The Nationals' rise from sad irrelevance to ownership of baseball's brightest future began six years ago in a hotel room in San Francisco. The digits on the room's alarm clock were inexorably advancing, and the assembled members of the club's front office knew what they were supposed to do before 1 p.m. Pacific time. It was July 31, 2006, the day of the trade deadline, and most of baseball's bottom-dwellers were furiously dealing away their mature assets to contenders in exchange for prospects.
This is an article from the April 30, 2012 issue
The Nationals were 46--59, 17½ games back in the National League East, and they had the player who was supposed to be the prize of deadline day. Leftfielder Alfonso Soriano was already a star when Washington acquired him from the Rangers the previous December, but the 30-year-old had never had this type of year: 32 home runs with 26 stolen bases in only 104 games. He was due to become a free agent at season's end and would undoubtedly command an annual salary of more than a quarter of the Nationals' total payroll of $63 million.
Phones in the hotel room trilled incessantly as a dozen teams tried to wrest Soriano away from the Nationals. General manager Jim Bowden led the haggling, but with him were three men whose team-branded polo shirts were still creased from their shipping boxes. The Lerner family had gained ownership of the franchise just seven days earlier, after 4½ years of squalid stewardship by Major League Baseball. The three men were key members of the new front office: principal owner Mark Lerner, the son of D.C. real estate magnate Ted Lerner; new team president Stan Kasten, who had spent a dozen successful years in the same position with the Braves; and new assistant G.M. Mike Rizzo, a 45-year-old longtime scout who had been poached from the Diamondbacks after six seasons as their scouting director, during which he'd improved their farm system from among the NL's worst to one of its best.
The players the Nationals were offered for Soriano were talented but uninspiring: Kevin Slowey, a promising control artist in the Twins system; Mark Lowe, a young flame-thrower with the Mariners. Bowden, Lerner and friends kept shaking their heads. Then the alarm clock's digits read 1:00. The phones stopped ringing. The deadline had passed, and Alfonso Soriano remained a National.
The team completed 2006 with a 71--91 record and their third straight last-place finish. Soriano became baseball's fourth member of the 40-40 club, with 46 home runs and 41 steals, and then signed an eight-year, $136 million free-agent deal with the Cubs. But what happened in that San Francisco hotel room was the catalyst for a six-year rise to prominence for the Nationals, who last year had their best NL East showing (third place) since moving to Washington from Montreal in 2005 and this season won 12 of their first 16 games. For starters, one of the two draft picks the club received as compensation for losing Soriano turned out to be Jordan Zimmermann, a righthander taken in the second round in 2007 from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. Zimmermann, now 25, had a a 3.18 ERA in 26 starts last year and a 1.29 mark in his first three this season. Along with 23-year-old ace Stephen Strasburg (the Nationals took him first overall in '09), Zimmermann fronts a rotation that is the hardest-throwing starting five since velocities were first tracked in 2002. Washington's rotation boasts an average fastball of 93.6 miles per hour and a baseball-best starters' ERA of 1.82.
More important, though, was what the Soriano decision signified: the implementation of a roster-building philosophy from which the organization has not wavered. Washington realized that to become a contender, it needed to invest and trust in its own scouting and development of players—even if that meant enduring years of losing to produce top draft picks. "The Lerners made it clear: We're not in a hurry," says Bowden. "We want to build this through just like we build our buildings, from the bottom up. We don't build the penthouse first."
Bowden is now a SiriusXM radio host; he resigned from the Nationals in March 2009 after becoming embroiled in an FBI investigation into the skimming of signing-bonus money from Dominican players. (He has not been formally implicated and denied the allegations.) While Bowden laid the groundwork, one man is most responsible for turning the story of the 2012 Nationals from one about a team biding its time until the arrival of its savior—19-year-old Bryce Harper, the top overall pick in the 2010 draft—to one on the verge of contention. His bald head was one of those that kept shaking in that San Francisco hotel room, and he became Bowden's successor: Mike Rizzo.
They ate sandwiches slapped together by a man who always had a cigarette dangling from his lips. Of all the indignities endured by the young players drafted into the Montreal Expos organization in its final days, this is what first springs to mind for Ian Desmond. The players were supposed to be the club's future, and yet they couldn't eat a spring training clubhouse meal without picking ashes out of their ham and cheese.
Major League Baseball ran the Expos, who would move south and become the Nationals in 2005, as if the future didn't exist. Any good draft pick—like Desmond, a third-round choice in 2004 now in his third season as Washington's starting shortstop—was the result of dumb luck, as the franchise had no scouting infrastructure to speak of. Whatever prospects they had, they dealt away willy-nilly, most notoriously in June 2002, when they traded three future All-Stars—Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore—to Cleveland for 17 starts from Bartolo Colon. "Scouting and player development is the only way to build a reputable, long-term, consistently winning organization," says Rizzo. "We were really starting from below ground zero."
