- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ESPN’s Buster Olney recently wrote on Twitter that it is hard to believe the Washington Nationals got two top prospects in pitcher Joe Ross and shortstop Trea Turner from the San Diego Padres in return for Steven Souza in the three-way deal that included the Tampa Bay Rays last winter.

Why stop there?

It should still be hard to believe that the Nationals got Doug Fister two years ago in return for Steve Lombardozzi, reliever Ian Krol and pitching prospect Rob Ray. Fister went on to win 16 games for Washington in 2014 while helping it win the National League East. Ray wound up being traded by the Tigers to the Arizona Diamondbacks, with whom he went 5-12 last season. Krol was traded to the Atlanta Braves, where he remains in their minor-league system, and Lombardozzi was traded to the Baltimore Orioles and is now with his third organization, the Chicago White Sox, since the Fister deal was made.

More? Denard Span for the Nationals’ first-round pick and struggling minor-league prospect Alex Meyer. Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps. Mike Morse for Ryan Langerhans. And on and on. Players that Rizzo traded for generated 42.6 wins above replacement. Players he dealt away? They generated 15.1 wins above replacement.



No matter what metric or debate you want to go by, Rizzo’s tenure as general manager and currently the president of the Nationals has been a remarkable success, given the steaming pile of a franchise he was handed in the spring of 2009 when Jim Bowden resigned in disgrace over the Smiley Gonzalez scandal.

Yet, there has been a national narrative this winter that Rizzo has somehow failed at his job — and speculation that he could be at risk of some sorts.

This is about as valid as the steaming pile of a franchise that he took over — inheriting the worst team in all of baseball and reconstructing it into a perennial postseason contender, with two NL East division titles in four years, as if their failure to go beyond the division series in those two playoffs and the failure to make the playoffs last year makes how far this franchise has come under Rizzo any less impressive.

The Nationals have the fourth-highest win total in baseball since 2011 and the third-highest since 2012. Rizzo has the second-highest win percentage and win total of any general manager in baseball, trailing only John Mozeliak with the St. Louis Cardinals. That’s higher than Mr. Moneyball, Billy Beane, with the Oakland Athletics, and the godfather of the geeks, Andrew Friedman, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

And Rizzo has managed to build this — and maintain it — while still producing one of the best farm systems in the game. Both ESPN and Baseball America ranked Washington’s minor-league system as the fifth-best among 30 major-league franchises. The Sporting News ranked the Nationals’ drafts over the last 10 seasons — of which Rizzo has been part of either as assistant general manager or general manager — as the best in all of baseball.

Yet the future of Rizzo, the architect of all this, is on the line this June, when the Lerner family will have the decision whether or not to pick up an option on his contract that would keep him on board through 2017. When asked about his contract, Rizzo declined to comment.

It is stunning that it even comes to that — that the Lerners have not already made a long-term investment in the man who changed the perception that the Nationals were the laughingstock of the game.

Before June, the Lerners need to send a message to the industry and Nationals fans that they are all in on the continued credibility and success of this franchise by investing big in Rizzo — maybe like the five-year deal Boston Red Sox owner John Henry gave Dave Dombrowski this winter, or maybe like the five-year deal Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who fired Dombrowski, gave to his replacement, Al Avila, this winter.

“It’s a number of years that is long enough that will give you the security that you need to continue to build on a winning tradition,” Avila told reporters.

We need to hear the same words come out of Rizzo’s mouth soon.

⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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