Monday, September 22, 2008

My Chat with Mike Rizzo, which Was Awesome

Finishing up my reporting from the "State of the Nationals" Q&A at ESPN Zone, I am happy to share some good news. Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo, widely regarded as one of the game's best non-GM executives, was charming, bright, credible, and just plain impressive.

(In case you missed it, my notes on my chat with Stan are here, and my throwdown with JimBo here. Also, Bottomfeeder Dave has the audio recording of the event and is transcr
ibing that here.)

Here were some of his most notable comments, again all transcribed as accurately possible from the notes I took immediately after the event.

I asked him if there were any key principles he follows as part of a draft philosophy. He said that all things equal he'll always draft the hitter over the pitcher because of the injury risk associated with pitchers. Dave asked, "then why Crow over Smoak?" Clearly, Rizzo wasn't a big Justin Smoak fan.

He also said that in Arizona he really preferred college players, but that was
more because he didn't run the whole developmental system there like he does here, so he wanted to draft more 'finished products' who couldn't get 'screwed up' by the people running the developmental side in Arizona. He has more confidence in the developmental operation he's running here, so he's more willing to draft high schoolers.

I asked him the same question I asked Stan, "At the end of the day, setting aside all the nonsense, wasn't it a mistake not to sign Crow at $4.4 million?" Without hesitation, and with some edge in his voice, he said, "Yes."

He did single out Randy Hendricks as having been totally unprofessional, but didn't try to use it as an excuse for the team's failure to sign the player.

Another fan asked if there had ever been any tension between him and Bowden, and Mike said absolutely not. He said that he'd never met Bowden when he was hired but that he'd been welcomed warmly.

If the draft was held today, he agreed that Stephen Strasburg would be the top pick, but stressed that a lot can happen between now and June, so who knows.

I asked him, "Was Emilio Bonifacio really a Mike Rizzo guy? Is that
a deal you put together?" Mike said, "Yes it was. He's going to bat eighth and play gold glove defense. He's going to really help our young pitchers too."

Talking about Alberto Gonzalez, he didn't really even try to make the case for his bat, but said he'd be another great fielder. He compared him to Adam Everett, which some people will think is still too generous, but I thought was in the rational range of optimistic.

Finally, the thing that stuck with me about Rizzo is that I spoke to him for about ten minutes, and not once did he say something that struck me as B.S. No absurd, over-the-top puffe
ry, no obvious self-serving half-truths, none of that. He admitted a few errors and weak points in his own performance. I'm not naive--it's not like he was telling us everything unvarnished, but he was credible, instead of the constant insults to our intelligence that we're used to from this team.

Some people say that Rizzo's weakness is dealing with the media. And yeah, he's not the best public speaker. He kind of gets tripped up with words and speaks in a bit of a
dull monotone. But I found his frank, down-to-earth manner far more persuasive than Bowden or Kasten's styles, where you always feel like you're constantly being spun or flat-out lied to. As a result, when Kasten and Bowden say, "trust us, we're going to win soon," basically no one but SBF buys it anymore. When Rizzo says it, you think, "ok, let's give them a couple more years." It almost makes you want to renew your season tickets.

If I was Stan, I'd be looking to promote Rizzo not despite his media skills, but because in addition to his crystal ball track record as a talent evaluator in Arizona, he's the one and only guy in the organization who people like me will listen to.

My last word on my ESPN Zone experience is that it's often the case in my experience that when you meet a public figure in person, their media persona is far different from their actual personalities. With these three, not at all. Kasten came across as every bit the patronizing, perma-tan corporate shill. Bowden acted like the thin-skinned, bullying, attention-seeking overgrown infant Hal McCoy says he is. And Rizzo was just the common-sense guy who loves baseball and knows his stuff better than anyone.


Will said...

Gonzalez's most optimistic assessment is being like Adam Everett, a guy who can't hold down a starting job and has only had an OBP above .300 twice? Yikes!
If that's optimistic, I don't want to know the pessimistic projection.

Steven said...

Well, there's a reason the guy was buried at AAA and the Yankees were ready to move him even though they're going to need to replace Jeter soon. If he's a replacement-level bat and a top-flight defensive SS, then there's value there.

I don't think it helps the team to puff up guys as better than they are and then have everyone seem like a disappointment.

BTW--The pessimistic projection is that he just can't hit *at all*, spends 2-3 more years scuffling in the minors and then is out of baseball before ever being heard from again.

Jim said...

Your series of posts on this ESPN event really underscores how remarkable it is in this age of internet bloggery, a handful of articulate fans can position themselves as a quasi-media!

This has really been the pinnacle of your bloggery, I must say.

The Nats' blogosphere is the ultimate meritocracy, where if you write lucidly, frequently, and wittily, you can get an appreciable readership and a place at the table, even though no-one hired you. Also, whereas WaPo and other professional reporters have to watch what they say about the athletes they cover so as to retain the ability to talk to them, you can let er rip.

Thank you for taking the time and having the stones to hold Nats' leadership to task. This was the perfect venue, for it allowed for hostile questioning. Whereas SBF gets unprecedented access to the Nats' leadership by virtue of his general cheerleading for the team and gentle touches of criticism, you and others really tell the unvarnished truth.

Also, I appreciate that you gave and continue to give Bowden his due, both with regard to his general track record, and also with regard to nuances of the recent exchange. It only adds to your credibility.

While I disagree strongly with your racial opression angle concerning public and media reaction to Elijah Dukes' conduct, I really dig everything else on your blog.

Jim B

Steven said...

Jim--I appreciate it very much.

And re: Dukes, I can live with that. The only way to have everyone agree with you all the time is to never write anything interesting ever. Let's just cross our fingers and hope Elijah can stay out of trouble for the next decade so we can all agree on what a good man he becomes.

Sean Hogan said...

Reading this makes me want Rizzo to be the GM even more. Nice work, Steve-o!

JayB said...


I think you have really added to the discussion this year. Thank you.

What I find telling is the Rizzo comment on Bonifacio. If you are correct and that he is not a Jimbo type that practices revisionist history for self promotion and that Bonifacio was an 8th hitter and defensive pickup, then who made him a lead off hitter? Acta or Bowden? Recall where what he was sold as when traded for and where he hit when he first came up.

I see this as one of the major issues with Jimbo. He always over estimates a single skill and is unrealistic about a whole players value. Yes Bonifacio is fast, very fast, but he is not a leadoff hitter. Yet that is what Jimbo makes him..........Would have loved a chance to follow up with Rizzo about why they pushed in into lead off and told the fans that next year he would lead off and start all year.......classic Jimbo move, Pena like.....