Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Questions raised by Rizzo's new deal

Yesterday's announcement by the Nationals that Mike Rizzo has been given a five-year contract extension and bump in title was at both times unsurprising and a bit head-scratching.

On the one hand, it makes perfect sense. With the franchise in a much more stable situation now than it was two years ago when Rizzo took over, it's appropriate to add some more stability to the front office by locking the GM up through 2015. The last thing the Nats need to be contemplating right now is another GM change. Rizzo has accomplished quite a bit since replacing the disgraced Jim Bowden, and though there's still plenty more to be accomplished, he deserves the opportunity to finish what he started.

But how long will it take to finish? In some ways, the Lerners handing out a five-year extension suggests they believe it's still going to be a while. Think about it. If, at the end of the 2013 season, the Nationals are still losing 90-plus games, wouldn't it be appropriate to consider a GM change? Rizzo will have had five seasons under his belt at that point. Few GMs are given more time than that before success is required.

But under that scenario, Rizzo would still have two years remaining on his contract. Would the Nationals be willing to eat the money, or would they feel obligated to leave Rizzo in control until the contract expired two years later?

The Lerner family is perfectly comfortable committing to Rizzo through 2015. The question is: Are they making that commitment because they're confident Rizzo will have already built a winner before then and want to make sure he's locked up, or do they have reason to believe this rebuilding project needs five more years to be completed and thus it's unfair to judge their GM until then?

That's the kind of question that should have been asked yesterday to ownership upon the announcement of Rizzo's new deal. But no one from ownership was made available on the conference call set up for reporters. Only Rizzo, the man getting the contract extension, was available. The official press release announcing the move included a token statement from Ted Lerner, but neither he nor any other member of the ownership group spoke publicly about one of the most important decisions they'll ever make.

That was a head-scratching move, and it raises another question about the direction this franchise is headed: Who's the new public face of ownership now that Stan Kasten is gone?

For nearly five years, Kasten was the man standing in front of cameras and reporters, delivering the message for ownership. He was there when players were signed, when GMs and managers were hired, when there were issues with the stadium or local government entities.

Now, Kasten's gone and he's not being replaced by anyone. Rizzo is completely in charge of the baseball operation and with his new title reports directly to ownership, no intermediary necessary. Andrew Feffer, hired last winter as chief operating officer, is in charge of the business side of the franchise for now and also reports directly to ownership.

But Feffer doesn't oversee the baseball department and he doesn't oversee Rizzo. Only ownership does. But ownership has no public face at the moment, and that's a problem.

Ted and Mark Lerner have never been real comfortable with public speaking. They prefer to run their businesses in private, which is perfectly acceptable. But in the world of professional sports, someone has to speak for ownership if ownership itself isn't speaking.

When a GM is given a five-year extension, when a scandal alleging illegal actions by club officials in the Dominican Republic comes to light, when fans want to know why they couldn't buy tickets to Opening Day even though thousands of Phillies fans could, someone representing ownership needs to speak directly to the public.

For five years, Kasten was that guy. It's time for ownership to figure out who will be taking over that vital role and serve as the public face of the Nationals moving forward.


Doc said...

Dead on Mark, there's a responsibilty gap here. Rizzo being the only one showing up to announce his own extension, would be like Strasburg or Harper being the only ones present at their own contract signings.

Next thing we'll hear, is that Rizzo has fired the Learners, and has replaced them with his father. Baseball has its own corporate structure
that seems to evade standard business practice.

Dave Nichols said...

Good points, Mark.

Transparency. Accountability. Responsibility. Respect for fan base. All these things the Lerners still need to learn.

Anonymous said...

I know a guy who would be perfect as a public face for the franchise.

Mark, I know this online gig is going OK, but I think your city needs you to step it up to another level.......

Section 223 said...

I hear Clint is available.

Upper Left Field said...

