MLB.com caught up with Rizzo on Wednesday to talk about the Nationals and their chances to be competitive in the National League East.
MLB.com: This is your fourth season as general manager of the Nationals. What makes this year so different?
Mike Rizzo: We are coming in here with a new attitude. I think the talent level has increased. The most glaring difference is the expectation level has increased.
MLB.com: Everyone is expecting big things from the Nationals this year, possibly a playoff appearance. What do you think?
Rizzo: We have a good, competitive team. We are in this to win baseball games. We are never going to put a number on it, but our goal is to play meaningful games at the end of the season, in September and into October.
MLB.com: Can you pick a day when you thought things would turn around for this franchise?
Rizzo: I don't really put a date on it. Toward the end of the season last year, we were playing our best baseball. It was very encouraging that we could finish the season very strong. We finally had our full complement of healthy players, with the exception of Adam LaRoche at first base. I knew good things were coming when you see the young players -- in front of your eyes -- taking the next step into their career paths.
MLB.com: Do you think Davey Johnson has played a role in that development?
Rizzo: I think Davey Johnson has been extremely important. He has a wealth of knowledge. He has a way about him and the players have the ultimate respect for him. He has done everything you can do in the game of baseball. He was an All-Star player, Gold Glove winner, Worlds Series champion as a player and manager. So he is highly respected. He has a personal way with these players that they really relate to.
MLB.com: After the 2011 season, you said your goal was to acquire a starting pitcher, which you did, and a center fielder, which you have be unable to do. How surprised are you that you were able to get a guy like Gonzalez?
Rizzo: We gave up a lot of good players to get Gio, but we saw an opportunity to get a player that we think is a front-of-the-rotation guy -- 26 years old -- that we could control at a reasonable cost for the long term. We felt this was an opportunity we did not want to pass up. We utilized our vastly improved Minor League system to pull the trigger and make the trade. The trade makes sense for us in 2012 and in the future. We believe we have another wave of pitchers in our Minor Leagues coming that will even surpass the talent level of guys that we gave up for Gonzalez.
MLB.com: You were not able to acquire the center fielder. Are you satisfied with what you have now, or will you still go out and make a trade for a center fielder?
Rizzo: We are always open to make a trade in order to improve our ballclub for the long term. We feel we have good in-house options to play center field. We are going to be a vastly improved ballclub -- offensive and defensively. We feel comfortable that we are going to put a good product on the field.
MLB.com: Bryce Harper has been the talk of Spring Training. What are the chances of him being put on the 25-man roster?
Rizzo: It depends on Bryce Harper. ... He has to show me that he is ready mentally, physically and emotionally to handle the rigors of a Major League season. If he does that, we are going to bring the best 25 guys north. If I feel he needs more time in the Minor Leagues, then that will be our course.
MLB.com: What would you like to see Harper do on the field?
Rizzo: Between the lines, he does an extremely good job. He is a talented player. He just needs to get experience. He just needs to see pitches, learn pitchers, to see Major League breaking pitches and that type of thing. We want him to master the defensive side of the ball. We want him to master the baserunning side and the intricate nuances of the Major League game. And then we'll see how he intertwines with his teammates. ... Is he ready emotionally and psychologically to play in the big leagues?
MLB.com: How would you compare Harper to Justin Upton, who you drafted with the first overall pick of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft?
Rizzo: I think they are very comparable players. They are both extremely talented players with tremendously high ceilings. And I think they are both from very strong family backgrounds. They are great character players.
MLB.com: I have to ask about John Lannan. The Nationals have a surplus of pitching. Is there a chance he will be traded?
Rizzo: We have a surplus of pitching on Feb. 22. We are a long way from Opening Day. We are a long way from the end of the season. My experiences in this game is, we always talk about a surplus of pitching in February and we always need pitching in June. You can never have a surplus of pitching. You can never have too many good Major League starting pitchers. We are going to have seven or eight guys who are going to compete for the five-man rotation. The best five starters will start. The other pitchers will have to find what their best roles are in order to help the ballclub win games.
MLB.com: No one questions your pitching staff. Do you have question marks about the team's offense?
Rizzo: The question marks that we have on offense are going to be taken care of by the guys having normal-career seasons. We had offensive questions last year, but we tend to forget that we played almost the whole season without Adam LaRoche, who averaged 25 home runs and 80 RBIs the last six seasons, excluding last year.
Ryan Zimmerman missed a third of the season. We have Michael Morse, who started the season extremely slowly. We had Jayson Werth, who didn't get anywhere near his career norms as a player.
We had two rookies, Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa, who will become second year players this year. Ian Desmond has a year more of experience. I think the offensive side of the ball will be taken care of by those guys having normal years. I think having LaRoche, Zimmerman and Werth at their career norms will take care of any offense that we were lacking last year.
MLB.com: As far as Zimmerman goes, how are things going in terms of him getting a contract extension? I know he is one of your top priorities.
Rizzo: We love Ryan Zimmerman. He is a terrific player for us. We'd love for him to end his career here and to get him locked up long term. We are working hard on it and we have been working on it for a long time. ... When two people want something, we think we can get something done. But these are long, complicated deals that are worth a lot of money. You have to do what's right for the player and the franchise.
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.