Luis Atilano gets his first start tonight at Nationals Park. He's a former sandwich-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves. He's known as a strike-thrower without overpowering stuff and strong groundball tendencies. He's a pure Mike Rizzo Special.
(Random trivia: Atilano was the Braves' compensatory pick for the loss of free agent Tom Glavine, and the next two players drafted that year were Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Adam Jones. Atilano went 35th overall. The Expos pick that year at #20 overall was Chad Cordero. The Nationals acquired him in a trade for Daryle Ward while Atilano was recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2007.)
You may not have heard of him before this week, but Atilano's got some upside. He's a pretty big guy (6'2", 220) who obviously was considered a prospect when the Braves drafted him and gave him a $950,000 bonus. Injuries slowed him down, but he never dropped off the prospect radar, ranking #20 on the Baseball America list this past off-season.
If he can develop a solid breaking pitch to compliment his sinking fastball, he could quickly work his way into the longer term picture with Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Lannan. If not, he's got the markings of a solid bullpen arm. Either way, I'll be interested in seeing him pitch tonight, and don't be shocked if he passes Olsen and Stammen on the organizational depth chart by the All-Star Game.
Another thing that interested me here is that the Atilano promotion is another example of a Rizzo tendency I've noticed over the last year--a resistance to typecasting players and a commitment to rewarding (and punishing) results.
What I mean is that he's been much more willing than most GMs to give guys a shot when he thinks they've "earned it," even older players or guys who have been off the prospect radar. He also tries to make sure everyone who's earned a shot gets his shot and doesn't fret that much about making players "wait their turn." And of course the flip-side of this principle is that he's quicker to pull the plug on guys who don't deliver.
Case in point: in most organizations, the next call-up for the rotation would have been J.D. Martin. Not necessarily because he's better than Atilano, but because "he's been there and shown he can do it." And of course in most organizations J.D. Martin never would have gotten that chance in the first place. A 26-year-old minor league free agent years from the prospect radar... most organizations would have simply labeled him an organizational arm and moved on.
Other examples: Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler, Mike MacDougal, and Nyjer Morgan. The first two guys would have had to wait longer to get their shot in most organizations, while MacDougal might not have gotten the chance to close as quickly as he did, and Nyjer Morgan might never have been given the chance to prove he can be an everyday centerfielder.
It's one of those old baseball cliches that you're always better off with veteran players who have been there. The economics of baseball under the current collective bargaining agreement has cut against this cliche by strongly incentivizing signing young players with little service time over guys like, oh, Jermaine Dye for instance.
But the old school mentality lives on, embodied in people like Dusty Baker. Rizzo (and Riggleman is also part of this, though I think it comes from Rizzo first) seems to be trying to be the anti-Dusty, creating an organizational culture where everyone feels like they have a shot if they work hard and perform. Riggleman is implementing the a similar principle by using his bench players a ton so everyone feels engaged and no one feels totally safe in his job.
Now, I'm not totally sure this is 100% a good thing. Ideally, you'd have a team where there are 24 good players who play well and you only make moves when you have to address unexpected developments. (And the number of unexpected developments is kept to a minimum.) It's possible that this is just the same old dumpster-diving in a different package.
But for now I'm staying open-minded that this isn't just Rizzo being resourceful on a tiny budget or a continuation of Bowden's endless and pointless roster tinkering. But for now, I'm keeping an open mind that Rizzo's implementing sound a management principle that just might help his team get better faster.