Spot on Mark. If the Lerners don't want to regularly appear in public, that's understandable. But at certain points, the business of the franchise just requires them to do so. Promoting someone directly answerable to you is one of those times. If they want to be isolated the rest of the time, so be it. But not appearing starts begging questions like, why? Do they not want to have to answer certain questions about staff and payroll? Are they hiding something? It's just not a good way to do business. Any chance Uncle Ted Leonsis sits them down with some "ownership lessons 101"?

Matt said...

Maybe this is a stupid question, but couldn't they just hire a team spokesman (or make him available at events like this)?

Feel Wood said...

"But Feffer doesn't oversee the baseball department and he doesn't oversee Rizzo. Only ownership does. But ownership has no public face at the moment, and that's a problem."

Where's the problem? Rizzo is the public face of the Nationals for all baseball-related matters, and apparently Feffer is now going to be the public face for any off-the-field matters that require a public face. And really, how much of a "public face" is needed for off-the-field matters anyway? Are you worried about who to complain to for customer-service issues? A "public face" is not necessary for that, what is necessary is that the job be done properly and that any problems be resolved when they arise. If Feffer and his minions do their job, there's no need for the public to even know who they are. If ownership perceives that they are not doing the job to the satisfaction of the customer base, they can replace them with someone else who will do the job. And really, there's no need for any kind of "public face" when that is done. If the screwup is so major that some public mea culpa is needed, ownership can step up and speak publicly, and I'm sure they would. But those things happen rarely. Dominican fiasco? Clearly something like that in the future is now happening on Rizzo's watch, and he's the "public face" for that now. Ownership need not say anything unless and until some fiasco gets so bad that Rizzo himself is compromised. Philly fan fiasco? Well, gee, that one kinda happened largely due to the actions of a "public face" didn't it? So maybe not having that kind of public face is the way to go, y'think?

Actually, the only real departure in yesterday's announcement was that they actually announced the length of Rizzo's contract. Kasten had and held to a policy of not discussing the timeframe of his front-office persons' contracts - and as it turned out, that policy extended to the length of his own contract as well. I'm sure that his reasoning in doing this was to project an image of continuity for the franchise. Probably he figured that if no one knew how long Bowden's contract was, for example, the assumption would be that he was going to be there indefinitely and constant questions about his job status could be avoided. Unfortunately it didn't work that way, since the cynical Washington media interpreted any non-announcement of the length of someone's contract to mean that they were basically day-to-day - when obviously that was never the case. For instance, how long was the GM contract that Rizzo was given in 2009 and that has now been extended to five years? For all we know, it could have been four years or even the full five that he now has, because it was never announced. Clearly Rizzo has not been working day-to-day until yesterday!

So in summary, Mark, the news and the big deal out of yesterday's announcement is not the length of the contract and how that translates into the owner's timetable or their commitment to Rizzo. The news is that as far as a "public face" for anything and everything baseball-related with this franchise, the owners are clearly and unequivocally giving that responsibility to Rizzo, along with their trust. In announcing the five year timeframe, they are acknowledging that Kasten's policy of not announcing timeframe of executive contracts did not have the desired effect of projecting continuity, but hopefully this will.

Kevin Rusch, Section406 said...

Well, this may be a stupid question, but why can't Rizzo play the "public face of the business" role too? I know it's not precedented, but is it ludicrous?

Steve M. said...

They could be like Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and keep it all in the family and fire Rizzo and Feffer.

Let's see, Jerry holds the title of Owner, President and General Manager and his son is head of Player Personnel and his other son is head of marketing and his daughter is head of branding.

and no, I am not joking....

Sec3MySofa said...

Kasten was an owner; Rizzo is not. The Lerners may well try to cover these things themselves, but they seem to have a tin ear for PR on this level. Rizzo may get the job by default, then, since realistically, it has to be either an owner or a baseball guy to have credibility.
It's unrealistic to suggest nothing will go wrong over the next five years, and when it does, somebody has to stand there and answer questions put to the franchise, i.e., ownership.

