How Mike Rizzo is De-Bowdenizing the Washington Nationals

Farid RushdiAnalyst IJanuary 16, 2010

I was not one of those Nationals fans who went screaming into the night when Jim Bowden was named the team’s general manager shortly after moving to Washington, and I didn’t jump for joy when he was forced to resign last March.

 

He reminded me a lot of Herb Tarlek, the plaid sports coat-wearing, loud-mouthed sales manager for the fictional  WKRP in Cincinnati. Underneath the loud clothes and loud persona was a decent guy trying to get out.

 

But once I had the opportunity to watch his replacement—the efficiently generic Mike Rizzo—I finally saw what the rest of the Nats’ Nation had known for some time: Jim Bowden was an empty suit.

 

Bowden never played organized baseball. He got his foot in the door with the Pittsburgh Pirates because his college roommate was the son of the team’s owners. Through sheer effort, he became a general manager at the age of just 32.

 

But while Bowden was a capable executive, he seems to have had a difficult time evaluating young talent.

 

Rizzo, on the other hand, is the son of a longtime baseball scout. He played three years of minor league baseball. He’s played alongside Mark McLemore, Wally Joyner, Kirk McCaskill and Devon White. He knows what a major league player does—and doesn’t—look like.

 

Jim Bowden repeatedly told us that you can never have too much pitching. The Nationals, he said, would emphasize pitching in the minor leagues, trading the excess arms for position players. Rizzo also sees pitching as the conduit to major league success.

 

Bowden’s first draft was in 2005; Rizzo’s came in 2009. Is Rizzo, as I believe, a better general manager because he is better at evaluating talent? Let’s compare their initial drafts and see.

 

In 2005, Bowden selected 13 pitchers, and he did a terrible job with his picks. Two of the 14—John Lannan and Craig Stammen—have had success at the major league level. Marco Estrada has a 7.20 ERA in 15 games with the Nationals. Jack Spradlin has a 3.81 ERA in five minor league seasons.

 

The other 10 draft choices are all out of organized baseball. Nine of the 10 played two years or less before being released. The 10th player, Coby Mavroulis, played a third season in an independent league before calling it a career.

 

Those 13 pitchers had a combined record of 17-30 with an ERA of 5.91. They allowed 12.6 hits and 5.2 walks per nine innings while striking out just 6.1 batters.

 

Take a look at their ERA breakdown:

 

Under 2.99: 0

3.00—3.99: 2

4.00—4.99: 2

5.00—5.99: 3

6.00—6.99: 3

7.00—11.00: 4

 

Ed Pichardo had an ERA of 20.41, allowing 15.3 hits and 23.0 walks per nine innings. He was a 17th round pick.

 

Last season, Rizzo selected 17 pitchers. They fared much better than Bowden’s group, going a combined 34-32 with a 3.48 ERA. They allowed just 8.8 hits and 2.6 walks per nine innings while striking out 7.6.

 

Here is their ERA breakdown:

 

Under 0.99: 1

1.00—1.99: 3

2.00—2.99: 1

3.00—3.99: 8

4.00—4.99: 2

5.00—5.99: 0

6.00—6.99: 1

7.00—7.99: 1

 

Bowden’s boys had 10 pitchers with an ERA higher than 5.00, while Rizzo had just two. Bowden’s group had no pitchers with an ERA below 3.00. Rizzo had five.

 

The amazing part of Rizzo’s draft was that that the bottom of the draft pitched as well as the top. The last four pitchers drafted and signed—Evan Bronson (29th round), Rob Wort (30th), Kyle Morrison (32nd), and Shane McCatty (34th)—combined to go 10-7 with a 2.68 ERA, allowing 9.1 hits and 3.2 strikeouts per nine innings while striking out 6.6.

 

Bronson was amazing, going 3-0 with an 0.55 ERA for Low-A Vermont. He allowed just 5.1 hits and 0.5 walks per nine innings while striking out 7.0. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 12.67, and his WHIP (runners allowed per inning) was 0.628.

 

He was also a 29th round selection.

