- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | Jim Bowden, so often the public face of the Washington Nationals‘ front office, seemingly has been reduced to bystander in the last week.

As controversy engulfs the franchise and a major overhaul takes place in the Dominican Republic, Bowden remains the club’s general manager in title but seems to have been pushed out of the spotlight.

All the while, assistant GM Mike Rizzo has risen to the forefront, given the massive task of uprooting the club’s Dominican operation and then returning to Viera for to be trumpeted by team president Stan Kasten and put on public display to receive accolades.

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The structure of the Nationals’ baseball operations department remains the same as a week ago. But the underlying inference - that the team is close to firing Bowden and replacing him with Rizzo - is unmistakable.

Club sources said some members of Washington’s ownership group are pushing for Bowden’s firing and a resolution could be forthcoming in the next 48 hours. Sources don’t expect a decision to be made Saturday with the Nationals playing on the road against the St. Louis Cardinals in Jupiter. They said it is more likely to happen Sunday (a home game against the Baltimore Orioles) or Monday (a scheduled off day for the team).

Bowden, the franchise’s GM since November 2004, has kept a mostly low profile in the last week as details emerged of a Dominican prospect’s identity-changing scam and an ongoing FBI investigation into his dealings in Latin America. He placed a phone call to longtime confidant Jose Rijo on Thursday morning, informing the special assistant he was being fired, but otherwise has steered clear of personnel matters.

Bowden has been on the field during batting practice the last two days and was in the stands alongside other members of the front office as the Nationals hosted exhibition games against the Detroit Tigers and Houston Astros.

But the executive put on public display by Kasten as the man who rescued the organization’s Dominican program from scandal was the man most expect to assume Bowden’s job if he is fired: Rizzo.

Dispatched by Kasten to the Caribbean on Tuesday to shut down the Nationals’ operation at Rijo’s facility, find a new home for a program that boasts three dozen teenage prospects and organize the move from one complex to the other - all in the span of three days - Rizzo has received heaps of praise from his boss’s boss.

“I said, ‘OK, Mike, you have three days.’ And then he did it,” Kasten said Thursday in announcing the changes. “I’m proud of him. I’m pleased for the franchise. This is a good move for us.”

Rizzo returned from the Dominican Republic on Friday. After the Nationals’ 2-0 exhibition win over the Astros, Kasten brought him to the press box level at Space Coast Stadium to discuss the operation he oversaw along with assistant director for player development Mark Scialabba and Fernando Ravelo, the new administrator of the Dominican program.

A well-respected baseball executive who has spent the last 26 seasons working in various capacities for the Nationals, Arizona Diamondbacks, Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox, Rizzo said this week’s task “doesn’t compare to anything I’ve ever done.”

“We didn’t get much sleep the last three days, but we think it went well,” he said. “It came together better than I could have ever imagined.”

Rizzo’s background is in scouting and player development, a prime reason the Nationals hired him away from the Diamondbacks in 2006, shortly after the Lerner family took control of the franchise. When he first arrived in the District, there was immediate speculation he would be the club’s GM-in-waiting and take over for Bowden someday.

Rizzo plans to stay with the club through the rest of spring training and “helping Stan, Jim and Manny pick out the correct team” before embarking on his annual cross-country trek scouting the top amateur players available in the June draft.

Perhaps Rizzo won’t ever hit the road, though, if he is summoned to take on a loftier position with the Nationals well before spring training ends.

The manner in which Kasten has lauded Rizzo in recent days suggests a promotion could be in the works for him.

“I feel very positive about it. I feel great about it,” Rizzo said of the new operation in the Caribbean. “I think it’s a positive day for the Washington Nationals. … I see the Nationals going in the right direction there. Sometimes out of some crisis, you can really, really improve yourself. And I think we’ve done that.”

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