Chapter 1: “They were ready for you.” 1 “They were ready for you.” November 28, 2018
They rode down an alley off reality, beneath the dim yellow street lights, by bare bushes, bristling trees, and into a dark cul de sac, the gravel slicked and messy, the Potomac River swishing up to shore. This was where rich people went to impress other rich people, right inside, past one set of doors, then another, a pair of lit fireplaces, and a wooden, wraparound bar. So here were Mike Rizzo and Mark Lerner, at Fiola Mare in Georgetown, with millions to spend and business at hand.
This, Rizzo believed, was how they’d turn the Washington Nationals from an 82-win team, their final identity of last year, into a real contender. Rizzo was not focused on the free agent everyone was talking about. He instead wanted the top starting pitcher on the market, and wanted him bad. That pitcher had visited two teams before arriving in Washington on November 28, 2018. Rizzo knew others were in the mix. And how to show his interest, yet not come off too desperate, was what the GM had stewed over for days now. He had to nail this dinner.
“See, Pat, they were ready for you,” Rizzo told Patrick Corbin while they walked through metal detectors in the entryway. Security was wall-to-wall in the Italian restaurant, and Rizzo joked that it was to protect Corbin from adoring fans. Their white-clothed table was set for six. Corbin sat down next to Jen, his wife, and straight across from Rizzo. Lerner, the Nationals’ managing principal owner, and John Courtright, Corbin’s agent, filled the last two seats. It just so happened that Vice President Mike Pence was dining there, too.
The dinner crowd is politicians, lobbyists, or anyone who, in a given night, can spend $125 on the cheapest caviar, or $500 on the average bottle of wine. Corbin and Jen liked fine dining, and had splurged in the past, but this was another level. They were still high school sweethearts from Syracuse, New York, modest, and smiled at each other while leafing through the leatherbound, sixty-four-page wine list.
The most expensive was a 1997 Sangiovese. It cost $10,500.
Rizzo told the group that Mr. Lerner was paying. Everyone laughed. Then food and drinks began pouring out of the kitchen, carried by waiters wearing black vests and a rainbow of ties. A seafood tower was topped by a whole lobster. There were plates and plates of caviar. There was wine, endless amounts of it, and the five of them chatted about the menu, the city, and, when small talk faded, what the Nationals were all about.
It was already shaping into a quiet off-season around baseball. A stalled market revolved around Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and a list of free agent stars who had yet to sign new deals. The Nationals were linked to Harper because of history. For nine years, since he was drafted in 2010, Harper was Washington, Washington was Harper, and they both squinted into that mirror image for answers that never came. Harper met the world as the Chosen One, posed on the cover of Sports Illustrated at sixteen years old, billed as “The Most Exciting Prodigy Since LeBron.” The Nationals landed him with their second straight No. 1 pick, their reward for losing 103 games the season before, when they were still trying to grip a new fan base.
They had been in DC for just seven years when Harper debuted at nineteen in 2012. They had never seen anything like him, his bat blurring through the zone, his long hair flowing, and flipping, and feeding images onto the internet. Expectations were shoveled onto his teenage back. Then they were only met in hollow bursts.
The Nationals made their first postseason in Harper’s rookie year, but each playoff failure inched them closer to his free agency. He was long set to hit the market in 2018. Scott Boras, his agent, promised that Harper would sign a record deal. And if the Nationals’ title window was dependent on Harper, as many believed it was, it would smack shut unless a deal was struck.
They offered ten years and $300 million in late September of 2018, and Harper declined. The contract’s payment deferrals were too steep. He felt he had come too far to not even test free agency. Boras expected half the league to bid on his services. But while the press kept connecting the Nationals to Harper, and his return remained a faint possibility, Rizzo shifted his focus elsewhere.
He saw the slow drip of free agency as a market inefficiency. While most teams waded into the off-season, and many planned to not buy at all, he attacked it with urgency. He had Scherzer and Strasburg returning in the rotation, Rendon and Turner on the left side of the infield, and Soto, Robles, and Eaton in the outfield. Zimmerman was his first baseman. Doolittle was his closer.
