- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2013

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.

The plans may be detailed and thought out, but they’re also flexible.

“I think they change most often because of the ability of younger players,” Rizzo said, pointing to a Nationals bench that holds Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore, young players who could fill everyday roles on other teams. “That makes decisions for you.”

The Nationals also are strongly against acquiring rental players. Not strongly enough to say they’d “never” do it, but even last season, when the Nationals’ catching corps was riddled with injuries and Flores was falling out of favor, the team focused on Suzuki, for the player he was and the fact that his contract ran through the 2013 season.

By the same token, they’ve held firm on trying to avoid a logjam at positions with free agents when they feel they have others from their own system to capably fill that role, bucking a trend by many long-term contenders.

“When one man goes down, another man can fill in,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, using Moore as an example behind first baseman Adam LaRoche. “That’s just showing these guys are in the wings. When these one-year, two-year deals are terminated, then you’ve got a [guy on the cusp] who can fill in. He’s ready. He’s had success here.

“I’m not knocking a team like the Yankees, because obviously I have the utmost respect for them, but they’ve got these guys who are locked up for 10 years. They’ve had minor leaguers sitting in the wings for years ready to go, but they’re so log-jammed that these players end up just fizzling out. They never get their foot in the door, and then they go to another team and are competitors for them.”

There are different ways to build a team, and different ways to maintain it. In New York, where payroll was never an issue until recently, they’ve done it mostly by spending. A lot.

Still, the 2009 World Series winners got 25 percent of their American League Division Series roster from the draft. They built it through guys like Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. They maintained it by doling out $100 million-plus contracts with regularity.

Across the country in Los Angeles, former Nationals president Stan Kasten is leading the Dodgers through a similar process. The difference, of course, is that the Dodgers are starting where the Nationals find themselves now. Given the benefit of enormous financial support, Los Angeles has filled out its major league team with large contracts and established players, while also focusing on building through the minor leagues.

“I have to admit, we are blessed with being in a situation where we can do both: we can do phase one, while still building for the long term,” Kasten told Grantland.com earlier this month at the Sloan Sports Conference. “Most teams aren’t that fortunate.”

Even with all the progress the Nationals have made in building their team, the man leading them on the field still sees weaknesses if they’re to be set for several years.

“I said it before I was managing, I thought the system was a couple years away, even though we had some really good drafts, from really having the insurance at all positions,” said manager Davey Johnson, pointing to areas where the team lacks depth, like starting pitching at the top level of the minors.

At one time that weakness was in the outfield. The trade for Denard Span, the emergence of Bryce Harper and the use of Moore, a first baseman, in the outfield alleviated that while allowing some of their top prospects, like Brian Goodwin and Destin Hood, to continue to develop.

“I think now we’re about maybe a half-year, year away from being a first-division organization through the whole system,” Johnson said.

The Nationals will have to spend more to keep the team they have now intact, even just through arbitration. And they have the flexibility financially to afford luxury items like Soriano, with that rising cost.

But while their status as contenders may have changed, they still view the path to sustained excellence coming through their minor league system — with players who are cheaper and can be controlled for longer.

“When you’re struggling, that means people aren’t playing well,” Rizzo said. “The difference now is that when you’ve got talented players who perform better, you can just rely on them and go with that until something nudges you to make a chance. That nudge is players performing or outperforming even what our plan is for them. Those are good issues.

“It always comes down to roster construction, control of players and cost certainty.”

For now, Rizzo will continue working on the grease boards. He’ll write, and erase, and write again.

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