- - Wednesday, February 21, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — The Washington Nationals have a lot invested in Max Scherzer — a seven-year, $210 million contract signed two years ago — but Scherzer had a lot invested in the Nationals’ future as well.

He is 33, and those next four years may be the last ones of his remarkable career. So he wants to make the most of them, and doesn’t want to waste that time pitching for a struggling organization. So he has some strong words for Nationals owners — the Lerner family — about investing in the future of the organization.

Sign general manager Mike Rizzo to a long-term contract extension. Now.

“It’s really up to ownership to take care of that situation and not let this get sideways on us,” Scherzer said, preparing for the day’s workout at Nationals’ spring training in West Palm Beach.

Scherzer, coming off his second-straight Cy Young season in Washington, is one of the leaders of this team, so his words carry weight. And he knows Rizzo, whose contract expires Oct. 31, well. The two of them go back to the days when Rizzo was director of scouting for the Arizona Diamondbacks and, in his final year there, the Diamondbacks drafted Scherzer in the first round in the 2006 draft.

He has remained a big fan of the general manager — particularly how he built the Nationals. “Riz has gone out there and demonstrated that he is one of the best GMs in the game,” Scherzer said. “He assembled this team. He avoided bad contracts. He made great trades. He made great signings, from the amateur side to talent acquisition to free agents.

“Listing the best GMs in the game, you have to mention him. He is in the position where obviously he has earned his next contract.”

Rizzo, who took over in spring of 2009 when general manager and franchise gravedigger Jim Bowden resigned following the Smiley Gonzalez Dominican baseball scandal. He took a franchise that was dead and buried under Bowden and turned it into one of the most winningest organizations in all of baseball.

Three years after taking over a 103-loss team, Rizzo had the Nationals in the playoffs, winning the first of four NL East division titles in 2012.

Of those four titles, three of them were with different managers, and only one — Matt Williams — was fired by Rizzo. The other two, Davey Johnson and Dusty Baker, were let go by order of the Lerners. Yet Rizzo keeps coming back with new managers — this year Dave Martinez — and keeps handing them 90-plus win rosters.

What is missing, obviously, from his resume is success beyond the divisional series here in Washington. But no general manager in baseball has won more games — a 555-417 regular season record — since 2012.

Rizzo, 57, has earned his next contract, and it should be one that matches his impressive resume. “He better have earned his next contract with the Washington Nationals,” Scherzer warned.

“It is important to me,” he said. “I don’t want to speak for other players, but it would be important to me. We have a leadership structure here, and he’s been a part of it. He’s good for this team and this clubhouse. I would be disappointed in ownership if they let this thing get sideways.”

The Lerners left Rizzo dangling before with his last contract extension, going up to a month before the deadline to pick up his two-year option in May 2016. He earns $2.5 million and is due a significant raise in line with, what Scherzer said, the best general managers in the game.

Now he may possibly enter this year without any assurances that he will be back — or the players in the clubhouse the assurance Rizzo will be back as well, an important component in the culture of baseball. Martinez, the manager who works for Rizzo, received a three-year contract this winter, which allows him to make sometimes difficult decisions.

Signing Rizzo to a new long-term contract is not a difficult decision.

Rizzo has been consistent in his public comments that he believes his contract will get done and he is confident in his relationship with the Lerner family. His latest statement: “My full focus and concentration is on making the Washington Nationals a World Championship caliber organization.”

Unless Scherzer’s fears are realized — things go sideways.

⦁ Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays, available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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