The Washington Nationals have been one of the most successful teams of the last decade. From the beginning of the 2011 season to the end of last year, the team has gone 635-498, won 95 or more games four times, and taken four division titles.
But they've been eliminated in the NLDS all four of those years. As Bryce Harper accrued service time and marched toward free agency, the team has become increasingly desperate to win a World Series before the prospect of losing their phenom finally arrived in full. Most observers went into the season expecting the Nats to be the NL's super team this season, but instead they've been baseball's most disappointing team. They're a .500 team after their first 120 games, eight games behind the Atlanta Braves for the NL East lead and six behind another division rival, the Philadelphia Phillies, for the second NL Wild Card spot. Back-to-back walk-off losses on Sunday and Monday have blunted the momentum they looked to be picking up after the All-Star break.
One look at that playoff disappointment makes it look like the Braves of the latter stages of their long string of division titles in the 1990s and 2000s—near dominant in the regular season but quick outs during the playoffs. But a closer look at the team makes you realize just how impressive the Nats have been in that time—and how they've succeeded despite the man whose responsibility is to build the team: general manager Mike Rizzo.
Itchy trigger finger
Rizzo is certainly responsible for building the team's roster into the talent-stacked list it is today. He drafted Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and Trea Turner. He signed Max Scherzer in free agency to give the team a murderous one-two punch in the rotation and stole Daniel Murphy three winters ago to add pop to his lineup. His scouts found teenage phenom Juan Soto as an international free agent.
He's had misses here and there—particularly the albatross of a contract he gave to Jayson Werth in 2011—but overall his roster building has been anywhere from very good to excellent.
What hasn't been good—disastrous might be a better way of putting it—is the way he's filled the manager's office.
Since the beginning of 2011, the Nationals have had six managers (including interims), and some of those managers got fired before they should have been.
Dusty Baker, who won 192 games in two years, has become emblematic of this. Baker has long been ridiculed as an underachiever. He's led four teams to the playoffs in his managerial career, but only twice made the LCS and only once won a pennant—and both times his teams choked away clinching positions. As the era of analytics dawned, he's also been considered a bit of a dinosaur. But he's expanded his horizons with stats, and both of his NLDS losses as Nationals manager were excruciating five-game affairs, the latter of which turned on a missed call by the umpiring crew that allowed the Chicago Cubs to score the clinching runs. But he could not push the team past the LDS, and with only a year left before Harper hits the market, Rizzo made the knee-jerk call to fire Baker.
It's not the first time he's done so—in 2011 he did the same to Jim Riggleman. Through 75 games that season the Nats were a game over .500, and they had won 11 of the last 12 games. They were showing a huge amount of progress—but Rizzo steadfastly refused to pick up the option in Riggleman's contract for 2012, and he ended up resigning. Davey Johnson replaced him three days later.
Johnson turned out to be an excellent choice, delivering the team's first playoff appearance the next year. But since then he's made a couple of questionable decisions. Matt Williams took over when Johnson retired, but Rizzo was forced to fire him after he followed up a strong first year by losing the locker room in his second. Baker turned out to be a good replacement for the former third baseman—surprising considering he was the fall-back to Bud Black, who was all set to take the reins before backing out after receiving the rather insulting offer of a one-year deal.
Like so many other GMs around baseball last winter, Rizzo chose a rookie manager to fill his opening. Dave Martinez had long been considered a top managerial candidate after years of serving as Joe Maddon's bench coach in Tampa and Chicago, but so far this year it seems like he's been given the keys to an expensive European sports car only to pop the clutch. His statement to the media after Monday's meltdown in St. Louis pretty much sums it up: "I don't know what else to do."
Changes at the top
Martinez will probably get the lion's share of the blame over this season's failure, but Rizzo deserves a large chunk as well—and not just for this season but for this whole era of Nationals history.
None of the managers Rizzo has had since he took over in 2009 have completed more than two full seasons. Only one of those managers, Johnson, left on good terms. None of them has formed the continuity that is required for a team to go on a real run of success.
If you look at the most successful teams of the last three decades, all have had stable management situations. The 90s Braves had Bobby Cox. The Yankees of the turn of the millennium had Joe Torre. Charlie Manuel oversaw not only the Phillies' five-year reign in the NL East in 2007-11 but the final development of that team's core in the years prior. The St. Louis Cardinals were one of the most consistent teams of the 21st century under Tony La Russa.
It doesn't matter how well a GM constructs his roster if his managers can't lead them properly—and no manager can work properly under the conditions Rizzo has set up. The continuous disruption in the manager's office affects a team, and it looks like it has finally broken this Nationals squad.
If the Nationals can't finish the season well, team ownership will have to take a long look at the instability that Rizzo has engendered in the manager's office. He has far too quick a hook for his managers, and it's been damaging the team for some time. If a head has to roll over this disappointing season, Rizzo's should be at the top of the list.