The grease boards, as he calls them, are stored in Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo’s office. The markers he uses on them have been worn out, replaced, and worn out again.
On the boards are the plans for the path of an organization.
For the next three years, those plans are specific. They’re littered with lineups, complete with projected statistical splits. They include a cost analysis for the players who will be arbitration eligible each year, meshed together with those who provide cost certainty. There are grades for each player, and what kind of performer the organization thinks they will be in that stage of their career.
The level of detail is immense. It’s a living, breathing picture of what the Nationals could look like, not just this year, but the next several years if things go the way Rizzo envisions.
“The worst thing you can do, I think, is when you have a plan in place and early returns don’t work, abandoning it and having another plan on the fly,” Rizzo said one day this spring. “These are plans that I work on and think about every day. It’s all I’ve got. It’s what I do.”
The boards, the plans, they’re why Rizzo chafes a little when it’s suggested that certain moves signify a change in the team’s strategy. Yes, the Nationals want to “win now,” and are in a financial position to do things they might not have in the past. They also want to win for the next several years.
Building a team that can withstand the barrage that 162 games brings is difficult. Giving that team the right pieces to see it through to a World Series championship is so immensely challenging that 97 percent of major league baseball teams will fail at it every year.
But to build more than a one-year contender, to find the formula that gives a team the ability to compete in the present year with the foresight to feel it will compete for several, that is the goal. And not just the cycle teams often run with three good years, two down ones, and, if they’re lucky, three up again.
How difficult is that? In the past 13 years, baseball has crowned nine different champions. The only two teams that have made it as far as the League Championship Series more than four times in that span are the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals.
The process of reconstructing an organization from the bottom up, much the way the Nationals did after they moved to D.C. and were bought by the Lerner family, is one that requires steadfast patience. In a results-oriented business, and it’s difficult to weather that storm.
But the 2013 Nationals may be one of the finest examples of what it can look like when it’s done right.
“I think the plan has come to fruition just the way we envisioned it,” Rizzo said.
Of the Nationals’ eight starting position players and five starting pitchers, only right-hander Dan Haren is on a one-year deal. Catcher Kurt Suzuki can become a free agent after the season if his option does not vest or is declined. Seven were drafted, three acquired in a trade. Only Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Haren were free agent signings.
Two years ago, when Rizzo was projecting the 2013 roster, that No. 5 starter spot was filled internally by one of the team’s prospects, but injuries (left-handers Sammy Solis and Matt Purke have undergone elbow and shoulder surgeries in the past year) stalled that from coming to fruition.
Suzuki was acquired after Wilson Ramos suffered a season-ending knee injury and the Nationals felt Jesus Flores wasn’t up for the starting job. Rafael Soriano wasn’t on the Nationals’ wish list when the offseason began, but the way they could structure his deal (with half of the money deferred until 2018) to add more depth to the back end of their bullpen allowed them to fit him in.