, Nats fans were inundated with reminders about how high the Nats are on Morgan's fabulous hockey attitude. Milledge has brought legitimate defense to the Nats outfield and speed to the lineup, but his hockey attitude hasn't helped Capt. CS learn to be a better baserunner.
Rizzo demoted noted dickhead Elijah Dukes in the middle of a slump with an eye towards trading him. Word out of the Nats clubhouse was that Dukes' bad attitude was harshing everyone's buzz.
Everyone agrees that makeup is important, but as interim GM, Rizzo has shown no willingness to or aptitude for dealing with players that have a problematic makeup. Instead of trying to fix Milledge and Dukes, Rizzo was all too willing to cut bait on players that had a chance to be a part of a future winning team. I can only assume that Dukes is still around because Rizzo couldn't find a suitable trade partner.
Milledge was a shithead, but I think Rizzo traded him too early. What would have been the loss in keeping Milledge around in AAA for the whole season and then trading him in the offseason if he still wasn't working out? Instead, Rizzo sold Milledge when his stock was at its lowest for a 29-year-old speedster who gets caught too often to make his steals valuable and who most likely won't be a part of the next good Nats team.
Or will he?
2. Rizzo thinks the Nats are better than they really are
Just look at the quotes from Kasten in this Tom Boswell column. Sure, the Nats still need four more starting pitchers, a completely new bullpen, a second baseman, and another outfielder with a decent bat, but Stan assures us that "those are things you can get." The Nats "have the 3-4-5 hitters." They "have the leadoff man now." And they "have depth in inventory in young starters." Bonus: "We have Drew Storen. He walked another man the other night."
Kasten is a salesman, but would he be saying these things if Rizzo was telling him otherwise in private? Is this just a case of Rizzo telling ownership what he thinks they want to hear? I don't think so. Kasten hasn't shied away from giving a somewhat honest assessment of the team in the past. When Kasten talks about how close the Nats are to being good, I think he's speaking based on information he gets from Rizzo.
Don't forget, Rizzo is the guy who said this about where the Nats are: "We are a team building, we are not rebuilding. We are not tearing this thing down to the foundation and rebuilding it . . . This is a team, in my opinion, that's not far away from being a good solid baseball team."
Hey, Zimmermann won't be seen again until 2011? Rizzo reminds us why we shouldn't worry about the starting rotation: "That's the reason why you say you never have enough pitching prospects. I think we're fortunate here that we've got seven or eight really good young starting pitching prospects." Zimmermann was one. Who are the others? Surely he can't mean the AAAA filler that's cycled through the rotation this season.
Instead of engaging in a complete teardown, Rizzo keeps the team from getting better by refusing to sell high on a player like Josh Willingham, instead mistakenly viewing him as part of the team's future. More perplexing, Rizzo refused to trade Cristian Guzman, going so far as to call Guzman "a critical part" of the Nats' offense.
But it's possible Guzman and Willingham wouldn't be moved even if Rizzo were actively looking to trade them. Why not?
3. Rizzo overvalues his assets
Whether it's because he genuinely overvalues Guzman and Willingham or because he feels he has to get a killer return to demonstrate that he deserves the permanent GM spot, Rizzo appears to be overvaluing his players. Guzman is almost certainly not going to be a part of the next good Nats team, yet when there's a team (Boston) that has a gaping hole at shortstop, Rizzo insists on holding onto Guzman unless he gets back a "significant return." Rizzo apparently had a similarly high standard for trading Willingham, who drew trade deadline interest from several teams.
OK, it's true that Willingham can probably be traded next season, too. But when it came to Nick Johnson, who Rizzo almost had to trade, and who had drawn serious interest from San Francisco, Rizzo still waited too long to pull the trigger. The chances of maximizing the return for Johnson pretty much slipped away once the Giants traded for Ryan Garko. Instead, Rizzo was lucky that he was able to get a fringe 5th starter for Johnson when the Marlins decided they were close enough to contention and sick enough of Bonifacio that they needed to make a move.
Well, at least Rizzo got some return for the players he was willing to trade. Aaron Thompson is still an addition to the farm system, which I hear is rebounding?
4. Rizzo must bear some responsibility for the Nationals' underperforming player development system
For all the talk of The Plan and building a winner through player development, the players the Nats have drafted since 2005 haven't really been developing. With their past draft focus on pitchers and toolsy outfielders, the Nats have yet to develop a position player worth carrying on the major league roster. Ryan Zimmerman was essentially major-league-ready when he was drafted, and Storen is looking like he might be as well. Derek Norris and Chris Marrero might have bright futures, but they're not all the way there yet. And even five years of emphasis on drafting pitching, pitching, pitching has produced only the lucky break Lannan and the injured Jordan Zimmermann. I understand it takes time to develop players, but the system still seems to be churning out mostly organizational filler.
If the Nats have been drafting well, why is the system still so lackluster? Even giving Rizzo the benefit of the doubt for this year and supposing that he hasn't been allowed to make wholesale changes to the player development system as interim GM, Rizzo has been Assistant GM since 2006. He has to share at least some of the responsibility for the state of the Nats' minor league system.
But that gets us to a bigger problem with Rizzo getting the permanent GM job.
5. Rizzo will have no real authority
It would be very easy for Kasten and the Lerners to keep Rizzo on as GM, making him tap dance every year for a new contract, thus keeping him on a short leash. If Rizzo is given the GM job on a permanent basis, I'm pessimistic that he'll be given a free hand to turn over the front office and bring in his own people. Will Rizzo be allowed to get rid of Bob Boone, who you would have thought would have been one of the first casualties of Bowden's resignation, yet still seems to be hanging on? Will Rizzo (or anyone really) be allowed to fire the Assistant GM for Baseball Administration Squire Galbreath, who also happens to be minority partner Squire Galbreath, not to mention Jim Bowden's college pal? Will Rizzo be allowed to overhaul the player development system (Bob Boone again), bringing in new people where he sees fit, or will he be given all the authority Manny Acta was given to hire his own coaches?
Unfortunately, it's entirely possible an outside hire would also be given only limited authority, but Kasten and the Lerners are already used to keeping Rizzo on a short leash. Which brings me to the key argument against keeping Rizzo on.
6. Rizzo is a holdover from the Bowden era
It may be guilt-by-association, but the Nationals need to purge as much of the Bowden era as they can. As much of the old regime as possible needs to go. Rizzo may be a talented evaluator of baseball talent, but some things go beyond merit. Besides, Rizzo's skill set isn't irreplaceable. It's only too bad we can't replace ownership.