How the Washington Nationals became baseball's sleeping giant
Billy Beane knew what he had in Gio Gonzalez: a young, durable, lefthanded strikeout artist. If Beane, the Oakland A's general manager, was going to deal him last winter -- even in the midst of a fire sale in which virtually every player on the A's roster, save second baseman Jemile Weeks, was available -- it would be for a return of the sort that would decimate most trading partners' farm systems.
In fact, just one organization might have had the wherewithal to pry Gonzalez away from Beane without crippling its future: the Washington Nationals.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo didn't blanch when he heard what Beane wanted for Gonzalez. Rather, he pounced. Two days before Christmas, he sent to Oakland three prospects, each of whom has in the past two seasons been ranked among
"A lot of people say we gave up the future for the present," says the 51-year-old Rizzo, but he knows better, as it appears the Nationals simply turned their already promising future into an even brighter one. On Tuesday, Gonzalez threw six shutout innings against the Padres to lift his record as a National to 2-0, and lower his ERA to 1.52. That miniscule figure ranks him only fourth in a five-man rotation that, through 18 starts, boasts a cumulative ERA of 1.71, and is the central reason why the Nationals -- who have never had a winning season in their seven years since moving from Montreal -- have a National League-best 14-4 record and a 2 1/2 game lead in the NL East.
Little about the rotation is due to change in the near-term, especially among a top three that suddenly seems to rival any club's, even the Phillies', in its quality. Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg (2-0, 1.08 ERA) and Jordan Zimmermann (1-1, 1.33) are all 26 or younger, and not one of them can become a free agent until after the 2015 season.
That the Nationals were able to consolidate their resources to acquire Gonzalez while retaining an admirably deep minor league system -- which is led by outfielder Bryce Harper (No. 1 on B.A.'s Top 100 list) and third baseman Anthony Rendon (No. 19, and considered the best hitter in last June's draft) -- is the direct result of a philosophy that was installed immediately after the Lerner family bought the team from Major League Baseball in July 2006. The philosophy was carried out by Rizzo, who was hired as the club's new vice president of baseball operations: develop, or die trying.
"We didn't mind the pain of finishing last," says Jim Bowden, who was the Nationals' GM until 2009, when he resigned and was replaced by Rizzo. "When Rizzo came in, we were all in on scouting and development -- and nothing else mattered."
"That philosophy was the only reason we were in position to give away four of our elite prospects," says Rizzo. Of course, it's far easier in theory than in practice to turn around a moribund organization through the scouting and development of players. You need to pour money into the effort, and the Lerners -- the richest owners in baseball with an estimated fortune of $3.3 billion -- did that. They rapidly expanded what had been a skeleton scouting department and allowed their new evaluators to target what they considered to be the most talented draft prospects, regardless of their potential contract demands.
"We wanted to go out and take signability for amateur players out of the equation," says Rizzo. "We were going to put up on our draft board what we felt were the best players on talent and skill level and tools alone, and draft them accordingly." That ability has been particularly effective recently, before the implementation last November of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that will cap the bonuses clubs can give to prospects selected in the draft's first 10 rounds.
You also must find the right players, and fight for them, and Rizzo's department has consistently done that. While Rizzo draft picks Norris, Milone, and Cole are all now highly regarded, they weren't always as such. Cole and Norris were both fourth-rounders, in, respectively, 2007 and '10, and Milone was a 10th rounder in '08.
It took years of legwork to accumulate the commodities needed to acquire Gonzalez, who might constitute the clearest example of the coming to fruition of the Nationals' effort to rise from baseball's underclass. Each of his fellow rotation-mates, however, represents, in varying ways, a part of the franchise's long-term strategy.
Zimmermann was perhaps the first prize of Rizzo's scouting-and-development era. The Nationals, to the shock of the baseball world, declined to part with Alfonso Soriano, who was soon to become a free agent, at the trade deadline in 2006, believing that the two draft picks they would receive as compensation for his departure would prove more valuable than any of the underwhelming prospects they were offered. One of those picks, the following June, became Zimmermann, who played collegiately at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, a school whose players had before him contributed a total of 9 1/3 big league innings. No. 5 starter Ross Detwiler -- whose ERA through two starts is 0.56, second in the NL to Atlanta's Brandon Beachy -- was a first-rounder in that 2007 draft, Rizzo's first with the Nationals.
While it required less scouting expertise to discern that Strasburg ought to be the Nationals' pick at No. 1 overall in 2009 -- there was no other conceivable choice -- he is the product of another part of the plan: a willingness to lose, to a degree that most major league clubs would refuse to tolerate. "We felt it was important to not step out there and add a couple free agents, piecemeal, to make us an OK major league team," says Rizzo.