 

Pat Lehman was another late-round find for the Nationals. Lehman was a 13th round pick from George Washington University. He started nine games, going 4-2, with a 1.97 ERA, giving up 8.4 hits and just 1.1 walks per nine innings.

 

Some other notable draft picks from 2009 include:

 

Mitch Clegg (21st round)         2-4, 2.20          8.8/2.0/4.7      Vermont

Dan Rosenbaum (22nd)           4-1, 1.95          7.1/2.2/9.2      GCL Nats

Taylor Jordan (9th)                2-0, 3.63          6.5/2.2/8.8      GCL Nats

 

And I haven’t even mentioned Stephen Strasburg, who dominated the Arizona Fall League. In four starts (I’m not counting his horrid second start that he pitched while very ill), he went 4-0, allowing eight hits and six walks in 16.1 innings, striking out 19. He had a minuscule .156 batting average-against.

 

And don’t forget Drew Storen, the Nationals’ compensation first round pick. Playing for Class-A Hagerstown and Potomac, and Class-AA Hagerstown, Storen had a combined record of 2-1, 1.95, saving 11 games. He allowed just 5.1 hits and 1.9 walks per nine innings while striking out 12.0.

 

I understand that baseball’s amateur draft is a crapshoot. Picking players is part art, part science and part luck. Success is the exception, not the rule. That said, having to release 70 percent of a team’s draft picks after just two seasons is an abomination.

 

Bowden chose 16 pitchers in the first 10 rounds from 2005-2008:

 

2005

Marco Estrada             28-26, 3.89      Not part of the Nationals’ future

Jack Spradlin               16-17, 3.93      Made it to Syracuse in 2009

 

2006

Colton Willems              9-16, 3.68       Nationals disappointed with his progress

Glenn Gibson               11-15, 5.76      Traded to Tampa for Elijah Dukes

Cory Van Allen             13-19, 4.48      5.10 ERA in two seasons with Harrisburg

Zech Zincola               13-12, 4.63      Lost to Toronto via Rule V draft

 

2007

Ross Detwiler              1-6, 4.93          Beginning to figure it out at major league level

Josh Smoker                6-7, 4.45         Another disappointing first rounder

Jordan Zimmermann      3-5, 4.63          Future star

Brad Meyers                21-11, 2.86       Looking like a major league prospect

Jack McGeary              4-15, 5.15        Sixth-round steal, could have breakout year

P.J. Dean                    7-2, 2.57          Looking good

Adrian Alaniz               21-11, 3.33       Hit wall when promoted

Pat McCoy                   4-13, 5.42       Organizational player at best

 

2008

Graham Hicks              5-6, 5.74          The jury is still out

Paul Denny                  7-11, 5.47        Struggled at Hagerstown last year

Tommy Milone            13-11, 3.42        Had outstanding season at Potomac in 2009

 

None of the pitchers taken in the first 10 rounds in 2005 and 2006 seem destined for any real success at the major league level. In 2007, however, the Nationals drafted four pitchers—Detwiler, Zimmermann, McGeary, and Meyers—who may become exceptional major leaguers.  

 

It’s still too early to gauge the 2008 picks.

 

Don’t give Bowden credit for that 2007 class, though. That was Rizzo’s first year with the Nationals, and his fingerprints are all over Detwiler and Zimmermann.

 

Jim Bowden was all about flair and panache. He had a beautiful fiancé and enjoyed seeing his name in the papers every morning. Mike Rizzo is a behind-the-scenes guy who is content with his frumpiness.

 

It seemed that each morning, we heard about what Bowden almost did. With Rizzo, there is a cacophony of silence that precedes an impressive trade or signing.

 

Bowden was a carnival barker. Rizzo is a man of deeds, and not words.

 

Bowden kept the team’s transmission in neutral while flooring the gas pedal. Lots of smoke, lots of burning rubber, but nothing much happened. Rizzo follows the speed limits, uses his turn signals—and all of a sudden, without anyone realizing it, he’s reached his destination.

 

It’s going to be an amazing summer, isn’t it?

 

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