The effort took money, which the Lerners had, as their estimated $3.3 billion fortune makes them the game's wealthiest owners. While the Nationals' major league payroll has consistently ranked in the bottom third—this year it is 19th, at $80.6 million—the Lerners poured resources into the procurement of top prospects and of the talented men who could find them. Over the past three years no organization has spent more on bonuses for draft picks, and in 2009 alone Washington's scouting department added 17 employees. While some were young and versed in the latest statistical analysis, for Rizzo, stats will always come second. "We lean toward the eyeball rather than the numbers," he says.
As with any demolition-and-rebuild job, things had to get worse before they got better, but even the Nationals couldn't have anticipated how awful they would be in 2009. That year the club dealt with the Dominican scandal; Bowden's resignation; the firing of manager Manny Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire; and a second straight 59-win season. Symbolizing the state of affairs was a night in April when the team's two best players, sluggers Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman, trotted out onto the field with jerseys that read NATINALS. "Typical, I guess would be the right word to explain it," says Zimmerman, the franchise's 27-year-old centerpiece who in February signed a $100 million extension that locks him up through 2019. "They're not going to misspell Yankees."
All the while Rizzo was scanning the country for players who could help turn things around. In June '09, for example, he spotted an aging Mariners prospect with holes in his swing and no true position. Mike Morse, the G.M. says, was "the biggest damn minor league shortstop you ever saw, but I saw a big physical guy that could hit the ball a long way." Rizzo sent journeyman outfielder Ryan Langerhans to Seattle for Morse. Last season, at age 29, the 6'5", 245-pound first baseman--outfielder hit 31 homers and drove in 95 runs.
Rizzo also focused on amateurs, and his results have been astounding. A farm system that once ranked 30th, because baseball has only 30 teams, developed virtually unmatched depth. Strasburg and Harper were the easy picks. The harder ones were pitchers such as A.J. Cole (2010) and Derek Norris ('07), both fourth-rounders; Tom Milone, a 10th-rounder in '08; and Brad Peacock, who was selected in the 41st in '06. The organization's depth allowed Rizzo to turn that pitching quartet into Gio Gonzalez, the 26-year-old All-Star lefthander who was acquired in a trade with the A's in December.
The trade demonstrated that the Nationals' long rebuilding plan was approaching maturity: Packaging their resources to get Gonzalez gave them three top starters who could make them a perennial contender. "What people don't comprehend is how long it takes to win," says Bowden. "The Rays, it took them 10 years. It took Oakland six or seven [in the 2000s]. The whole key is, How do you get Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder atop your rotation? Now, in Strasburg, Gio and Zimmermann, they've got them." They will for a while. None of the three can become a free agent until after the 2015 season.
Davey Johnson became convinced that his future lay in pro baseball when he was nine years old and he served as a spring training batboy for the Washington Senators at Orlando's Tinker Field. A 13-year playing career followed, then 14 seasons as a major league manager, including a world championship with the 1986 Mets. Last June, Johnson was working as a senior adviser to Rizzo, 68 years old and more than a decade removed from his last managing job, when his boss asked if he'd return to the dugout to replace Jim Riggleman, who had resigned. "It seemed like a chance to come full circle, from batboy for Washington to manager for Washington," says Johnson.
The Nationals went 17--10 in September, and Johnson loved the players who had hung tough with him: Zimmerman, Zimmermann, Strasburg (who returned from Tommy John surgery to make five starts down the stretch) and outfielder Jayson Werth. But Johnson also loved the players who would soon join them. Despite sacrificing those four prospects for Gonzalez, the Nationals still have one of the game's best farm systems, led by 21-year-old Anthony Rendon, the top hitter in last June's draft who is now playing at Class A.
Above all, there is Harper. In his second spring training Harper endeared himself to his teammates with his rambunctious, 19-year-old ways. One day, while they were shagging balls during batting practice, Werth off-handedly mentioned that it might be a good opportunity for Harper, a former catcher, to practice his outfield play. "I said, make sure you get your work in, and the next thing I know he's running full speed into the outfield fence," recalls Werth with a chuckle.
Harper had a good spring but did not secure a spot on a 25-man roster that included only two players, Zimmerman and backup catcher Jesus Flores, who were with the team on Opening Day 2009. "I explained to him, we don't want you to come up here and struggle," Johnson says. "When you come, then there won't be any turning back." Harper scuffled through his first 15 games with Triple A Syracuse—he hit .220 with one RBI—but, says Rizzo, "he's not overmatched whatsoever by that league. We've got a lot of worries in this organization. He ain't one of them."
It seemed unlikely even two Junes ago, when the Nationals made Harper their second straight No. 1 overall pick, but when the phenom does debut—and it could happen in a matter of weeks—he will not do so with savior expectations. Rather, all that will be expected of him will be to provide some help in the outfield, and a solid lefthanded bat in a lineup that, with Morse on the disabled list with a strained back, had produced just 3.6 runs per game through Sunday. Harper's promotion will represent not the fruition of the plan that was symbolically implemented six years ago in that hotel room in San Francisco. It will be just another step on what looks like the franchise's journey to sustained excellence.