Since moving from Montreal prior to the 2005 season, the Washington Nationals (formerly the Expos) have had little reason to celebrate. The early goings in the nation’s capital has seen the team finish in 5th place in the five-team National League Eastern division six of their seven seasons in Washington. The only time they did not finish fifth was in 2007, when the Nationals climbed all the way to fourth place. Overall, this incarnation of Washington baseball has a seven-year record of 492-640.
Like I said, they have had little reason to celebrate. Until now that is.
One of the immediate benefits of losing is the obvious benefit to the farm system. When the team moved from Montreal, Major League Baseball (which owned the team at that point due to a failed contraction) had stripped the team at both the major league level and throughout the minors, leaving them in a position to lose, and if we have learned anything from how the Tampa Bay Rays were built, the more your team loses, the higher you get to pick in the draft.
Like the Rays, the new ownership group in Washington has been smart about using their picks as well. Some teams, like Pittsburgh as an example, have let perceived signing bonuses affect their choice in the draft. They draft according to signability and not by need, sacrificing their system in order to save a few dollars. However, as the Rays proved, picking smartly and being willing to pay the bonuses at draft time will save the team money down the road when the better talent works its way up quickly to the big club.
The Nationals followed this model. Starting with franchise third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in 2005, Washington made some immensely smart decisions in the first round of the draft and their roster is littered first round picks; Ross Detwiler (2007), Drew Storen (2009), and Stephen Strasburg (2009). Then of course there are also those on the cusp of being ready for the big leagues, including Bryce Harper (2010) and Christopher Marrero (2006). The 2011 draft was also friendly to the Nationals, producing both their second-ranked prospect (Anthony Rendon) and fourth-ranked prospect (Alex Meyer), both of whom rank as a “B” prospect or higher. Even their starting shortstop Ian Desmond (2004 – 84th overall), second baseman Steve Lombardozzi (19th round), and number three starter Jordan Zimmerman (2nd Round – 2007) are products of the front office making smart decisions.
The results of those years of successful drafting are starting to pay dividends also, as the Nationals have risen to the top of the National League East this season, starting the young year off with a 10-4 record. That young pitching staff is pacing the league in ERA (3rd – 2.54), Strike-Outs (1st – 129 in 131 IP), and Batting Average Against (1st - .209). The aforementioned Detwiler, Strasburg, and Zimmerman have all been light’s out thus far, and the bullpen is doing its job.
The Nationals in general are a solid ballclub. Still, there are two things that could derail their run toward the post-season. First, you have an offense that, like the pitching staff, is pacing the majors in strike-outs. They are getting career numbers out of a castaway like Adam LaRoche, while also depending on Mark DeRosa to become a solid contributor again. Still, this isn’t as big of an issue, as the team does have Harper warming up in the minors and will likely promote him after May 1st, even though he struggled in Spring Training and is currently in a slump at Triple-A.
The bigger concern will be the self-imposed inning limitations that the Nationals will use on Strasburg, Detwiler, and likely Zimmerman. Both Zimmerman and Strasburg have recently recovered from Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, Detwiler has yet to throw more than 76 innings in a single major league season. It will be a tough decision if the team is still in the pennant race in September; do you go for it this season and risk an injury set-back?
Regardless, this is a team moving in the right direction. The years of sacrifice to get here have been difficult, but in the end, the results will be there and the fans will have a team worth backing.
What else can you ask for?
Just for Doug's bladder control issues...