Mike Rizzo: Asylum
It was during the 2011 off-season that Mike Rizzo's vision for the Nationals started to take shape. He angered many fans by letting Adam Dunn walk and then not making a strong effort to re-sign him. With Stan Kasten no longer around, this was Mike Rizzo's team and he was going to build it as he saw fit. While Adam Dunn was a great slugger with a high OBP he wasn't a Mike Rizzo type of player. Dunn was a below average defender with no position left on an NL team. He had played an adequate first base in 2010, but Mike Rizzo and the Nationals didn't think that could continue, and neither did any other NL GM as the only team that seriously courted him was the Chicago White Sox.
With Adam Dunn gone to DH in the AL, Mike Rizzo made the first big free agent splash in Washington Nationals history on December 5 when he signed Jayson Werth to a seven year $126 million contract. It was an overpay by about two years and $40 million, but the Nationals had never had a winning season in DC and were coming off of yet another 90 loss season. The Nationals would have had an impossible time attracting a free agent at market value. Fans read the newspapers and blogs that criticized the move as a short sighted overpay that wouldn't help the Nats much in the short run or the long run and turned on Jayson Werth before he even took the field.
With fans already restless Mike Rizzo ignored them once more and traded away the defensively challenged and pull happy left fielder, Josh Willingham, to the Oakland A's in exchange for Corey Brown and Henry Rodriguez. It was another move disliked by critics. Rizzo had traded away a middle of the order bat for a too old for AAA non-prospect outfielder and a hard throwing project relief pitcher. The fact though was that Mike Rizzo was building the team he wanted. Both Dunn and Willingham were one dimensional players. Neither could play defense very well and at the plate both were dead pull hitters. Rizzo wanted a different type of player. Rizzo wanted balance. Not only with players that could hit to all fields at the plate, but also with players who were above average at both offense and defense.
There was one final issue critics had with Mike Rizzo's 2011 off-season: when Joel Peralta had asked for a two year deal he was non-tendered. Mike Rizzo didn't believe that Peralta was worth a two year deal and while he didn't have to ever offer him one, the demand was enough to earn the player a ticket out of the Nationals organization. Many felt that this was the worst move Rizzo had made during what was viewed as largely a failed off-season. The Nationals had let fan favorites and productive players go and brought in an overpaid and aging right fielder that few saw as being much help for the present or future Nats. A sentiment often echoed by Rizzo's staunchest critics was that, "By the time the Nats are ready to win in 2015 Jayson Werth will be making $20 million a year with half the production he has now."
To replace Adam Dunn at first base the Nationals signed the recently discarded Adam LaRoche. A player the Diamondbacks new GM, Kevin Towers, thought struck out too much and wasn't a good enough offensive player for a first baseman. Mike Rizzo didn't care about that. LaRoche was about average offensively for a first baseman and well above average around the bag. Mike Rizzo was building a team around defense and Adam LaRoche fit his mold. There were a few other minor moves made that off-season. The Nats traded for Tom Gorzelanny and signed Rick Ankiel, Laynce Nix, and Todd Coffey.
As Spring Training unfolded the biggest question was whether Nyjer Morgan could ever get himself under control. The Nationals were ready to give him a second chance if he could play smarter, but during Spring Training Morgan continued to throw to the wrong base, overthrow the cut-off man, and get picked off on the bases. At the end of Spring Training the Nationals had seen enough of Nyjer Morgan and traded him to the Brewers for Cutter Dykstra. On his way out of town Morgan addressed the media and claimed that Nationals fans and DC wasn't ready for his style of play. There were opponents of this move that wondered if choosing Rick Ankiel over Nyjer Morgan wasn't yet another mistake by Mike Rizzo in an off-season that was perceived to be full of them.
As the season began it appeared that some of Rizzo's critics were correct. Jayson Werth batted .215/.319/.362 in the first half of the season and Adam LaRoche attempted to play through a torn labrum, but finally opted for season ending surgery after just 43 games with a batting line of .172/.288/.258. Other Nats that were seen as Rizzo's boys were also under preforming. Ian Desmond was no better defensively and his bat was mired in a sophomore slump. There were many who wanted to see Danny Espinosa shifted to short stop and anyone but Desmond playing second.
The big thing was the Washington Nationals weren't bad. Michael Morse stepped in when LaRoche went down and had a monster season, rookies Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos at times carried the offense, and the pitching staff ended up being the seventh best in the NL allowing 3.99 runs a game. Mike Rizzo had built a team that could prevent runs. They weren't complete yet as Stephen Strasburg was still recovering from Tommy John's surgery, but it was good for a pitching staff containing Jason Marquis, John Lannan, Livan Hernandez, and Tom Gorzelanny.
The biggest moments for Mike Rizzo as the GM of the Nationals had always been the draft, but in 2011 the Nationals didn't have the number one pick. It was assumed that without that pick they would have to deal with drafting a lesser player, but as the draft unfolded the projected number one overall pick fell to the Nationals at number six. The reason was that Anthony Rendon was recovering from injuries and no teams ahead of the Nationals were willing to take that risk. The Nationals also grabbed above slot talent with their picks of Alex Meyer, Brian Goodwin, and Matt Purke. It was widely considered a very successful draft for the Washington Nationals, and it solidified Mike Rizzo's position as one of the best drafting GMs in baseball.
On June 23 after a 1-0 victory over the Seattle Mariners pushed the Nats a game over .500 at 38-37 manager Jim Riggleman resigned. It was a puzzling moment, but as it turned out he had given Mike Rizzo and ultimatum. Riggleman felt that he couldn't manage with just a one year deal and that he was losing the respect of the clubhouse. Jayson Werth had openly criticized Riggleman earlier in the year and he felt he needed a long term deal in order to have the respect of the players. Mike Rizzo felt that if Riggleman wanted to be back next season he should earn it. The team was playing well and was just outside of contending for a Wild Card. Riggleman had the opportunity to earn his next contract, but instead he demanded it and Rizzo let him walk.
In his place Mike Rizzo placed Davey Johnson, and it is here that Rizzo's vision is finally clear. A team built around pitching and defense with a calming and steadying hand guiding them. Riggleman was never Mike Rizzo's manager. Riggleman liked to play small ball and manage as much as possible. He would make moves at times to just make moves. It was said among Nationals fans during 2011 that a game wasn't official until Riggleman had made at least one double switch. With Davey Johnson the Nationals got an Earl Weaver disciple more willing to wait for the offensive to arrive than to force the issue and put the team in a worse position. This was Mike Rizzo's vision and under Davey Johnson, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond found their offensive stroke, and the team played .630 ball in September to close out the 2011 season on a high note.