2019 MLB Executive Of The Year: Mike Rizzo
When the Lerner family took ownership of the Nationals in 2006, their first hire was Mike Rizzo as assistant general manager. That turned out to be the initial step in building Washington’s first World Series champion in 95 years.
Rizzo, now the team’s general manager and president of baseball operations, joined a franchise that had the lowest-rated farm system in baseball, played in dilapidated RFK Stadium and was in its first of five straight seasons with at least 89 losses.
Rizzo ascended to GM in 2009 and led Washington to National League East division titles in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017.
Those four NL East champions all fell in the best-of-five Division Series, three of them in heartbreaking Game 5s at Nationals Park. But this October, with a blend of veterans and young standouts, Washington made history by winning five elimination games in which it trailed.
Manager Dave Martinez’s second Nationals team showed the same tenacity and commitment that the Chicago native Rizzo is known for, rebounding from a 19-31 start to win the first World Series in franchise history.
For putting together such a club, the 58-year-old Rizzo is this year’s Major League Executive of the Year.
“It really does take a village,” Rizzo said. “So many intertwining people have to be on the same page. Our drills and philosophies are the same from the major leagues down to the Dominican Summer League. Up and down the system, everyone knows what to expect. So whether you're a 19-year-old phenom or a 25-year-old who went step by step through the minors, you can make a smooth transition.”
On the night Rizzo was handed the World Series trophy in front of a national TV audience, he first recognized his 90-year-old father Phil, an inaugural member of the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame and still a senior adviser to the Nats’ GM. Mike’s grandfather Vito also was a scout.
"Dad is the reason I'm here,” Rizzo said the week after Washington’s championship victory. "He’s forgotten more baseball than I know.”
When Mike Rizzo was growing up, he would run 60-yard sprints through alleys as his father timed him. In the blustery winters, he would head to the garage to take flips and hit off a tee. Now as a leader who has held nearly every job imaginable in a front office, he still relishes putting in the work.
"He has earned everything he has gotten in this game,” said Kris Kline, the Nationals’ assistant GM and vice president of scouting operations. "I don’t think he ever stops evaluating. He just has a real eye for talent. In my opinion, he’s the best talent evaluator I’ve ever been around.”
Kline and Rizzo go all the way back to the early 1980s when they played for NAIA programs. The Angels drafted them both in 1982—Kline in the 15th round out of Grand Canyon in Phoenix and Rizzo in the 22nd round out of St. Xavier in Chicago. Kline was signed by now Angels manager Joe Maddon, and he and Rizzo were roommates and fellow infielders on the Maddon-managed 1982 Salem Angels, who won the short-season Northwest League crown.
Neither Kline nor Rizzo climbed above high Class A, but they liked to discuss how far they thought other players in their leagues would go.
"Mike’s always had a very strong presence in the way he carries himself and in his leadership qualities,” Kline said. "There’s a toughness that comes with him, but he's always fair.”
Rizzo has been an amateur scout, an advance scout, a crosschecker, a scouting director and a farm director. He earned his first World Series ring as the scouting director for the 2001 Diamondbacks. Rizzo worked for Arizona for seven years. After moving to Washington, he brought over former Arizona scouts such as Mark Baca and Fred Costello. The team has a tight-knit group of scouts yet makes use of analytics.
During the World Series, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow praised the Nationals for what they do with metrics. The reports of Washington’s scouting-led organization facing Houston’s numbers-dominated approach were largely exaggerated, according to both Luhnow and Rizzo.
"We think we have a great marriage of information and evaluation,” Rizzo said. "The triangle we try to put in place all the time is scouting, player development and analytics, with all of them being equal. We're kind of on the down-low with analytics, but we've built ourselves an eight-person analytical department from zero.”
Rizzo said assistant GMs Mike DeBartolo and Samuel Mondry-Cohen, who run the numbers side of the organization, are "both Ivy League-educated, but they have a great deal of respect for scouts.” DeBartolo has an MBA from Columbia, and Mondry-Cohen is a Penn alum.
On the scouting and player development side, Rizzo has surrounded himself with the likes of assistant GM Doug Harris, farm director Mark Scialabba, international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia and scouting director Eddie Longosz.
"I knew their character and work ethic,” Rizzo said. "It has taken time to kind of discover the Nationals Way, and now it has clicked in.”
Rizzo’s front office employees say he is clear in his expectations, and that he not only allows them to do their jobs, but he helps them do their work better.
"Mike has led and developed this organization nearly from its inception,” said Harris, who also serves as vice president of player personnel. "He’s grown each department and runs a balanced operation throughout. He gives each person autonomy, with the understanding we are working together for the betterment of the whole.”
The 2019 World Series champions had the oldest roster in the majors, but they also relied heavily on left fielder Juan Soto, who turned 21 during the Fall Classic, and 22-year-old center fielder Victor Robles. The other regular outfielder, Adam Eaton, came over in a December 2016 trade that cost the Nationals young major league arms Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, along with pitching prospect Dane Dunning. The trade wasn’t well-received at the time, but Eaton was a key player in Washington’s October success.
Rizzo "is a bold leader who is not afraid to take risks, whether they’re popular or not, as long as he feels he’s making the best decision for the organization,” Scialabba said. "This year clearly demonstrated his relentless drive and determination to continue to find solutions to improve the club, especially when our backs were against the wall.
"With Mike leading the baseball operation, we always believe that we have the ability do whatever is necessary to put a championship- caliber club on the field.”
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In an era in which many teams have shied away from bringing in players 30 and older, the Nationals went the distance with a core known as "Los Viejos,” or "The Old Guys.” Howie Kendrick, 35, was the NL Championship Series MVP. Fernando Rodney (42), Anibal Sanchez (35), Kurt Suzuki (35), Ryan Zimmerman (34), Max Scherzer (34), Asdrubal Cabrera (33), Sean Doolittle (32) and Gerardo Parra (32) all played key roles.
The title-winning team included Nationals first-round picks Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. Shortstop Trea Turner, a first-round pick of the Padres, has been in the Washington organization since 2015 after being acquired in a creative deal in which he was the player to be named.
Though Bryce Harper, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, left for a 13-year deal with the Phillies last offseason, Rizzo was able to fortify the roster with a group of free agent signings, led by lefthander Patrick Corbin, the winner in relief in Game 7 of the World Series.
"Mike’s passion for the game and tenacity for building a winning organization for the long term is difficult to match,” Scialabba said. "He’s taken great pride in building an organization, basically from the ground up, by combining traditional scouting and player development philosophies with new-age trends on the analytical and medical side.
"He’s the best evaluator anyone in the game could learn from, he trusts his people to do their job well and his loyalty breeds an unwavering commitment from his staff.”
Scialabba, who joined the organization in 2006 as a baseball operations assistant, works alongside Harris in all aspects of the player development system.
"Several of us have been with Mike from the beginning, when resources were extremely limited both in players and financially—and it’s incredibly rewarding to see him receive the recognition he deserves,” Scialabba said.
Kline had similar praise for his boss. He said Rizzo loves being a part of the draft, and not just the first few rounds. He’ll take in every round, listening to everyone and digesting what his scouts are saying.
"You want to run through a wall for this guy,” Kline said, "You want him to succeed. He was that way as a player and as a scouting director in Arizona, and he is now.”