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Rizzo's guidance has Nats soaring high into October

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Mike Rizzo's work with the Washington Nationals is that he has done two distinctly different, equally difficult jobs better than most could have done one of them.

First, Rizzo constructed a great farm system. He inherited one of the worst in the game when he joined the Nationals in 2006 and transformed it quickly and efficiently. Rizzo is an old-school baseball guy who believes success is built on the twin foundations of scouting and development.

That means hiring dozens of scouts and instructors, men who can recognize talent and then help it reach the big leagues. If Rizzo had done only that, he could proudly point to what the Nats are today.

They're a team without a glaring weakness, a team certainly good enough to win the World Series. Last time that happened in our nation's capital was 1924. That year, one of the Washington newspapers hired Babe Ruth to write World Series columns. He apparently showed up for a game or two and then lost interest, perhaps understanding that only the best of the best can produce 800 quality words on baseball.

The Nationals have been moving steadily in the right direction, especially since Rizzo took over the entire baseball operation in 2009. He was given his current title -- president of baseball operations and general manager -- last year.

The 2013 season was a difficult one for Rizzo and the Nationals. He'll be correctly showered with praise for the work he has done in building a team that doesn't have a single glaring weakness. But last season when the Nats won 86 games and missed the playoffs, Rizzo also did great work. He simply was reminded that smart decisions don't always get the desired results.

Numbers don't lie. Including Thursday's win, the Nationals have won 272 regular-season games in the last three seasons, second only to the Oakland Athletics (273). And this week, they clinched their second National League East title in three years.

The 2013 Nats were hit hard by injuries and an assortment of slumps. They also may not have handled the high expectations as well as they could have.

Rizzo remained confident he still had a very solid baseball team and that only needed a tweak or two. He did that by acquiring right-hander Doug Fister from the Tigers and hiring D-backs coach Matt Williams to be his manager.

Fister -- and the emergence of Tanner Roark -- transformed a good rotation into the deepest in baseball. For Williams, the challenge in these final days will be to figure out how to line up four starting pitchers and to decide which one will go to the bullpen for the postseason. As problems go, that's the kind to have.

Success is never built on just one thing. The Nationals have won because ownership -- that is, Theodore Lerner and his family and partners -- gave Rizzo the freedom and resources to do his job.

They committed $126 million over seven years to sign free agent Jayson Werth after the 2010 season and then locked up third baseman Ryan Zimmerman with a six-year, $100 million extension before the 2012 season.

Every little thing impacts every other little thing. But in baseball, it's pretty much impossible to win without a first-rate farm system. Rizzo's Drafts have produced, not just overall No. 1 picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, but Anthony Rendon, Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen and others. That brings us to Rizzo's second impressive accomplishment. Once he'd constructed a great farm system, he then built a winning big league roster. To build a farm system is simply to collect as many good players as possible, to accumulate depth at every position.

Those young players are dotted up and down the roster, but Rizzo used some of them as the currency to acquire Roark, Fister, Denard Span and Gio Gonzalez.

Building a winning roster is not just about talent. It's understanding how the pieces fit and acquiring players who accept their roles and are willing to put the team in front of their individual accomplishments.

General managers often say that roster building is as much an art as a science. Rizzo has done this well, too. In shortstop Ian Desmond and Zimmerman, who were in the system when Rizzo arrived, the Nats have players who lead as much by action as words.

They're leaders in how they prepare and carry themselves. They're also leaders by being able to produce, by being at their best when the stakes are the highest.

Next up for the Nationals is October, which means close games and one pressurized situation after another. To make them the favorite would be silly. On the other hand, they're as prepared as a team can be. These next few weeks -- packed ballparks, tension, expectation -- are what Rizzo had in mind from the beginning. Here's to a job well done.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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