Needed Step

CHEYENNE, WYO.—For all the fanfare surrounding the Nationals agreeing to terms with righthander Stephen Strasburg, the more significant moment in the history of that franchise came three days later. That’s when the term interim was removed from Mike Rizzo’s title and he was officially announced as the team’s general manager, and the true foundation for the future was put in place.

Rizzo, working in the world of professional uncertainty since being asked to mind the Nationals’ store in the aftermath of the March 1 resignation of general manager Jim Bowden, is the one who spent close to six months bringing a sense of stability to the franchise that had become a baseball eyesore for its off-field fiascos and on-field floundering.

Now it will be Rizzo who can build off the cornerstones he has put in place, each of which could be as significant as the addition of Strasburg. Fans may want to proclaim him a savior, but baseball people realize he has yet to throw a professional pitch.

Yes, Strasburg received a record-setting $15.1 million, four-year package to sign with the Nationals. He was proclaimed the best prospect to come out of college since at least Mark Prior, which in itself should be a flashing caution sign.

Remember Prior? He was the righthander who came out of Southern California in the spring of 2002, carrying the “best-ever” tag, going to the Cubs with the second pick in the draft. Now he’s figuring out what to do with the rest of his life, his baseball career sidetracked by injuries. That’s no knock on Prior. It’s merely a glaring example of just how fragile a player’s career can be.

Building Up

It also underscores why it is important to have a solid base for a franchise and not put too much hope in the abilities of an amateur.

“This isn’t the NBA, where one player transforms a team,” said Nationals president Stan Kasten, who broke into sports as president of the NBA Atlanta Hawks before adding similar duties with the Braves, and eventually migrating to his current role in Washington. “Will (Strasburg) be a huge part of building a winner here? We think so. We hope so.”

Kasten, however, understands that even if Strasburg fails to meet expectations, the Nationals can become a winner. With Rizzo, however, there isn’t an option. If he doesn’t do his job well, the Nationals will have to regroup.

So while the Nationals’ season-ticket holders were invited to come out and enjoy a get-acquainted session with Strasburg, it’s Rizzo who will determine if those ticket holders will want to come to the park in 2010 and beyond.

Kasten has experienced a resurrection like this before in Atlanta. That franchise had lost at least 90 games five times in a six-year stretch, and went from three consecutive last-place finishes to a professional sports record 14 consecutive division titles.

“We had a plan there and we have a plan here,” he said.

Sticking To A Plan

And the plans are quite similar. They are built around stockpiling quality arms, taking hits at the big league level as the young pitchers mature, and then providing an infusion of veteran stability to help in the final steps down the path to contention.

Kasten says Washington is close to being in the position of that Atlanta franchise that took its homegrown nucleus—built around a starting trio of Steve Avery, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine—and supplemented it with the acquisition of first baseman Sid Bream, shortstop Rafael Belliard and third baseman Terry Pendleton, and the rotation leadership of veteran Charlie Leibrandt.

Even in his interim role, Rizzo began unloading the misfits, filling holes and revamping the player-development department.

“I’m not writing off 2010,” Kasten said. “Look at our lineup. Five of our top six hitters are hitting .300. We have a 3-4-5 of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, with each having 30-home run, 100-RBI potential.”

It’s all part of the job that Rizzo started in March and now gets a chance to finish.