Maybe Rizzo will be fine with it, but if, for instance, they are still losing in 2013, to borrow Mark's scenario, the questions will be to Rizzo's bosses, not him, and somebody has to do that well or it will cost them.

Mark Zuckerman said...

Feel Wood and Kevin Rusch: Rizzo has no responsibilities on the business side of the organization, so it would be entirely inappropriate for him to speak about any non-baseball issues. And Feffer has no responsibilities on the baseball side of the organization, so it would be entirely inappropriate for him to speak about any any of those issues.

Can Feffer be the public face when there are issues related to ticketing, the ballpark, fan relations? Sure.

But when the GM is hired/fired/extended, doesn't someone who had a say in the decision to hire/fire/extend him need to publicly explain that decision?

I'm not saying Ted or Mark Lerner (both, by the way, very nice gentlemen who I regularly see at the park and chat with) need to be holding press conferences every week. But when something big happens (like yesterday), one of them (or someone else representing ownership) needs to stand in front of reporters and answer a few questions.

Rodeorob said...

I don't have a problem with this move either. Aside from a handful of clubs (Yankees, Orioles, Dodgers, Angels, Red Sox), how many owners are all that visible? I'd rather the Lerners keep quiet and let Rizzo do his job. If he fails, fire him. Let's hope they're really as hands-off as they act. We'll know sooner rather than later.

N. Cognito said...

Mark -
"In some ways, the Lerners handing out a five-year extension suggests they believe it's still going to be a while."

I don't believe that is a logical extension.

Feel Wood said...

"But when the GM is hired/fired/extended, doesn't someone who had a say in the decision to hire/fire/extend him need to publicly explain that decision?"

For an outside hire or a firing, sure. But for an extension, why? What needs to be explained? What reasonable questions remain unanswered? Clearly they like the guy, like what he's doing, want to give him more responsibility, and want to keep him around. What are you going to ask the owners anyway in that situation? "So Mr. Lerner, could you quantify exactly how much more you like Mike Rizzo today than you did yesterday? Is it bigger than a breadbox?" Debbie Taylor: "Mark, how meaningful is it that Mike Rizzo [insert entire press release text here]?" Barbara Walters: "Mike, if you were a tree, what kind of a tree would you be?"

Mark, it seems like your only real question here is "how long is it going to take to turn this thing around?" And for that, what the Lerners are telling you by not presenting a "public face" at the press conference is "Ask Rizzo." Which is exactly how it should be when you have non-meddlesome owners. And isn't non-meddlesome ownership what every team ought to have?

JD said...

Jeff Wilpon is constantly in the media and there are always questions about who is really running the Mets; I prefer my owners in the background. They hired Rizzo to run their Baseball operations and that's how it should be. Rizzo needs to get a budget from the owners and that's it; he shouldn't have to run trades or signings by them.

The 5 year deal actually sends out a message that decisions are not short sighted and that there is an overall ongoing plan; this way a GM is not tempted to get a 3 month rental for a Bartolo Colon by trading Cliff Lee, Brandon Philips and Grady Sizemore ALA Omar minaya.

I am also skeptical about all the discussion about what exactly happened at the trading deadline because no one knows exactly who was offered for whom and who balked at what; everything is speculation and innuendo.

Anonymous said...

are there any other clubs with the same person as GM and President? If so, how do they handle these issues.

Anonymous said...

The team spokesman position has worked with other teams.

Agree with Dave Nichols on the point of Respect for fan base. All these things the Lerners still need to learn.

If there are 8,000 season tickets held and the average is 4 seats per season ticket holder that means there are 2,000 people representing each season ticket block.

I think the Lerners need to take this off-season to personally talk to each season ticket holder group representative as it is long overdue. It is amazing when someone actually takes the time to do that. That is a lot of hours to do but I think it will go a long way in showing as Dave Nichols said a "respect for the fan base".

Scooter said...

I guess my thought is, I can see why the question is interesting, but it's really more Mark Zuckerman's problem than mine. I just can't see it mattering to me all that much.

