Washington finished in last place in six of its first seven years of existence. Those are the Nats of the past. Now, the Nationals have won the NL East for the second time in three years and finished with the best record in the National League, with many thinking they have what it takes to play in the franchise's first World Series.
The key, says general manager and team president Mike Rizzo, has been the scouting and player development staff put in place since he took over as GM in 2009. The former scout and scouting director certainly hasn't forgotten his roots.
"We're proud of the players we've put in and the process we set up," Rizzo said. "A watershed moment for when I took over, was when we were able to go out and hire some of the best and brightest guys in professional and amateur scouting, as well as player development. We really changed the culture of the scouting and player development systems. That really led to the foundation of what we have now.
"To me it's all about scouting and player development, using that to fortify [the organization] through the Draft, through trades, through the scouting of free agents."
Player, how acquired, year:
Aaron Barrett, Draft, 2010 (9th)
Ian Desmond, Draft, 2004 (3rd)
Danny Espinosa, Draft, 2008 (3rd)
Bryce Harper, Draft, 2010 (1st)
Anthony Rendon, Draft, 2011 (1st)
Craig Stammen, Draft, 2005 (23rd)
Drew Storen, Draft, 2009 (1st)
Stephen Strasburg, Draft, 2009 (1st)
Jordan Zimmermann, Draft, 2007 (2nd)
Ryan Zimmerman, Draft, 2005 (1st)
The group of homegrown players the Nationals have can be sorted into two categories: BR and DR, Before Rizzo and During Rizzo. Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman and Craig Stammen were drafted before Rizzo joined the Nationals as Jim Bowden's assistant general manager in July 2006. Rizzo had his hand in on the other seven, either overseeing the Draft or as GM.
Some see the Nationals as being a bit lucky in that they managed to finish with the worst record in baseball right at the time when two "once in a lifetime" amateurs topped Draft boards. Sure, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were somewhat obvious choices for No. 1 overall pick, but baseball history is littered with top picks who fizzled, rather than sizzled.
"We scouted these guys constantly," Rizzo said. "We put them through the same litmus test of all our drafted players. I've had 1-1 three times: Justin Upton [with the D-backs], Strasburg and Harper, three pretty good guys."
And while Anthony Rendon was a top 10 pick, going No. 6 overall in 2011, that selection was not risk-free. An injury-plagued junior season at Rice had raised some red flags and the top five teams passed because of health concerns. The Nationals, who would go on to take injured pitchers Lucas Giolito and Erick Fedde in the first round of subsequent drafts, have shown they are more than willing to roll the dice.
"We were aggressive and took a chance," Rizzo said. "Five teams passed because they thought he was injured, they didn't trust the power, and today he's one of the better players in the National League."
Player, year, acquired from:
Jerry Blevins, 2013, A's
Asdrubal Cabrera, 2014, Indians
Tyler Clippard, 2007, Yankees
Doug Fister, 2013, Tigers
Gio Gonzalez, 2011, A's
Jose Lobaton, 2014, Rays
Tanner Roark, 2010, Rangers
Wilson Ramos, 2010, Twins
Denard Span, 2012, Twins
*Matt Thornton, 2014, Yankees
*Acquired via Waivers
The Nationals have been on both sides of the trading aisle and have been successful in both roles. Back when they were a cellar dweller, Washington turned veterans into prospects or young players into current members of a division-winning club. In 2010, Rizzo turned a closer the Nats didn't need in Matt Capps into starting catcher Wilson Ramos. When the Texas Rangers expressed interest in Cristian Guzman, Rizzo once again turned to his scouts, on the pro side, and got Tanner Roark in return.
"We were in the prospect acquisition phase at that time," Rizzo said. "We bought low on Matt Capps and sold high for Wilson Ramos. I like making deals when both teams win. Capps helped the Twins make it to the playoffs that year.
"When Texas was interested in Guzman, I asked our scouts, 'What's the best return?' You pull out a guy who has 15 wins and a sub three ERA."
When the Nationals became more competitive, they switched to buying mode. That started when they made the deal to get Gio Gonzalez from the A's, sending prospects A.J. Cole and Derek Norris to Oakland. It's continued with deals bringing in players like Denard Span, Doug Fister and Asdrubal Cabrera. Once again, Rizzo has to tip his cap to his evaluators
"Look at our five starters," Rizzo said. "You talk about the scouting staff, the amateur scouts hit on two frontline starters (Strasburg, Zimmermann) then we relied on the pro scouts for trades (Gonzalez, Roark, Fister). All these acquisitions are based on scouting evaluations from having seen these guys play a lot. We've been very fortunate and very good at most of our trades."
Kevin Frandsen, 2014
Nate Schierholtz, 2014
Rafael Soriano, 2013
Adam LaRoche, 2011
Jayson Werth, 2010
The Nationals haven't been overly active on the free agent market, though the big splash signing of Jayson Werth, which raised an eyebrow or two, has largely worked out. It also was a strong sign the Nationals felt they were ready to make a move into the first division.
Werth was a needed piece, not only because of his playing ability, but because of his playoff resume and intensity," Rizzo said.
Other big league signings, like Adam LaRoche and Rafael Soriano, have made contributions. But perhaps the biggest free agent acquisition was the one made last offseason and it did not involve someone on the active roster. The Nationals went shopping for a new manager and if there ever was a sign the Nationals are not afraid to throw caution to the wind, it was when they hired Matt Williams, with absolutely zero games of big league managing experience, to take over a team many expected to be where it is today.
"That was a big decision, an important decision," Rizzo said. "We had to go with our instincts, with what our baseball IQ told us. Those take a little courage, from ownership on down. You could go the traditional route, but we thought Matt was the right personality, the right baseball mind, with the right leadership qualities and the right respect level to be successful right off the bat."