"It's the Mike Rizzo story," Davey Johnson said when he was asked about the Washington Nationals' success in 2012 in winning 98 games, winning the NL East and getting to the postseason for the first time since baseball returned to D.C.
It was fitting that the final question* of the post game press conference with D.C. GM Mike Rizzo, after the Washington Nationals' Game 5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, was about the Nats' general manager's decision to stick with the plan they had set up over a year earlier and shut Stephen Strasburg down in early September even after it appeared likely that the Nats would bring postseason baseball back to the nation's capital for the first time in 79 years. Asked if he would think at all about what might have been in the NLDS had the 24-year-old, '09 no.1 overall pick been available to make two starts, Rizzo said, "I'm not going to think about it, no."
"We had a plan in mind," Rizzo explained, "and it was something that we had from the beginning. I stand by my decision and we'll take the criticism as it comes, but we have to do what's best for the Washington Nationals and we think we did."
Depending on which side of the fence you're on in what ended up being one of the biggest stories of the year involving the Nationals, that's either an obstinate GM, refusing even now to admit that he could have handled the innings limit differently to make sure Strasburg was available in October, or a strong-willed executive who did what he believed was right in spite of the criticism he knew he'd endure because he thought it was the best thing for the player and in turn the best thing for the franchise long-term.
Jayson Werth explained in ESPN.com's Buster Olney's feature on the Nats' GM entitled, "Out On A Limb", that it was Rizzo's direct approach and honesty when they talked in the winter of 2010 that convinced him to take a generous deal to leave the comfort of Citizens Bank Park and turn away from interest in Boston in favor of joining the upstart but unproven franchise in Washington, D.C. The 7-year/$126M dollar deal the Nationals' general manager convinced the Nats' owners to offer the outfielder looked a lot better this year when Werth put up a .300/.387/.440 line in 81 games and 344 PAs in a season that was shortened by a broken left wrist that kept him out of the lineup from May 6th-August 2nd.
"I had never met a GM like that," Werth said of Rizzo's approach, "A lot of GMs I've known in the past are kind of the opposite -- you don't know what to believe. Mike came across as very honest. Very passionate about the organization."
Oakland A's GM Billy Beane is quoted in Mr. Olney's article as well, explaining that he, "... likes dealing with the Washington GM because Rizzo is unafraid, unlike some of his peers."
"He's very straightforward," the A's GM tells ESPN's Mr. Olney, "and very decisive. He doesn't take the approach that it's going to be a zero-sum deal, -- 'I win, you lose.'" The two GMs have made several trades in the last few years, with Josh Willingham going to Oakland for Corey Brown and Henry Rodriguez in 2010, Gio Gonzalez coming to Washington (along with RHP Robert Gilliam) in a late 2011 deal that sent RHPs A.J. Cole and Brad Peacock, left-hander Tom Milone and catcher Derek Norris out west and Kurt Suzuki switching coasts this past August in a deal that sent minor league catcher David Freitas to the Athletics.
Corey Brown, Henry Rodriguez, Gio Gonzalez and Kurt Suzuki all did their part in helping to get the Nationals back to the postseason this year for the first time since the Nats franchise moved to the nation's capital from Montreal in 2005. (ed. note - "And Tommy Milone and Derek Norris played big roles with the A's.") ESPN.com's Mr. Olney also noted in his article that Rizzo's ability to identity players like Adam LaRoche (who fit in nicely in his own second year in D.C.) and develop the likes of Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper, played a significant role in helping Washington return to the playoffs.
But it was Rizzo's unwillingness to budge on the Strasburg decision when the rest of the baseball world thought he should that brought into question the former scout, scouting director and assistant GM's approach to developing young talent. As the 51-year-old executive explained when the Nationals did finally shut Strasburg down, however, he felt all along that the honest approach Werth, Gio Gonzalez, Billy Beane and others appreciate was the best route to take.
"I've thought about what I could have done differently and how I could have handled it differently," Rizzo told reporters including ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick in early September:
"I was always taught, 'Be frank and forthright, and tell the truth and everything will be OK.' We told the truth going as far back as last winter. There was never any deception over what we were going to do and when we were going to do it. I felt that was the right way."
"I believe in my heart that it's the right thing to do for the player," the Nats' GM told reporters, "and the right thing to do for the player is the right thing to do for the franchise."
Though the Strasburg shutdown dominated the headlines, Davey Johnson told reporters late this season that the story of the year in Washington, D.C. was the work Mike Rizzo did to put together the roster and provide the depth that was needed for the team to go 98-64 and take the NL East crown. "I think [Rizzo] is definitely the Executive of the Year," Davey Johnson said, "I think he should have been last year, the year before, I mean, the draft and the trades and things he's done. Awfully good baseball man. As I said before there's no question in my mind. We've had, and the proof is in the pudding, we had this year devastating injuries and the young players in the system have done an outstanding job in different roles."
"Tyler Moore," Johnson said, offering examples of the organization's depth, "was a first baseman. He's played in the outfield. [Steve] Lombardozzi was a second baseman and a good one. He played left field predominantly. And at the same time playing a new position and still being productive. It's Mike Rizzo. It's the Mike Rizzo story."
* = Final question included in available footage of Rizzo's post game interview, at least.