But more importantly, how terrific that this blog is carrying on so strong in the post-season. It's great to be able to stay in the Nats Insider habit.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 2:57, Jerry Jones holds 3 titles and is also the go to person for media. When the Cowboys got beat again, Jerry was on air giving his normal jibber jabber.

Personally, you get the word from the horse's mouth and Jerry Jones IMHO is a horse's a$$ so it is perfect!

In all seriousness, the team does need that voice of the team that Kasten held and better it isn't a Lerner family member as it has been nice that the Lerner's have stayed in the background.

When Kasten was in Atlanta, they had a Fan Council. It was a group of a dozen season ticket holders that would make suggestions to management on improving the quality of the fan experience. Funny thing is, Kasten never instituted that in Washington.

I am hoping without Kasten that this team shows more respect for the fans and it sounds like this is Feffer's side of the business. I think the happier your fans are, the more money the team makes and of course we all know winning makes happier fans so it is full circle right back to Rizzo!

Anonymous said...

All this nonsense goes away if you win. Just win baby.

markfd said...

Bingo Mark you are on the money with this one. If the Lerner's believe it could take five more years to build something here that is HUGE problem and shows we will likely be pursuing guys on the downside of their career to fill holes this offseason versus getting guys who are still on top of their game...ugh! I hope we are both wrong!

Steve M. said...

Mark F. D., you are one of the brightest guys on here and like any newlywed knows, you have to think long-term when you got a keepe! This was a stop gap to tie Rizzo up under team control for long-term so they don't have to worry about him leaving.

After the whole Mark Lerner lovefest with the king of the brown-nosers aka JimBo, Ted Lerner saw it in the team's best interest to tie up Rizzo so young Mark would be taken care of if anything happens to the patriarch.

Why is anyone reading something negative into this. This should be welcomed news that the Lerners continue to look long-term.

All good here!

Anonymous said...

Lerners - Just shut up and sign the checks. and make them out for more than minimum wage. Trust Rizzo to make the right decisions.

Rizzo - make the right decisions.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad Rizzo is extended, he's a good baseball man and been good for the team. Continuity is important for the long term stability of the franchise. I may not be happy with the fact he hasn't re-signed Adam Dunn yet, but I'm happy with the progress of the team attributable to Mike.

Mark I agree with your premise about needing someone to be the spokesman other than the GM, but who's to say that this isn't going to happen at some point in the near future? Stan K just left a couple of weeks ago. Plus, he never really did answer questions. Has an explantion for selling off our Opening Day tickets to Phillies fans ever been provided? Not to my knowledge. I think its more important that the team be accountable (which has been lacking at times even with a President) than the structure about who is the person in the organization that delivers the message.

Anonymous8 said...

Ray, most teams accountability is giving the fans a sacrificial lamb like firing their manager or finding other scapegoats -or- the real fan favorite is when the fans are told that the team underachieved and will do better next year just to placate the fans.

For my accountability, I want to see action this off-season. 2010 is the year where you can see where the Nats need improvement and that is all in the GMs department to fix.

1. #1 pitcher in the rotation for 2010
2. Centerfielder w/ .350+ OBP & defensive skills
3. Need a power hitting 1st baseman
4. Decision at 2nd base
5. Choose a closer or get one
6. Build a bench

Feel Wood said...

"I think its more important that the team be accountable (which has been lacking at times even with a President) than the structure about who is the person in the organization that delivers the message."

I really don't get this constant clamoring for "accountability." What are you guys looking for anyway? Is it enough for them to say "Yeah, we screwed up. It won't happen again" or are you expecting heads to roll? Because either way, unless whatever bad thing that happened once doesn't happen again your "accountability" is worthless. Why is it not enough that they simply don't repeat whatever mistakes they might make? For instance, if they prevent the Philly type of Opening Day debacle from happening again, is that not good enough? After all, there's no way they can undo something that's already been done. You're looking for ownership to undergo public flagellation or for some poor guy who may have made an honest mistake to have his career destroyed just so you can feel some measure of vindication? Really, what purpose does that serve? Is it not enough for them to be legitimately working to make things better on and off the field? That should be accountability enough for you, shouldn't it?

