How the Washington Nationals became baseball's sleeping giant
An outstanding starting rotation is the biggest reason for the Nats' early success
Washington has never finished above .500 since moving from Montreal after '04
The Nationals have the best record in the NL and lead the East by 2 1/2 games
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 Baseball America's top 75 -- pitchers Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole and catcher Derek Norris -- and a fourth pitching prospect who was considered ready to immediately step into a major league rotation, Tom Milone. Gonzalez was his.
"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.