SI.com's Joe Lemire wrote about the Washington Nationals recently in an article entitled, "No more gaffes, no more laughs for suddenly respectable Nationals", which examined the causes behind the Nats' sudden streak of respectable play, focusing on the changes DC GM Mike Rizzo's made to the organization on an off the field and the influence Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez has had on the Nats' pitching staff. I'm always interested in the perception of the Nats outside of the nation's capital, so I emailed Mr. Lemire to ask a few questions more about what he saw from the Nationals while looking into the team...
Federal Baseball (FB): The Nationals have done their part on the field to draw the league's attention away from the Natinals jokes and the Bowden-era off-field issues, how much has DC GM Mike Rizzo done to change the reputation of the organization with writers and people who follow the team behind the scenes?
Joe Lemire: I may not be the best person to answer this question because, as a New York-based writer, I only see the Nationals come through a couple times per year. That said, Rizzo’s track record speaks for itself. He is well thought of for his work in Arizona and his approach to rebuilding the roster in D.C. has been sound—put an emphasis on developing the young kids but inject a few veterans into the major-league clubhouse to set a proper, hard-working tone for the prospects when they do arrive. I asked Rizzo about the Rays’ ascension to contention, which seems to be the popular road map these days, and he noted it’s a worthy goal and said, "They really pounded scouting and player development and had a lot of high picks for a lot of years, and really hit on a lot of picks." Clearly Rizzo, given his background and front-office hires, is try to emphasize scouting and player development too. The results will come and that more than anything will change the organization’s reputation.
FB: As a fan of the franchise since the Montreal Expos era it's a new experience having veteran free agents like Pudge Rodriguez and Adam Kennedy choose to sign. You write about their influence on the field, but how does their willingness to sign change the team's image league-wide?
Joe Lemire: Though Kennedy was coming off a nice season, he wasn’t in high demand. Pudge really struggled at the plate last year (.280 OBP), and given the market in which Jermaine Dye is still unemployed, a veteran like Pudge was at a disadvantage, so I don’t recall him having any other two-year contract offers. Now that they’re both in Nationals uniforms and playing well—Pudge, especially, is wildly exceeding expectations to this point—that might pave the way for other players to follow them (or at least entice a guy like Dunn to stay).
FB: Jim Riggleman said recently that adding Stephen Strasburg will be huge for the Nats, but not as much as adding a starting center fielder or Face of The Franchise type player, can a 17-year-old Bryce Harper be that player?
Joe Lemire: I would guess that part of Riggleman’s rationale for saying that is to temper the incomprehensibly high expectations that have been placed on Strasburg. Besides, the Nats don’t need a Face of the Franchise right now, as Zimmerman seems to handle that role well. Bryce Harper is 17 and unlikely to reach any club’s big-league roster in less than two or three years, and then may need another two or three years to establish himself sufficiently to hold that FotF role. A lot can happen in that time, in terms of his growth and maturity, but there’s no reason to think Harper doesn’t have the talent to be that everyday leader.
FB: Any sense of what role Jim Riggleman's played in changing the perception of the team, and giving them the confidence that's been missing in previous years?
Joe Lemire: As I quoted Zimm in saying, there’s a new level of "professionalism" in that Nationals’ clubhouse, which seems to jointly be a product of Riggleman and the veteran players. When I was around the team for two days last week, one comment of Riggleman’s struck me and it was this: "If you don’t play professionally on our ballclub, you’re going to embarrass yourself." Zimm was complimentary of Riggleman’s even-handed stewardship, and he probably said better than I can what Riggleman’s role has been: "He’s very calm. He doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low. That’s how you have to be in a long season. We’re playing well now and it’s fun, but we’re going to go through a time or two when it’s not going so well. I think you have to be able to manage those times as well." The Nats know they’re not World Series contenders this season, but they do seem to have the confidence to be a winning team. Kennedy said that, to him, everything that happened before he arrived is "irrelevant" and that, "When I come into the clubhouse, I look around and see some pretty good players." So if nothing else, the club has been able to keep a singular focus on the season at hand.