He has a model at the top of his own division. In the National League East, a once-forlorn Phillies franchise became a force largely by drafting well and emphasizing "high character" players. Rizzo is using the same approach in an effort to climb into contention, and possibly capitalize in several years when the Phils' core reaches the natural end of its reign.
"Three, four years ago in Philly, it wasn't the case" that players wanted to go there, Rizzo said. "Pat [Gillick] started it, Ruben [Amaro Jr.] continued it, and now there's no question that people want to go to Philly. They have a great atmosphere there. They are a franchise you model yourself on."
Washington was active in free agency in Rizzo's first winter as GM. He signed veterans such as Jason Marquis and Ivan Rodriguez, in part because of their ability to set a tone in the clubhouse that could linger after the players leave. But signings even more important to long-term success came in the front office.
Rizzo, 50, is a former minor-league player and longtime scout, and was the scouting director in Arizona when the Diamondbacks won the 2001 World Series. Once settled into his job in the fall, he began a massive hiring process, tapping his deep connections to hire 15 scouts and five members of the front office. He also removed the "interim" designation from manager Jim Riggleman's title.
That amount of work was necessary, after last season's low point. Then-GM Jim Bowden resigned in March, during a federal investigation into allegations that he skimmed money from the signing bonuses of Latin American prospects. (Bowden maintains his innocence.) With that scandal, the Nationals faced ethical questions uglier even than their record since moving from Montreal in 2005.
Rizzo succeeded Bowden, and later earned the permanent job. During the season, he replaced manager Manny Acta with Riggleman, and faced a high-profile negotiation with agent Scott Boras after selecting Strasburg with the top pick in last summer's draft.
Known for a 100-m.p.h. fastball - some reports have said it is even faster - the San Diego State product immediately became the most exciting prospect in Nationals history. Healed from a minor knee injury suffered in the Arizona Fall League, Strasburg threw 37 pitches yesterday on a back field at Space Coast Stadium.
Despite the velocity and impressive two-seamer, slider/curve hybrid, and change-up, Strasburg probably will begin this season in the minors - though Riggleman expects to see the rookie in Washington soon.
"It's exciting for everybody," the manager said. "The whole process is a statement that [ownership is] trying to do the best they can for baseball in Washington."
More than a decade ago, Riggleman managed another thrilling talent, Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs. Despite early success, Wood found his career overwhelmed by arm injuries, and Riggleman intends to apply that history to his handling of Strasburg.
"Having to do it over, I probably would have pitched Kerry less," Riggleman said. "These guys, their stuff is so good, whether it's Dwight Gooden in his day, Josh Beckett, Kerry Wood, [CC] Sabathia. All these great arms - Felix Hernandez - hitters have a hard time hitting them, so they take a lot of pitches, they foul off a lot of pitches. So it takes them a lot of pitches to finish off the game. They dominated the game for six innings, but they're out of pitches. But you're trying to win the game."
In handling Strasburg, Riggleman will not face the same pressure to win. The Nationals are highly unlikely to contend this season or next, and will do everything possible to ensure a return on their investment, both in dollars and in hope.
It is a heavy burden for the wiry youngster, whose blond stubble is still scarce and whose eyes settled on the floor during a brief session with reporters yesterday.
"I guess that comes with the territory of being a No. 1 overall pick," he said. "I guess you've got to accept it and put on a smile."
The Nationals aim to remove some of that pressure from Strasburg, but Rizzo conceded that the process will not be immediate.
"It will take about three more drafts to put our signature on teams," he said. "To establish enough of a foundation to sustain injuries, and guys who you think are going to make it and don't. We pick first again this year, and I hope this is the last time we pick first."
Riggleman tries to balance focus on the moment with optimism about a possible future.
"There is a lot to be excited about," the manager said. "We have to take care of business in spring training. We've got to take care of business in April. But when you allow yourself to dream a little bit . . ."
Contact staff writer Andy Martino at 215-854-4874 or email@example.com.