Q&A with Nationals GM Mike Rizzo
Before watching his team defeat Orioles, 8-4, and improve their record to 34-36 on Friday night, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo spoke to MLB.com about the team’s recent success and plans for the future.
MLB.com: How do you think the Nationals are doing so far?
Mike Rizzo: I think we are playing good, solid baseball. I think we accomplished a lot of things. We were a poor defensive team the last couple of years. I think we drastically improved our team defensively. Our speed and athleticism has drastically improved. We were toward the bottom of the league in stolen bases and going from first to third. We are now doing all of those things.
Our starting pitching has been good It’s coming along really nicely. I think that coincides with the improved defense. Our bullpen has been solid. We feel that we are on the right track, we are going the right way.
Our hitting has been down this year and it has cost us a lot of ballgames, but when you are without Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche, your three and five hitters for most of the season, it’s really hard to have a productive lineup. We are hoping that when Zim is [back to being the player of old], we hope to see more consistent at-bats and score more runs.
MLB.com: Before Zimmerman came back, the team was off to a slow start offensively. Why didn’t you panic and try to acquire a hitter via trade?
Rizzo: To panic shows a lack of confidence in the rest of the players. It would have been easy not to give Laynce Nix and Michael Morse a chance to perform or make a knee-jerk trade and give up a lot of young players for instant gratification. But we have a vision for not only this year, but down the road. That’s the biggest reason.
We have confidence in our entire roster. Coming into the season, we felt that we had as good a bench as anybody around with Nix, Jerry Hairston and Alex Cora. Unfortunately, those guys couldn’t be bench players. They had to be everyday players for us. What it did was, it gave opportunities. If you remember, when Zim went down, I said, “We are not looking at losing one of our star players. We are looking at it as an opportunity for somebody to step up. I think Morse and Nix have done that. We are reaping the benefits of it. Now that Zim is back, we feel comfortable.
MLB.com: Entering Friday’s action, the Nationals are 5 ½ games behind the Braves in the Wild Card race. Do you think the Nationals can compete for a playoff spot?
Rizzo: We feel we can compete with any team in baseball We are not worried about the Wild Card or how many games back in the standings right now. We are worried about tonight’s game against the Orioles. Our first order of business is to play good consistent baseball. We have to get a rhythm offensively, stay consistent defensively and pitch well. We think the standings will take care of themselves.
MLB.com: What is your biggest need right now?
Rizzo: Like any ballclub that we talk to, we are always looking to improve our starting pitching. We want front of the rotation guys. We are always looking to do that. We are always looking to improve ourselves with two-way players — offensively and defensively. We feel that is going to be our strength. That’s what we are always looking to acquire.
MLB.com: What about the leadoff position. Do you see Jayson Werth as a leadoff hitter long term?
Rizzo: I see Jayson as a middle of the order hitter. We would like someone within the ballclub or organization to step up and be that guy. If we can’t find that guy within the organization, we will look elsewhere.
MLB.com: What is the biggest disappointment you have this season?
Rizzo: The biggest disappointed is that we had some key injuries like every other team. When you lose players like Zimmerman, LaRoche and a potential No. 1 starter [Stephen Strasburg], those are things that effect your ballclub. I think that has been the most disappointment that we had.
MLB.com: What about the most exciting thing you have seen so far?
Rizzo: It is watching the development of these young players. The development of Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond has been unbelievable. The emergence of Jordan Zimmermann has been great to see.
MLB.com: The way the Nationals have been playing lately, are they buyers or sellers?
Rizzo: We are both buyers and sellers. We always have been, always will be. If we have a chance to acquire a player that is going to help us in 2011 and beyond, we are not going to shy away from that. If there is a trade to be made that will help us down the road, we will trade a player away to get a piece for the future. But we are not in sell mode. There are a lot of games to play, a lot of games to win. We are here to win games.
MLB.com: You pointed out recently that the Nationals had a great draft. How are you doing in terms of signing those players?
Rizzo: I think we are doing quite well. After negotiating with them, we have about 15 players with contracts pending. We are in communication with our upper picks. We feel that optimistic to get those guys signed. If we do, we feel we have the best draft in baseball.
MLB.com: You announced at Citi Field that outfielder Bryce Harper will not be in the big leagues this year. How is he doing in your mind at Class A Hagerstown?
Rizzo: He is a terrific player. His developmental curve is going quite well. He starting to get acclimated to the everydayness of professional baseball. He loves playing every day. His skills are going to take care of themselves. He is learning to play the outfield. He is much more fundamentally sound on the aspects of playing the outfield – angles, throws and those type of things. His bat has been great.
MLB.com: Once you are satisfied by what you have seen, can you say where Harper will go next?
Rizzo: I cannot say that. I will say that we are develop him at a pace that most benefits him in the long term. He is a special player. He will be developed at a rate that allows him to be an impactful guy.
MLB.com: How has manager Jim Riggleman done so far?
Rizzo: Jim has been great. He has the players playing hard for 27 outs each and every night — even when we had some down times. Through the good and the bad, he grinds it out every day and gives a good days’ work.
MLB.com: He has an option left on his contract. Would you want him back for next year if things continue to go well?
Rizzo: The option year is communicated between Jim and I. I’m with Jim every day. We continually talk about a lot of different things. We are going to let the season play on. We will address it when it needs to be addressed. Right now, it’s all about baseball, it all about winning games and about playing the Baltimore Orioles.