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Nats' savior is new GM Rizzo, not Strasburg

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Tracy Ringolsby

Tracy Ringolsby is a Hall of Fame baseball writer. He is in his 37th year covering Major League Baseball, is a co-founder of Baseball America, and is in his fourth year as pregame and postgame analyst for Colorado Rockies games on Root Sports.

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WASHINGTON, D.C.

For all the fanfare surrounding the Washington Nationals signing right-handed pitcher Stephen Strasburg shortly before midnight on Monday and the proclamation of it as a "watershed moment" in the history of a floundering franchise, Thursday's official announcement of Mike Rizzo as the team's general manager is when the true foundation for the future was put in place. Rizzo, working in the world of professional uncertainty since being asked to mind the Nationals' store in the aftermath of the March 1 resignation of general manager Jim Bowden, is the one who spent the last 5½ months bringing a sense of stability to the franchise that had become a baseball eyesore for its off-field fiascos and on-field floundering.
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Now it will be Rizzo who is allowed to build off the cornerstones he has put in place, each of which has been every bit as significant as the addition of Strasburg, who fans may want to proclaim a savior but who baseball people realize has yet to throw a professional pitch. Yes, Strasburg received a record-setting $15.1 million, four-year package to sign with the Nationals. He was proclaimed the best prospect to come out of college since at least Mark Prior, which in itself should be a flashing caution sign. Remember Prior? He was the right-handed pitcher who came out of the University of Southern California in the spring of 2002, carrying the best-ever tag, going to the Chicago Cubs with the second pick in the draft, but now is faced with figuring out what to do with the rest of his life, his baseball career sidetracked by a series of injuries. That's no knock on Prior. It's merely a glaring example of just how fragile a player's career can be. It also should underscore why it is important to have a solid base for a franchise, and not to put too much hope in the athletic abilities of an amateur in trying to chart a championship path. "This isn't the NBA, where one player transforms a team," said Kasten, who broke into sports as president of the NBA Atlanta Hawks before adding similar duties with the Atlanta Braves, and eventually migrating to his current role in Washington after Ted Turner sold his Atlanta sports entities. "Will (Strasburg) be a huge part of building a winner here? We think so. We hope so." Kasten, however, understands that even if Strasburg fails to meet expectations, the Nationals can become a winner. With Rizzo, however, there isn't an option. If he doesn't do his job well, the Nationals will have to regroup. So while the Nationals' season-ticket holders are being invited to come out and enjoy a get-acquainted session with Strasburg on Friday, it's Rizzo who will determine if those ticket holders have reason to come to the park in 2010 and beyond. President Stan Kasten has experienced a Phoenix-like rise before, in his days with Atlanta, where a franchise that had suffered five 90-plus loss seasons in a six-year stretch, in which it finished in last place in the NL West four times in a five-year stretch, went from three consecutive last-place finishes seemingly overnight to a professional sports record 14 consecutive division titles. "We had a plan there and we have a plan here," said Kasten. And the plans are really quite similar. They are built around stockpiling quality arms in the farm system, taking hits at the big-league level while the young pitchers get acclimated, and then providing an infusion of veteran stability to help in the final steps down the path to contention. Amid the challenges of this season, Kasten feels Washington is close to being in the position of that Atlanta franchise that took its home-grown nucleus, built around a starting trio of Steve Avery, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, and supplemented with a revamped infield defense thanks to the acquisition of first baseman Sid Bream, shortstop Ronnie Belliard and third baseman Terry Pendleton, and the rotation leadership of veteran Charlie Leibrandt. And in his interim role, Rizzo began unloading the misfits, and filling holes. He found two major missing parts by acquiring Nyjer Morgan to fill voids in center field and the leadoff spot, and lefty Sean Burnett from Pittsburgh to solidify the bullpen in exchange for outfielder Lastings Milledge and pitcher Joel Hanrahan. And he did a cost-conscious job of rebuilding the bullpen on the run, including the additions of Ron Villone and Mike MacDougal. And the man whose tenure as scouting director in Arizona laid the foundation for the Diamondbacks' NL West title in 2007, has overseen a major revamping in the Washington player development department since joining this franchise as the first significant baseball hire after the Lerner family bought the team in 2006. "I'm not writing off 2010," said Kasten. "Look at our lineup. Five of our top six hitters are hitting .300. We have a 3-4-5 of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham with each having 30-home run, 100-RBI potential. We had a hole at leadoff, but not anymore (with the addition of Morgan)." While former first-round pick Jordan Zimmermann (reconstructive elbow surgery) will need a year to recover, the Nationals do have rotation potential with the likes of Ross Detwiler, John Lannan, Sharon Martis and Craig Stammen, who are getting big-league exposure this year, plus Marco Estrada and Brad Meyers.
And while Strasburg is the marquee attraction right now, the Nationals also drafted and signed right-handed reliever Drew Storen with the 10th pick in the draft, the compensation they received for failing to sign No. 1 pick Aaron Crow a year ago. He has struck out 41 and walked only four in his initial 29 2/3 professional innings. "We've gotten better as the season has gone on," said Kasten, "and we have some things that we can add over the offseason that will fill needs. I'm not talking about getting Mark Teixeira (who turned down a bigger offer from the Nationals to sign with the Yankees) or CC Sabathia. But we can add a veteran to the rotation. We can add a veteran to the bullpen. We can add defensive stability." It's all part of the job that Rizzo started working on in March, and now gets a chance to try and finish. Oh, Kasten did interview a series of other candidates, including Arizona exec Jerry DiPoto, who some internet sites announced earlier in the week, was being hired for the job. Those interviews, however, were more a part of meeting ownership's desire for due diligence before making a hire than concerns about Rizzo's abilities. And as others made their pitch for the job of general manager, what became apparent was that the man who already was on board, Rizzo, was the best fit.
Tagged: Yankees, Cubs, Nationals, Pirates, Cardinals, CC Sabathia, Adam Dunn, Mark Teixeira, Sean Burnett, Josh Willingham, Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge, Joel Hanrahan, John Lannan, Nyjer Morgan, Ross Detwiler, Marco Estrada, Jordan Zimmermann, Craig Stammen, Stephen Strasburg

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