Mike Rizzo: The Man Who Laughs

When the dust had settled on the 2011 season the Nationals had won 80 games and looked poised to take the next step. Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann were finally going to be in the same rotation, and Jayson Werth's return to his career norms in the second half of a season seemed a harbinger of a 2012 bounce back. Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos both had promising rookie years. Work had to be done in order to make the Nats into a contender though. They had won 80 games, and Mike Rizzo had improved the team record by at least 10 games in his previous two seasons. The jump from 80 to 90 is a much more difficult jump than the one from 69 to 80 and there were many that doubted if Rizzo was the one who could do it.  

The 2012 off-season did not start out well for the Nationals. They were linked to Jose Reyes as Ian Desmond had struggled in his second season in the majors and many doubted if he would ever be a viable major league short stop. With Steve Lombardozzi looking ready to take over at second base one thought was that the Nationals could shift Espinosa to his natural position of short and play Lombardozzi at second. Jose Reyes was an easier and quicker solution. It is unknown how much, if any, interest the Nationals had in Reyes, but when he signed with the Marlins there was much concern.

The Marlins weren't done by any stretch. They had a shiny new stadium and they wanted to prove they could be major players in the free agent market. The Nationals did need starting pitching depth and did make a strong push to sign the veteran left hander Mark Buehrle, but again missed out on him to the Marlins. The main issue was that the Nationals weren't willing to go to the years that the Marlins were, and while the Marlins had little regard for the future of their franchise, the Nationals did. Now that the Nationals were in a better position to negotiate with free agents and getting locked into another Jayson Werth type deal was the last thing they wanted.

Having missed out on Buehrle the Nationals turned their search for a starting pitcher to the trade market. On December 23 the Nationals pulled off the biggest deal in their history in Washington and got the second Ace their rotation was lacking when they traded AJ Cole, Derek Norris, Tommy Milone, and Brad Peacock to the Oakland A's for Gio Gonzalez. There were many doubts as to whether Gio was going to develop into an Ace or not, but his control had improved over the last two seasons and he was known as a pitcher who could go deep into ball games. It was unknown how his stuff would transfer away from the spacious Coliseum, but going from the AL to NL is rarely a negative move for a pitcher. Gio didn't have to be any better than he had for the A's to help the Nationals, but Mike Rizzo thought he could be, and gave up quite a bit of talent to acquire him.  

The rest of the Nationals off-season wasn't that exciting. They were linked to and thought to be a finalist for Prince Fielder, but as Mike Rizzo tried to let the market drop to him the Detroit Tigers jumped in a snagged Fielder off the market. The Nationals were left with Adam LaRoche as their first baseman. This was not something that was met as good news. Adam LaRoche had been injured for the entire 2011 season, and few bothered to look back at his career track record as they insisted that Michael Morse should be the Nats full time first baseman. Many thought that Rizzo was making a mistake by entrusting first to Adam LaRoche and there were doubts as to if his shoulder could hold up for an entire season.

The last off-season move the Nationals made was to sign Edwin Jackson. When free agency started Jackson was thought to be one of the top two or three starting pitchers on the market, but teams did not think that way. Eventually his market collapsed to a point where it made sense for him to accept a one year deal and for the Nationals to offer one. With Edwin Jackson in the fold it suddenly looked like the Nationals had too many starting pitchers, but as any baseball fan knows that is never a bad thing. By the end of Spring Training one long time National would find himself sulking away in the minors instead of pitching in the majors.  

Spring Training 2012 was a M.A.S.H. unit. Michael Morse went down with injury early on, Drew Storen was lost sometime during the middle of Spring Training, and Chien-Ming Wang injured his groin tripping over himself on the way to cover first. The biggest story to come out of Spring Training though was John Lannan being sent to the minors. With the injury to Wang it all but looked like Lannan was going to be the fifth starter, but he had an option remaining and Ross Detwiler had out pitched him. When it came time for Rizzo to make the decision he was yet again unafraid to make a possibly unpopular one and sent Lannan to AAA. 

Due to the absence of Michael Morse and a nagging shoulder injury to Ryan Zimmerman the Nationals offense wasn't able to get going in April, but the pitching staff was magnificent. The combined force of Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson, and Detwiler became known as K Street and set records for how few runs they allowed in the month. Behind the strong starting pitching the Nationals were able to jump out to an early lead in the division, but as the team was predicted to finish with 86 wins at best it wasn't thought that it could last. The starting pitching was performing at an unsustainable level and the offense appeared to be as lackluster as it was in 2011, and the injury plague wasn't finished with the Nationals yet.  

Towards the end of April Ryan Zimmerman hit the DL to rehab his injured shoulder and in his place the Nats called up top prospect, Bryce Harper. Harper burst on the scene and was an instant difference maker. Not only was the power and offensive ability on display from the start, but Harper played every game with the type of hustle normally reserved for players of lesser talent. Combine Harper's on field intelligence with his pure raw talent and hustle and the Nationals had a difference maker on their hands. As Harper was lighting up the stat sheet the Nationals were still being decimated by injury. Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos were soon lost, and with every injury the thought was that the Nationals season was going to start heading downhill.

It never did. Nationals players may have kept on getting injured but the performance of the team never slipped, and then they started getting players back. Michael Morse returned toward the beginning of June, Ryan Zimmerman received a cortisone shot, and soon after Drew Storen and Jayson Werth were back. With their full complement of players the Nationals not only had one of the best pitching staffs in the game, but one of the best offenses as well. In April and May the Nationals overage 3.84 runs a game and from June on 4.81.

This was the team Mike Rizzo had envisioned, but they were still missing one piece. With Ramos injured the Nationals were never able to get any sort of production from the catcher's spot. Jesus Flores had an OPS under .600, and so on August 3 the Nationals traded David Freitas to the Oakland A's for catcher Kurt Suzuki. Suzuki was in the midst of the worst season of his career with the A's, but as a Nat his numbers slowly started to rise and before long he was performing to his career norms.  

With the season winding down, the Braves hot on the Nationals heals, and the playoff push approaching Mike Rizzo made a, or more accurately stuck to an earlier, decision and on September 8 he shut Strasburg down. The Nationals had the best record in baseball and looked like a lock for the playoffs. A rotation of Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann would be hard to beat in a short series, but Mike Rizzo wasn't thinking about just one season. In the interest of precaution and to limit the risk of future re-injury of Strasburg's repaired UCL he was shut down. It was a decision that came with much controversy, but Mike Rizzo has never been afraid to make an unpopular decision when he feels that he is right.

The Nationals ended up losing in the NLDS to the St. Louis Cardinals, and while some in the national media laminated the idea that Strasburg could have saved the Nats that wasn't the case. The Nats had a lead in the ninth inning with their closer on the mound and lost. Strasburg wouldn't have prevented that. Overall the 2012 season was the best season the Nationals have ever had. It ended in heartbreak, but the echoes of a promising future were felt. Mike Rizzo built the Nationals into contenders and now his job was to sustain this state as long as possible.  

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