By: Chris Larson
When the 2019 regular season first started, the Washington Nationals were a dud in every sense of the word. Dud when it came to getting their entire 25-man roster in sync to play at the same level, dud when it came to making defensive plays when they matter the most, and dud when it came to the performance level of the bullpen. In fact, the bullpen was such a mess that many suggested the Nationals should make a change at either the skipper role, General Manager role, or the pitching/bullpen coach roles. All of those things were suggested possibilities being floated out there, but the only change that ended up taking place was the dismissal of pitching coach, Derek Lilliquist, on May 2nd.
Despite those early season struggles, it turns out that it was just that and the team has played a much different brand of baseball since the calendar switched over to June. During the months of March, April, and May combined, the Nationals put up a 24-33 record and looked as though they were going to be a massive disappointment for those people that picked them to make the postseason and even the World Series (you're reading the blog of an author that did just that!). However, since the beginning of June, the Nationals have put up a cumulative record of 54-27 record and while they have narrowed things in the National League East with the Atlanta Braves, they have taken a firm grip of the first National League Wild Card spot.
Given the significant turnaround in the Washington Nationals season and the fact that they have found their stride so much, brings into light the fact that their General Manager, Mike Rizzo, should be the front runner to win the MLB Executive of the Year Award. The reasons as to why that is the case might not be so obvious on the surface, but they start to come into light more when you begin to dig into what Mike Rizzo has done during his time with the Washington Nationals and the constant improvements that he has made especially over the past few seasons.
Although the Washington Nationals haven't been able to overcome their lingering postseason hump and make it to the Fall Classic, a lot of things have gone right for the franchise as a whole. For starters, with this year's squad, the Nationals have a legitimate 1-2-3 punch in their starting rotation that could compete with the best of the best. At the top is the workhorse Max Scherzer, followed by the consistent Stephen Strasburg, and their acquisition from this past offseason, Patrick Corbin. All three guys have combined for at least 200 strikeouts this season which makes them the first National League team to have three starting pitchers, with at least 200 strikeouts, since the 1969 Houston Astros.
Beyond that, the Nationals have a very legitimate offensive core headlined by third baseman, Anthony Rendon, and young, emerging outfielders Juan Soto and Victor Robles. Granted the team lost outfielder, Bryce Harper, this past offseason in free agency to the Philadelphia Phillies, but as the entire team has shown since the start of June, they have easily made up for the loss of offense and both Soto and Robles have handled themselves just fine at the big league level. Furthermore, Anthony Rendon continues to be the most underrated player in the MLB and is writing himself a fantastic case for free agency this coming offseason and you can't overlook the impacts that other role players such as: Matt Adams, Howie Kendrick, and Asdrubal Cabrera have had on the team either.
A significant argument can be made that the Washington Nationals wouldn't be having this type of success if it weren't for many of those role players that have come through during key situations and provided veteran leadership in the clubhouse. With a young team, it is absolutely vital to have that veteran leadership component and that's what each of those three individuals have helped to bring to this year's Washington Nationals clubhouse.
Besides both of those things, if further proof is needed about the success of the Washington Nationals, look no further than the fact that they are not afraid to make moves and look for upgrades to make their team even more fathomable. For instance, at this year's July 31st Trade Deadline, General Manager Mike Rizzo picked up three different relievers to help solidify the bullpen and add additional depth for down the stretch and what the Nationals front office was hoping for, a postseason run. Each of the acquisitions made at that point have been solid contributors to the recent success of the team as well.
One of the most impactful additions from this year's July 31st Trade Deadline was the pickup of reliever, Daniel Hudson, from the Toronto Blue Jays. The acquisition of Hudson was made to give the Nationals another option in the closer role and to have extra assurance in the event that closer, Sean Doolittle, ended up having to be put on the Injured List which ended up happening. A few short weeks after acquiring Daniel Hudson, on August 18th to be exact, the Nationals were forced to put Sean Doolittle on the Injured List with right knee tendinitis. Doolittle has since returned to the bullpen mix for the Nationals, but if the team didn't have Daniel Hudson to fill that role, who knows what would have happened.
Aside from Daniel Hudson, the Washington Nationals also acquired left-hander, Roenis Elias, and right-hander, Hunter Strickland, from the Seattle Mariners on the day of the July 31st Trade Deadline. Again, with both of those pickups, the Nationals added additional depth to their bullpen and gave skipper, Davey Martinez, more options to chose from for matchups down the stretch and come October. While those three additions continued to prove that General Manager, Mike Rizzo, is never afraid to make changes, they're not the only example to refer back to.
Another instance of making changes when they are necessary happened earlier this season when General Manager, Mike Rizzo, picked up veteran reliever, Fernando Rodney. Right around the time the team picked up Rodney, Rizzo was under some tight budget constraints, but found a way to essentially find lightning in a bottle and found value in Rodney. One of the biggest reasons why the Nationals felt as though the pickup of Fernando Rodney would be significant was because of his veteran presence and the fact that he has a solid track record at the big league level. Sometimes, those are the deals that a General Manager has to make, especially one under budget constraints, and in this case it ended up working out tremendously for both sides.
Beyond all of those reasons, another reason why Washington Nationals General Manager, Mike Rizzo, should seriously be considered for the MLB Executive of the Year Award is because of the phenomenal job that he has done with scouting and continuing to keep a tremendous amount of depth in the minor league system for the organization. Prior to becoming a General Manager, Mike Rizzo worked as a scout with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Boston Red Sox before formally being named Director of Scouting for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2000. To say that Rizzo knows the ins and outs of what to look for in any baseball player, would be a fierce understatement because he has a lot of knowledge when it comes to those things and when it comes to building up a farm system.
One of the reasons why the Washington Nationals have been able to stay competitive over the past few seasons and relevant in the National League East is because of their farm system. There has never been a season where the Nationals have undergone a full rebuild, like other teams in the game have, and they have continued to have enough prospect depth to deal from to make impactful deals when they matter the most.
In fact, the Washington Nationals have a couple of different players on their 25-man roster that are homegrown and were drafted and developed by the organization. One of those players is first baseman, Ryan Zimmerman, who was drafted by the organization in the first round of the 2005 MLB Amateur Draft with the fourth overall pick. Another is aforementioned third baseman, Anthony Rendon, who the organization took with the sixth overall pick during the first round of the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft. Beyond both of those examples, aforementioned starting pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, is yet another homegrown player with the organization being draft during the 2009 MLB Amateur Draft with the 1st overall pick.
All three of those players are very impactful at the major league level when healthy and have produced a lot of positive results over their tenure with the Washington Nationals organization. Although Ryan Zimmermann wasn't a pick of Mike Rizzo's, he is still an important piece to the organization's overall success. Furthermore, the aforementioned, Bryce Harper, was also a homegrown player of the franchise being drafted during the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft with the first overall pick. All of that is proof that Mike Rizzo knows what he's doing when scouting, evaluating, and looking for the next major league superstar.
As such, when you combine his scouting abilities, willingness to always make the necessary changes to make a competitive team even better, and the fact that he has had such an impact on the recent success of the Washington Nationals, General Manager Mike Rizzo, should absolutely be the front runner for the MLB Executive of the Year Award. While it is not known if the Washington Nationals success of this season will be enough to finally get them over that elusive postseason hump and to the Fall Classic, one thing is for sure and that's the fact the Washington Nationals would not be where they are today, if it weren't for the upgrades made over the past calendar year by General Manager, Mike Rizzo.