From the embers of their final, desperate days in Montreal, the Washington Nationals have staggered forward in need of a savior. Now, with the Memorial Day announcement that right-hander Stephen Strasburg will make his major-league debut on June 8, as the tickets fly and the television trucks caravan toward our nation's capital, it's worth pausing for one deep breath to ask:
What if the Nationals already have their savior?
|Rizzo says the Nats need improvement but 'the pieces are in place to do that.' (US Presswire)|
The Washington club that Strasburg will be joining next week in no way resembles the Island of Misfit Toys that this organization has been for most of the past decade.
Since Rizzo replaced Jim Bowden in the general manager's chair -- as interim in March, 2009, before the Nats made his GM title permanent last August -- the Nationals not only have become non-toxic, they're well on their way toward building a solid foundation of which cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman can be proud.
"I like Riz and what he's done," says an advance scout for a rival club. "They're a fun team to watch now."
Under Rizzo, the personnel moves have never made so much sense.
Under Rizzo and manager Jim Riggleman, the Nats have never looked more professional.
"Mike's been great," says Riggleman, who also had an "interim" label removed -- by Rizzo, last November. "He's done a great job. He's really tried to overhaul things, look at key components, determine the guys who are keepers and the guys who aren't. He's done a good job of analyzing things."
Where the Nationals' bullpen last year ranked dead last in the majors with a 5.04 ERA, this year the devastating blowups now are occurring elsewhere (like Arizona, which issued a walk-off balk to lose to the Dodgers on Monday night). Behind a rebuilt pen -- closer Matt Capps has been terrific, and Miguel Batista, Sean Burnett and Doug Slaten (all Rizzo acquisitions) have been especially valuable -- the Nationals exited the Memorial Day Weekend ranked seventh in the NL (3.72 ERA) and 11th in the majors.
Where the Nationals struggled to cover ground in the past with a mismatched collection of outfielders, Nyjer Morgan, whom Rizzo acquired from Pittsburgh last June, has been mostly brilliant in center field to help solidify things.
Where the Nationals two years ago employed a former policeman to watch over Elijah Dukes, whose criminal record would cover more space on the back of his baseball card than his major-league stats, veterans Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy this summer cheerfully have shifted around the infield to accommodate the cannon-armed rookie shortstop, Ian Desmond.
The result has been a nine-game swing in their record, 26-26 after 52 games this year as opposed to 15-37 a year ago under manager Manny Acta.
Now, with first-round pick Drew Storen having been summoned from the minors May 17 and with Strasburg on the way, the march on Washington has begun in earnest.
"I always heard it would be different in the pros, that guys wouldn't necessarily take the losses hard because there were so many games," says Storen, the Nats' closer of the future who was drafted out of Stanford last June. "But it's like college in here: When we lose, guys are pissed off."
Most pleasant development so far?
"To be honest with you, a lot of things," Riggleman says. "The most pleasurable has been the professionalism of Kennedy and Guzman. These are two guys whose playing time has been greatly affected by our transition to Ian Desmond. These two guys have always been regulars, and the way they've handled less playing time, and playing different positions ... they could make life miserable for the manager. But I've really enjoyed watching them."
"Riz and Riggleman have really done a good job bringing good people in, and instilling in us the direction they want to go," Kennedy says.
To be fair to Bowden, Guzman, who on Tuesday was leading the NL with a .327 batting average, is a refugee from his tenure.
Tuesday's recap: Astros 9, Nationals 8
Also to be fair, hmmm. Well, why do you think the Nationals have all of these first-round picks hanging around? In addition to Strasburg (No. 1 overall last year) and Storen (No. 10 overall), the Nats also have the first-overall pick in this June's draft.
In Rizzo's hands, the Nationals are cashing them in as deftly as an environmentalist cashes in recyclables. A baseball lifer, Rizzo spent 11 of his first 28 years in the game as an area scout. Then, under his watch as director of scouting, Arizona signed, among many others, Brandon Webb, Stephen Drew, Justin Upton, Dan Uggla and Mark Reynolds.
"We're certainly not satisfied with where we're at," Rizzo says of the Nationals. "We need to improve our personnel, our scouting, our player development staff, our farm system ... but the pieces are in place to do that.
"We have a good team. I love the guys we have, but, to our club, the bar has been so low, while it's encouraging to us, we're certainly not happy with .500. We've given away several games.
"We're not going to be satisfied until we've built from the ground up a championship team."
One key move in that department, of course, was the drafting -- and subsequent nurturing -- of Strasburg. The $15 million deal got done, literally, 77 seconds before the signing deadline last August. It got done thanks in no small part to Rizzo's ability not only to read talent, but to evaluate it -- and situations -- thoroughly.
"He's good," Scott Boras, Strasburg's agent, said last August a few days after the negotiations had finished. "He knows what he's doing."
Some nine months and dozens of personnel moves later, that's only been reinforced.
Where the Nationals in the past had no problem signing reprobates and selfish veterans, signings such as those of Kennedy, Livan Hernandez (4-3, 2.15 ERA in 10 starts) and Pudge Rodriguez (.325, 16 RBI in 35 games) have stabilized things in a positive way.
"I really like a couple of things, as early as it is," Rizzo says. "Some of the veteran guys we brought in have made such an immediate impact on our players. And I think we're playing the right way. It's a cliché, but Jim has got them playing 27 outs hard."
That's one more reason, aside from his own talent, as to why Strasburg should thrive when he reaches the majors: The support system surrounding him -- the building no longer is condemned.
"You look at their signings now, it's absolutely not just guys who are hanging on and troublemakers," Kennedy says. "Those things had a big influence [on why Kennedy signed with Washington].
"I know Rizzo wasn't a part of the past."
No. But he definitely figures into a very bright future.
A future that by next week will include the signature piece (so far) of the Rizzo era.
"We're playing well, and he's put us on the map," Storen says. "When those two things come together, it's going to be pretty good."