The Washington Nationals have taken advantage of their draft position over the past few seasons. Much like Tampa Bay, they have been able to use top draft picks to build a championship caliber team. It's hard to believe this franchise was once a candidate for contraction in Montreal.
When the organization moved to Washington D.C. in 2005, the roster still had some veterans under contract, but it was clear they needed to address one of the worst farm systems in baseball. Attendance soared in their inaugural season; nevertheless, the club was far from competitive. The Nationals needed a plan for rebuilding the organization after two seasons with no direction.
Former General Manager Jim Bowden began removing all of the veterans from the roster in 2007. Alfonso Soriano and Jose Guillen were allowed to leave as free agents. Jose Vidro, Royce Clayton and Livan Hernandez were all traded for prospects. Sure, the Nationals endured losing seasons each year, but they were also accumulating draft picks.
The Nationals were able to make significant progress after selecting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in consecutive drafts. They were the best available and expected to progress through the organization quickly. Strasburg made his debut the following season, but missed a year due to Tommy John surgery. Despite the setback, he has come back strong averaging a strikeout per inning.
Harper was promoted less than two years after he was drafted to replace the injured Ryan Zimmerman. The sample size is small -- .316 average in 19 at-bats -- but Harper has already made an impact in the lineup. Harper may be a top prospect, but he is not guaranteed a spot in the lineup once Zimmerman returns. The Nationals may have a tough decision to make if he continues to produce at this level.
Strasburg and Harper receive most of the attention, but the 2007 draft put the Nationals on the right track. First-round pick Ross Detwiler is off to a 3-1 start this year with a 1.59 ERA and 21 strikeouts. Second-round pick Jordan Zimmermann has a 1.89 ERA and 22 strikeouts. They both have command of all of their pitches, accumulate strikeouts and issue few walks. Strasburg may be the ace of the staff, but the emergence of Detwiler and Zimmermann has given the Nationals one of the best starting rotations in baseball.
General Manager Mike Rizzo added the final piece to the puzzle during the offseason. He traded former draft picks A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone, Derek Norris and Brad Peacock to the Athletics in exchange for Gio Gonzalez. The move cost the Nationals a substantial amount of prospects, but this team needed a proven commodity at the top of the rotation. Gonzalez has pitched well for the Nationals, yet his veteran presence in a young rotation has been just as important.
The Nationals have progressed from the worst organization in the league to a playoff contender in just five years. Many teams have tried this approach, but few have been this successful.