The Nationals are closing in on winning their first division title, and executive vice president of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo is one of the biggest reasons the team is going to the postseason. It was Rizzo who made the trade for left-hander Gio Gonzalez, who is a National League Cy Young Award candidate, and Rizzo drafted pitcher Steven Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper.
Rizzo's best signing of all came last June, when he inked Davey Johnson as the team's manager.
MLB.com caught up with Rizzo recently to talk about the Nationals and their 2012 season.
MLB.com: Everybody knew the team would be improved in 2012, but did you think the team would be this good? The team is 32 games over .500.
Mike Rizzo: We felt good about ourselves coming out of Spring Training. We felt we had a good ballclub. I never put a number when it comes to the number of wins, because there are too many unknown factors that go into that. But we knew we were going to be good. We knew were going to be a tough team to play against going down the stretch, and we knew we were going to play meaningful games that were going to count at the end of the season.
MLB.com: If you had to pick a trade or signing that turned the franchise around, what would it be?
Rizzo: This year, the Gio [Gonzalez] trade pops into my mind. That was kind of an organizational [game] changer. We were getting a power starter in the rotation that was young and controllable. We signed him for multiple years. I also think bringing Davey Johnson on for the full season was probably as important of a signing that we made all year.
MLB.com: Why do you say that regarding Johnson?
Rizzo: He is the steady-handed leader that this group of guys needed. ... He felt good about managing the team. We felt good about having him. Because of our relationship, I believe he accepted the job, and he has taken it and ran with it.
MLB.com: When you took over the role as GM in 2009, what was the biggest change you had to make?
Rizzo: We had to change the culture of losing. We were finding ways to lose games back then. When things started going badly, they just escalated and became worst. We had to change the personalities in the clubhouse and add to the talent base.
MLB.com: What did Johnson do to turn things around?
Rizzo: His presence. His baseball acumen is second to none. He is as good a baseball guy as I [have] ever been around. That's first and foremost. Second of all, his steady hand, [his] approach to handling players. The players overachieve for him. He gets players to play to the maximum level. He has done everything these players want to do. He commands the respect of the players. He motivates and allows them to be as good as they can be.
MLB.com: Do you want Johnson to manage the team next year?
Rizzo: I do want him back to manage next year. We've had initial discussions. We both feel comfortable where we are at in that process. I said it before, Davey is part of the furniture as long as Mike Rizzo is general manager of the team. I definitely want him back for '13.
MLB.com: You did something that is rarely seen in baseball. Before the non-waiver Trade Deadline, you did not make one trade because of the depth in the Minor Leagues. What does this say about this organization?
Rizzo: We felt we had the right personnel in place to go deep in the playoffs. We felt that we had a good group of guys already in place. We didn't see any holes that we had to fill. I couldn't see a deal that was out there that was good for us in 2012 and beyond. We were not going to make a deal to get a player for just two months. We didn't want to disturb the chemistry of this ballclub. There were no gaping holes to fill.
And we did we make a trade after the Deadline for and an everyday catcher in [Kurt] Suzuki. I think that [was an] important trade that we made. He is terrific contributor to this team. He is a guy that is not only with us this year, but he is going to be with us beyond 2012.
MLB.com: What are your plans for Suzuki and Wilson Ramos next year?
Rizzo: We have depth, and you know we love depth. It's the cornerstone of our philosophy -- have a lot good players in a lot of positions -- to have options on what we are doing. Wilson is a front-line catcher. He is the catcher of the future. He is our long-term answer behind the plate, but he had a serious knee injury. Although we believe he is going to be ready for Spring Training, we want to assure ourselves that we have a front-line guy in case he couldn't answer the bell, and that is Kurt Suzuki.
Furthermore, coming off that surgery, I know Davey is going to be very traditional on how he plays Ramos, who is not going to be able to handle the rigors of 120, 130 games anyway. So we needed to have a front-line type of guy, and that is Suzuki. It's a credit to our scouting department. We identified a guy we thought was as good as a defensive catcher as anybody in the league, with some offensive upside. He is a clutch hitter, makes contact, hits for power and a guy that has a track record.
MLB.com: You and Stephen Strasburg announced late last year that Strasburg would have an innings limit for 2012. Are you surprised that people have reacted negatively about Strasburg not pitching in the postseason?
Rizzo: Not really. Stras induces a lot of conversations. He is a high-profile Major League pitcher. He is an incredible talent and a great story. He is a guy that people like talking about. So I'm not surprise by it.
MLB.com: Has it hit you that that you are close to winning the National League East title? You were able to do it the traditional way, with scouting and player development.
Rizzo: It really hasn't. I'm not allowing myself to have it hit me yet. We have a game tonight. We are taking it one game at a time, one series at a time. That was our motto going into the season -- take [the] series. We are still going to use that motto. We are looking forward to this series [against the Phillies], then we will go to St. Louis and look forward to that series. The numbers will take care of themselves. We [will] look back on this sometime and celebrate.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.