Mike Rizzo: Year Two
After the 2009 season Mike Rizzo had the unenviable task of trying to convince free agents to play for a team that had suffered over 200 losses in the last two seasons. The Nationals looked like a moribund franchise spinning rudderless in a widening gyre. The biggest challenge for the Nationals was building a pitching staff. With Stephen Strasburg scheduled to debut sometime during the 2010 season and Jordan Zimmermann recovering from Tommy John's surgery the future of the Nats rotation was on the way, but the present was bleak. Mike Rizzo brought in veterans Jason Marquis and Livan Hernandez to hold down to fort while Strasburg developed and Zimmermann healed.
The Nationals had little to no chance to attract bigger names that wanted to play for a winner so they brought in innings eaters like Marquis and Livo to be place holders. Rizzo also brought in a couple position player veterans nearing the end of their careers in Ivan Rodriguez and Adam Kennedy. The biggest decision Rizzo made during the off-season though was to shift Cristian Guzman to second and allow rookie Ian Desmond to be the everyday Major League short stop. It was a risky move to go with a player that wasn't fully defensively developed, but it was the type of move a team in the Nationals position had the luxury of making.
The biggest issue in 2009 had been the bullpen and Mike Rizzo did an admirable job of fixing it for the 2010 season. He traded for Brian Bruney, signed Matt Capps and Joel Peralta, and most importantly transitioned Tyler Clippard to the bullpen full time. While some of Rizzo's moves didn't work out, like the signing of Brian Bruney, the Nats bullpen had the fifth best combined reliever ERA in 2010. The 2010 bullpen ERA of 3.35 was a dramatic improvement over a unit that had put up a miserable 5.09 ERA in 2009. Mike Rizzo was pushing the team in the direction he wanted it to go.
Some of Rizzo's signings didn't work out. Jason Marquis was awful and then missed most of the 2010 season after having bone spurs removed from his elbow. The greatest 2010 success for Mike Rizzo was the signing of Matt Capps who had a decent enough season for the Nationals but was traded at the deadline to the Twins for catching prospect Wilson Ramos. Rizzo wasn't able to accomplish everything he wanted at the deadline however. The Nationals biggest trade chip was Adam Dunn and rumors circulated as the July 31 deadline approached that he would either be traded for Daniel Hudson or Edwin Jackson, but there was a rift in the front office.
While Mike Rizzo had full domain over the baseball operations Stan Kasten was still the team president and more than willing to stick his nose into Rizzo's operations. Kasten wasn't the out in front spokesman he had been when the Lerners took over control of the team in 2006, but he still made his presence felt, and no more so than on Opening Day of 2010. The previous summer Kasten had gone onto Philadelphia radio and invited Phillies fans to come on down since as he saw it the Nats were having trouble selling out Opening Day. In 2010 Phillies fans had more time to plan as Kasten rolled out the red carpet for them. Group tickets were gobbled up by Phillies blogs and bus companies ready to take over Nats Park, and so they did. Nationals fans not only had to endure a beat down of John Lannan and the Nationals at the hands of Roy Halladay and the Phillies, but they had to do so in a stadium 80-90% full of Phillies fans cheering on their team and booing the Nats.
When it came time for the trade deadline and Rizzo wanted to trade away fan favorite Adam Dunn, Stan Kasten disagreed. Kasten took his complaint and his advice to re-sign Dunn to the Lerners and while the Lerners didn't allow Rizzo to trade Dunn they didn't re-sign him either. It was a move that greatly angered many Nats fans at the time who wanted to get a couple close to major league prospects for the slugger and instead ended up with draft picks. As far as the 2010 draft went Rizzo was once again picking first and took the obvious choice in Bryce Harper. The only question that remained would be if Rizzo could work out yet another last minute deal with Harper's agent Scott Boras. Through the years Boras and Rizzo have worked well on many negotiations and it all started with the drafting of Strasburg and Harper.
As Harper was drafted, it was just about time for more young players to make their debuts for the Nationals. Drew Storen was the first Nationals prospect to debut and did so against the St. Louis Cardinals striking out Matt Holliday in his debut, but as nice as it was to see Drew Storen in the back of the Nats bullpen his debut wasn't the big one. On June 8, 2010 Stephen Strasburg debuted against the Pittsburgh Pirates and not only lived up to expectations, but exceeded them. Strasburg struck out 14 on the night and sent the crowd home happy as they got a glimpse of the future of Nationals baseball. However the future was soon to be delayed.
Like Jordan Zimmermann the year before Strasburg would wind up needing Tommy John's surgery due to a tear of his UCL. The other developing and disappointing story of the 2010 season was the self-destruction of Nyjer Morgan. A player that had looked so promising in 2009 was falling apart before Nats fans eyes. Morgan took his struggles at the plate and on the base paths as a personal affront, and let it all out in emotional outburst. He threw his glove on the ground and allowed Orioles Adam Jones to score an inside the park homerun after missing a catch, he ran over catchers to show his frustration with manager Jim Riggleman after being dropped in the line-up, and he charged the mound after Marlins Chris Volstad threw behind him. If Nyjer Morgan the player had struggled he may have gotten a second chance, but when Nyjer Morgan the person struggled there were amends to be made.
Aside from Strasburg and Storen, 2010 brought the debuts of Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos who put on a September show. Ian Desmond was the rookie with the Nationals all season though and while he struggled in the field he was above average with the bat. Mike Rizzo made a commitment to letting Desmond develop at the major league level, and while the Nats may have won more games without him it was important for him to learn the position at the highest level and to see the best pitchers on a daily basis. There was no other way for him to get better and Rizzo had the guts to let him grow, and his place as the Nationals short stop was secured when Cristian Guzman was traded to the Texas Rangers for two minor league pitchers, one of which being friend of the site Ryan Tatusko.
It is hard to call 2010 a disappointment. Strasburg's debut electrified and Mike Rizzo continued to make moves that improved the future of the club. Stan Kasten announced he was leaving and that gave Mike Rizzo full control without the fear of meddling from an overwrought team president. The Nationals on field record improved by ten games as they went from 59 wins in 2009 to 69 in 2010. It wasn't a great overall record, but the players of the future were starting to arrive and the plan Rizzo had for the direction of the club was starting to take shape. Mike Rizzo had built off of the moves he made during the 2009 season and was starting to give the Nationals an identity as his club, an identity that would become more clear during the 2011 off-season.