There was life after Harper, as Rizzo saw it, and he wasn’t waiting for that saga to play out. Instead, to shake the taste of an 82-80 year, he went to work. And fast.
He traded for reliever Kyle Barraclough in the middle of the playoffs. He made reliever Trevor Rosenthal the first free agent to sign once the market opened. He inked veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to a two-year deal in mid-November and, ten days later, traded for All-Star catcher Yan Gomes. But Rizzo was set on adding another star to his rotation. That’s how they wound up at Fiola Mare, their table covered in food, their waiter checking in every few minutes, pen in hand, to make sure no order was missing. Now Rizzo just needed to close the deal.
Rizzo researched Corbin before the lefty made it to Washington. Corbin’s first stop on a three-city trip was to visit the New York Yankees. That’s who scared Rizzo the most. Corbin grew up in Syracuse, Yankees posters all over his bedroom walls, and his family and friends pushed for the hometown choice. His younger brother even brought up the Yankees in a best-man speech when Corbin and Jen got married in the fall.
But Corbin had an open mind once he left the Arizona Diamondbacks after six seasons. He wanted to win, more than anything, and zeroed in on the Yankees, Phillies, and Nationals because they all planned to contend. He wanted to be the last piece of a blueprint, not the start of one, and Rizzo tapped into that.
He knew the lefty came from a blue-collar background, his dad a truck driver for a sausage company, his mom a nurse. Corbin landed a big signing bonus in 2009 and still spent two winters on their basement couch. He kept the same beat-up Audi he drove in high school. He officiated youth basketball, his first love, and played pickup games in the freezing cold. He wasn’t big-time. He wouldn’t even know how to pretend.
He’ll always have tried out as a junior, unannounced, and wowed varsity coaches with a slider grip his father taught him. He didn’t wear baseball pants into the Cicero–North Syracuse High School gym that day. He didn’t own a pair. The legend that he wore jeans, the denim pooling at his ankles, was later debunked by coaches and teammates who witnessed the tryout. But he did walk into the end of a stretching line, scratch his name onto a sign-up sheet, then go 14-0 across two seasons. That was enough for a nearby junior college to recruit him. It wasn’t enough for his head to grow.
So Rizzo didn’t go heavy with compliments. He figured the Yankees and the Phillies already had. He figured most teams would. What Rizzo did do, while the rest sat and listened, was challenge Corbin to come thrive in Washington. Rizzo told him it was hard to shine next to Scherzer and Strasburg. But Corbin could, Rizzo urged, and the Nationals needed him to form a dominant rotation.
Rizzo was the Diamondbacks’ scouting director when they won the World Series behind Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Rizzo vowed that if he was ever a general manager, his formula would center on his starting staff. He tried that with Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann in. He tried it again with Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann in. He kept trying, year after year, but the mix was never quite right.
But Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin sounded like a winner. Rizzo kept saying it over dinner—Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin—to drill the idea into Corbin’s head. The wine kept flowing. Lerner promised to keep putting money into the team. Rizzo told Corbin that pitching was the timeless key to success. Corbin could tell he was at the top of their priority list. Then the check came, they went their separate ways, and he had a decision to make.
“I don’t know what he’s going to choose,” Rizzo told Lerner as they left the restaurant. “But we couldn’t have done any better than we did tonight.”
Corbin, Jen, and Courtright were staying at the Four Seasons in Georgetown. It had been a long day, filled with food and information, and they were excited to sleep. But first they chatted over one last drink at Bourbon Steak off the hotel lobby. Corbin was recapping the dinner when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a familiar face.
It was Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals’ franchise player, walking with his wife, Heather, toward the bar. Corbin shouted across the room to get Zimmerman’s attention. He wasn’t sure if Zimmerman would recognize him in plain clothes. But Zimmerman did, and soon enough he and Heather pulled two more chairs up to the table.
