Who’s running my team: Washington Nationals

WASHINGTON,DC-NOV2: The World Series Trophy is held by Mike Rizzo on the parade route, November 2, 2019. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON,DC-NOV2: The World Series Trophy is held by Mike Rizzo on the parade route, November 2, 2019. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images) /
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Our series of articles looking at the front office structure of each major league team, as we take a look at the defending champion Washington Nationals.

Washington Nationals

  • Managing Principal Owner: Mark Lerner
  • General Manager and President of Baseball Operations: Mike Rizzo

Nobody has a better grasp of the lottery nature of baseball’s post-season than the general manager of the world champs, Mike Rizzo.

In 2012, Rizzo’s third season, he put together baseball’s best team based on record.  The Washington Nationals won 98 games and prevailed in the NL East – for the first time in franchise history – by four games. Yet when post-season play began, his Nats were summarily ousted in the division round by an 88-win Cardinal team that had finished second in the weaker NL Central.

Just to fully rub things in, the Nats led by two runs with just one out to get before the Cardinals scored four times.

What followed amounted to Groundhog Day. In 2014 the Nationals again won the NL East – again with the best record – but lost the division series to a wild card Giants team. In 2016 they won the East by eight games and then lost to a Dodger team that lagged four games behind them in regular season performance.

In 2017, Washington won its fourth NL East title – this time with 97 victories – but fell in the division round to the Cubs when the visitors lit into Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, of all people.

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So naturally when the Nats made the 2019 post-season as a wild card – with arguably the weakest playoff team in franchise history – they prevailed through four rounds, twice defeating opponents (the Dodgers and Astros) that had outperformed them by a cumulative 27 regular season games. Irony can be pleasant.

Rizzo has successfully built the Nationals around the precept that if you take care of things during the regular season – thus giving yourself a post-season opportunity – eventually fate will turn your way. The Nats management structure has been fully supportive in this regard, giving him a free hand through all those disappointments…not to mention the five managerial changes that followed them.

The Lerner family has owned the Nats since Ted Lerner purchased the franchise from MLB in 2006. Two years earlier, MLB had moved the former Montreal Expos franchise to Washington. Lerner, who had made his fortune in real estate, remains an organizational presence, but in 2018 he transferred controlling interest to his son, Mark.

Rizzo came to the Nationals in 2007 after being runner-up for the GM vacancy in Arizona; the D-Backs chose Red Sox assistant GM Josh Byrnes instead. The Lerners promoted him when Jim Bowden resigned prior to the start of the 2009 season.

The Washington Nationals operate in a marketplace that fills the undefined space between large- and mid-market. With a 6.2 million population, the metropolitan Washington area is the game’s ninth largest, but it is also significantly fringed by Baltimore just 40 miles to the north.

Forbes puts the franchise valuation at $1.75 billion, making it the game’s 11th most valuable. That valuation, by the way, is growing by leaps and bounds. One decade ago, the Nats ranked just 18th in value at $387 million.

The club has also been profitable, operating without a negative balance annually since 2010. In 2019 it produced $336 million in revenues, the sport’s 11th largest amount and virtually double what it took in during the 2010 season.

The Nats do that despite a relatively modest $40 per fan appropriation that ranks 21st in baseball.

As they have grown more secure in the long-term presence of their team – remember, Washington has seen MLB abandon it twice in the lifetimes of many fans – spectators have established a steady relationship with the local heroes. The team has surpassed 2 million in attendance annually since 2012, peaking at a franchise high 2.652 million in 2013.

One thing Rizzo has been able to do is significantly increase player payroll. During his first full season in charge, the Nats allocated $72 million for players. That allocation increased annually until peaking at $204.9 million in 2018.

With the departure of Bryce Harper it fell slightly last season, and the loss of Anthony Rendon will cause it to drop again this opening day, but probably only into the $190 million range. That is still likely to approach 60 percent of revenues, a substantial commitment in a game where the average is about 10 percent lower.

The Nats succeed financially on their own. They derive only $478 million in revenue sharing money, the seventh smallest amount in the game. At $378 million, their stadium produces more revenue than all but seven other teams. They gross a further $289 million in brand revenues, the seventh largest amount. In both areas, in other words, the Nats are punching above their weight.

Rizzo’s secret is simple if often overlooked; he’s a superb judge of potential. During his decade in command, his short-term impact on the Washington Nationals – as measured by the net first-year impact of his moves – has averaged +4.7 games*. After that first year, the impact of those increases rises to +11.3 games per season.

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Rizzo, in other words, is better able than most of his fellow GMs to look at a player and correctly estimate his potential to be a contributor.

*This calculation is obtained by determining the net impact of player transactions on team performance for the season(s) in question. Wins Above Average is a zero-based offshoot of Wins Above Replacement; thus, the final figure suggests the degree of positive or negative movement in the standings attributable to front office moves.