On March 1 of 2009 Mike Rizzo took over as the interim GM of the Washington Nationals. His predecessor, Jim Bowden, had been forced to suddenly resign due to a salary skimming scandal involving prospects in the Dominican. Up to that point the 2009 off-season had been fairly slow. The Nationals biggest weakness in 2008 had been starting pitching and defense, but the only moves Jim Bowden had made was the bring in Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen in a trade with the Marlins and sign Adam Dunn. As a GM Jim Bowden was obsessed with one tool players, he loved guys with power or speed, and didn't care much if they could play defense. Dunn and Willingham were better than the typical lot Bowden brought in, but they were never Mike Rizzo players.
As soon as Rizzo took over he made a flurry of signings to fill positions of needs adding Kip Wells, Joe Beimel, and Julian Taverez to help out a bullpen that was bereft of talent. He also brought in Josh Bard to serve as the Nationals back-up catcher, because these types of things are important to a team trying to play the game of baseball for 162 games. All these moves were too little too late. While Jim Bowden was out chasing power hitting outfielders the rest of the roster had fallen into disrepair and there was nothing Rizzo could do to fix it with March free agents.
At the end of Spring Training Rizzo granted one of Jim Bowden's favorite pet projects, Wily Mo Pena, his release, and as the season began to unfold Rizzo knew the bullpen needed a lot of work. He traded Kyle Gunderson to the Marlins for Logan Kensing, signed Mike MacDougal, and released anyone who wasn't preforming like Steven Shell and Mike Hinckley. This was a process of throwing things against the wall and seeing what would stick. The 2009 Nationals bullpen was never good, but they got better as the year went along. The biggest deal Rizzo made was trading Joel Hanrahan and Lastings Milledge to the Pirates for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett. This was the type of deal Rizzo would become known for. He traded two talented but under preforming pieces for two with less overall talent, but that he felt would perform better.
In 2009 Nyjer Morgan was great as a Washington National hitting .351/.396/.435 and playing the type of defense Mike Rizzo expected from a center fielder. That is one of Mike Rizzo's big things when it comes to roster building. He doesn't want players that have one great tool like power or speed, but need to learn the rest of the game. Mike Rizzo wants complete players, and in 2009 Nyjer Morgan looked like exactly that, a lead-off hitting center fielder that could get on base and play impressive defense. Sean Burnett was the other piece of that deal and while he didn't throw in the high 90's like Joel Hanrahan, there was nothing for him to learn. He became a very solid reliever for the Nationals which is exactly what they were lacking in 2009.
Sandwiched between the drafting of Stephen Strasburg in June of 2009 and the trade for Morgan and Burnett was a much smaller trade. A trade that now tops the resume of Mike Rizzo. On June 28, two days before trading Hanrahan and Milledge, Mike Rizzo traded for an injury prone utility infielder who couldn't play defense. In this deal he gave up a very strong defensive outfielder in Ryan Langerhans and received back the aforementioned utility infielder, Michael Morse. All that really needs to be said about this trade is that as a Mariner Langerhans hit .200/.326/.350 and Morse as a National hit .294/.343/.514.
As the year progressed the Nationals were still terrible. Manager Manny Acta, with an overall record of 26-61 and on pace for a season record of 48-114, was fired over the 2009 all-star break. Mike Rizzo was yet to be named the full time GM, but Manny Acta's lackadaisical management style was costing the team games as he let umpires walk all over the Nationals. Manny Acta explained his actions by saying yelling and screaming and getting thrown out of games never got a manager anywhere, but never once would Acta even emerge from the dugout to talk with an umpire about a faulty call, and every call that could go against the Nationals did.
Two minor deals were completed at the trade deadline as Joe Beimel was sent to the Rockies for Robinson Fabian and Ryan Mattheus; and Nick Johnson was traded to the Marlins for Aaron Thompson. In August Mike Rizzo was allowed to drop the interim title after agreeing with Scott Boras on a deal for Nationals draftee, Stephen Strasburg, in the final minute. As the season dwindled down the Nationals were playing better and it was largely due to the players Rizzo brought in during the course of the season. The Nationals had too much of a hole to dig out of and finished with the worst record in baseball, but a foundation had been laid, and in the years to come Rizzo would build upon this foundation and turn the Nationals from the worst team in baseball to the best.