The result was back-to-back 59-win seasons, in '08 and '09. While the No. 1 picks those miserable records produced were well earned, the timing of them was exquisite, as rarely does any draft contain such an obvious franchise-changing phenom like Strasburg -- let alone another, the following season, in Harper. "Luck of the draw," says Rizzo.
The Nationals' final starter, Edwin Jackson, represents a more recent development in Washington's plan to reach long-term, sustainable contention: an increasingly robust participation in the free agent market, at its highest levels. The Nationals made a bid for Maryland native Mark Teixeira during the winter following the 2008 season, before Teixeira signed an eight-year, $180 million deal with the Yankees, but they made their first major splash two winters ago, when they signed former Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth for seven years and $126 million. Rizzo insists that he pursued Werth primarily for his on-the-field contributions, and while Werth disappointed in his first season with the Nationals, batting .232 with 20 home runs and 58 RBI's ("Obviously, statistically, not going to be satisfied with the numbers," Werth says), he has hit well so far this season: a .292 average and an .833 OPS, both second on the team.
But there was another reason Rizzo coveted Werth. "I think other people saw it more symbolically than I did, but it did kind of tell the world that we're going to be players in the free agent market, that we're an up and coming team," he says.
Prince Fielder saw them as such, as they were a top contender for the slugger's services this winter before the Tigers made him a
As the Nationals continue to improve, they will be even more willing to sign future Fielders, and to further increase their major league payroll. The Nationals' payroll is currently baseball's 11th lowest, at $81.3 million, but even so, Rizzo is not surprised that his club has so far found success. "We thought, this winter, that we were going to compete," he says. "Our goal is to play meaningful games in September and beyond."
To do that, the Nationals will need their starting pitchers to continue leading the way. Washington's rotation, according to fangraphs.com, has an average fastball of 93.8 miles per hour, making it cumulatively the hardest throwing since velocities began being recorded in 2001. Strasberg's heater averages 95.7 mph, baseball's fastest, but he insists it's not all about speed. "Velocity, it doesn't mean anything," he says. "Guys can hit it. We're not out there trying to just throw as hard as we can, light up the radar guy. We're out there trying to pitch."
Still, notes Rizzo, his collection of power arms is one sign of a franchise on the upswing. "We used to have sinker, pitch-to-contact guys," he says. "That's who you get when you're not elite."
While there is little reason to believe that the Nationals' deep, hard-throwing rotation will collapse any time soon, there is also little reason to believe that it can continue to pitch to its current standard, as, if it does, it would finish the season with an ERA that is more than three-quarters of a run lower than the best rotational ERA ever recorded, that of the 1968 St. Louis Cardinals. That rotation included a pair of Hall of Famers, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton, and pitched from a 15-inch mound, which baseball the following season lowered to its current 10 inches partially as a result of its (and particularly Gibson's) success.
Indeed, if the Nationals are to reach their first-ever postseason this year, they will likely need their lineup to carry more of the burden than at present. Washington currently ranks tied for 20th in the majors in runs per game, at 3.6,, and might further struggle if a sore shoulder forces third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the franchise's longtime centerpiece and No. 3 hitter, to the disabled list. The eventual return from injury of Mike Morse, a Rizzo find who hit 31 home runs with 95 RBIs last season, should help, but so too could the promotion of a player who, at 19, would be the league's youngest by nearly 22 months: Harper.
"We'd like a little more lefthanded presence in the lineup, and he's the piece," says manager Davey Johnson. Although Harper has not statistically impressed through his first 17 games in Triple-A -- he's hitting .239, with one home run and two RBI's -- Rizzo insists that he has not looked overmatched there. His Nationals debut could occur in a matter of weeks. "We're not going to hold him back," says Rizzo. "We think he's that special, as far as ability level. When he's ready mentally, physically and emotionally to come up to the big leagues, perform in the big leagues and stay in the big leagues, we'll bring him up."
Strasburg agrees that Harper is on the cusp, and will fit in seamlessly. "Harp's a good guy, and in a lot of ways, we're a lot alike," he says, in his rapid monotone. "He's the type of player that wants to go out there and not just beat people, but kick the crap out of them. So do I, absolutely."
When Harper does arrive, he will find a club very different from even the one that drafted him two years ago. "He's going to be coming into a team that's already young and talented, and he's just going to add to it," says Werth. "The nucleus of this team is set, and it should be here for a long time."
"It used to be that when you were at home and said hey, I play for the Washington Nationals, you'd kind of say it into your fist," says shortstop Ian Desmond, one of the organization's few holdovers from the pre-Lerner and Rizzo days. "Now that everything's moving in the right direction, you can say it with your chest out."
In the coming years, Desmond's rib cage should only further expand, as the front office's disciplined, nuanced rebuilding strategy has produced a club with all the components of -- and, in particular, the starting rotation of -- a perennial contender. In fact, the Nationals might currently be in the early stages of something that in Washington D.C. is usually reserved for political families: a dynasty.