Zimmerman and Heather were coming from a gala for their multiple sclerosis foundation. Bourbon Steak was one of their go-to spots. They sat for thirty minutes and gave Corbin the player’s pitch. Zimmerman loved Washington. He moved here when he was twenty-one years old, as the Nationals’ first-ever draft pick, and made his home in northern Virginia. The schools were great for his two young girls. He and Heather felt the Nationals were family, and the team was strong, and Zimmerman wanted Corbin to sign there, just as Rizzo and Lerner did, if Corbin and Jen felt the same.
By the time Zimmerman left, and it was time for bed, Corbin, Jen, and Courtright were all leaning in the same direction: they were in if the price was right.
A deal came through less than a week later. Corbin signed for six years and $140 million, well above what any other club offered. The Yankees and Phillies were hesitant about a sixth season. The Los Angeles Angels, another interested team, never topped four years and $100 million. But the Nationals overpaid, and willingly, to stack their rotation to Rizzo’s liking.
They only did so after carefully assessing the risk. Corbin was coming off a standout season in Arizona, with a 3.15 ERA in 200 innings. He struck out 11.1 batters per 9 innings, the highest rate of his career, and had one of the best sliders in baseball. That he was a lefty and made 30-plus starts in back-to-back years only upped his value. But that came with obvious concerns. He had missed all of 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in his left elbow. He bottomed out in 2016, his ERA spiking to 5.15, and was relegated to the Diamondbacks’ bullpen.
The Nationals had to decide if he was the pitcher from 2018, or if that version was an aberration. They also had to project how he might age across a long-term contract. Rizzo wasn’t afraid to extend lengthy deals to starting pitchers. He signed Scherzer for seven years and $210 million in 2015. He extended Strasburg for seven years and $175 million a year later. The Nationals’ front office viewed any one season as a trap. Corbin was an All-Star in 2013. He struggled in the seasons after his injury. Now he was back to his All-Star self, thanks to a reimagined pitch mix, but they had six years of data to survey.
They were confident Corbin would age well because he relied on low-90s heat, a slider and changeup, not an overpowering fastball. They were encouraged by the steady improvement after his surgery. They liked his athleticism, and that he was once a standout high school basketball player. That showed in his smooth delivery, his defense, and even on film of him at the plate. The last step for Rizzo was gauging Corbin’s character. His dinner pitch had doubled as an entrance exam.
“I was interviewing him as much as he was interviewing me. I wanted to see who he was, I wanted to see if he was the kind of guy that would fit into the clubhouse. And into our style,” Rizzo recalled later. “If he wasn’t about that, he would’ve probably went to a glitzier place.”
They next saw each other on December 7. Lerner and Jen sat in the front row of the Nationals Park conference room. Courtright lingered by a side door, glancing at his iPhone, and Corbin and Rizzo were on the small stage. Scherzer, Strasburg, and Gomes even came to see their newest teammate introduced.
Lerner was later grabbed by two local radio hosts on his way out. They asked him about Harper, naturally, and the owner made his first public comments on the matter: “I don’t really expect him to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on.”
When pressed on the ten-year, $300 million offer in September, and whether it was still on the table for Harper, Lerner doubled down: “We’ll have to sit down and figure it out,” he told 106.7 The Fan. “If he comes back, it’s a strong possibility that we won’t be able to make it work. But I really don’t expect him to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on. There’s just too much money out there that he’d be leaving on the table. That’s just not Mr. Boras’s MO, to leave money on the table.”
The quotes went viral right away. Lerner had gone entirely off-script, frustrating many in the front office, and reality had come into focus. The Nationals were not finished after landing Corbin. They brought back first baseman Matt Adams on a one-year, $4 million deal in mid-December. They followed that by signing Aníbal Sánchez for two years and $19 million, investing around $95 million in their rotation for 2019. Then came the additions of second baseman Brian Dozier, for one year and $9 million, and starter Jeremy Hellickson, for one year and $3 million, before spring training.
But the Corbin deal signaled the Nationals’ most important intentions. They’d spent more on their starters than five teams would on their entire rosters for the coming season. The Harper money was spread elsewhere, and Washington had all but moved on.