Anonymous said...


I think you're asking the question we're all asking: Will there be someone above Rizzo in the chain of command?

I attended some of the tours Stan made of Nats park for the press as the new stadium was being built. Stan knew EVERYTHING. The sight-line from every seat. The price of every seat. The renewal/sales rate for every section, as compared with comparable sections at RFK. In his new role as hybrid GM/President, is Rizzo supposed to know all this stuff? Am I supposed to email Rizzo when my boss gets lousy service in the Stars & Stripes Club?

If he's NOT supposed to know all this stuff, who is?

DC Tom said...

Let's consider the counterfactual world -- what if Rizzo had been extended for only 3 years?

The stories then would be about the "pressure" being on for the Nats to be competing for the division or Wild Card in 2012...about how the Lerners are counting on Strasburg coming back better than ever...that Bryce Harper will be pushed...

I'd rather have it be five years. Does not mean you can't fire him after three years (you just have to pay him!).

The fact is that the Phillies will continue to be the dominant team in the NL East until approximately 2012. So why put any pressure on Rizzo to try and compete with them just yet?

Around 2012-13, the Phillies will start to be vulnerable and that will be our moment. I expect Ryan Howard's contract to be an albatross, Rollins and Oswalt will be fading and likely gone. The team will still be good with a core of Utley, Halladay, Ruiz, Domonic Brown and Hamels...but we might be able to compete with that core.

The Mets will get worse before they get better. As will the Braves, who seem to be in a period of dis-investment right now. The Marlins could grow into a solid team in 2012-13 if they keep their core, but that's always a big "if" with the Marlins.

Jenn Jenson said...

Count me as happy about Mike Rizzo's extension. I think of the change partly as a commitment to a joint working relationship with the Lerners, and believe that commitment is itself important.

I do agree that a public face is needed, not only to answer questions about Rizzo's promotion, but also to embody support for Mike. Because the Nationals are privately owned, the Lerners aren't obligated to make a public statement, but I think not doing so is bad business because they're failing to account for the public nature of their product.

This issue--the public nature of their product--is of course closely related to what Dave Nichols calls "respect for the fan base." One of Stan Kasten's jobs was speaking to the fan base and, as I've said elsewhere, I think he failed spectacularly. I know very little about Andrew Feffer, so can't really say whether he could effectively speak both to the Lerner's business interests and to the fan base. I guess that depends on whether Feffer believes that showing more love for fans and customers is good business. If not Feffer, someone needs to step up, whether it's the Lerner's or another person who is made accountable to the customers who buy the tickets, eat the hot dogs, watch the games on TV, and otherwise support the team.

Kasten resigned only recently. Hopefully there will be more announcements to come regarding actions to help the organization become more effective over a variety of dimensions.

Wally said...

On Mark's other question, whether this extension suggests that the Lerners believe it will be another full on rebuilding effort, I don't think it necessarily means that. It feels to me like they are happy with Rizzo, and with StanK's departure, they probably wanted to signal a sense of stability to the public. I also get the sense, but I don't know why, that they are prepared to spend this offseason. We may not like how they do it - again, my sense without knowing why is that they are going to make a play for Werth, let Dunn leave and replace him with one of the older, lefty 1Bs like Pena or Huff, and go after a pitcher or two. But it feels like they are going to do something. It feels like letting Dunn go is part of a plan to compensate for losing a pick or two for signing a Type A FA. Maybe that is just wishful thinking on my part.

But unless they do what none of us think they should, will or can, by signing Lee, be prepared to lose one or more of our best young ones to get a pitcher. I think Norris for sure, maybe Storen and either Espy or Desi. Something like that. Unless you sign a FA, you don't get something for nothing.

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