2008 was probably the low point of the Washington Nationals time in Washington, and maybe even the franchise’s history dating back to when they were the Montreal Expos in 1969. When the team moved to Washington for the 2005 season, there was optimism that things would change. So when 2008 happened, which was a 59-102 disaster, it seemed like the franchise couldn’t get any worse.
September 6, 2011; Washington DC, USA; Washington Nationals fans wear the jerseys of pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper prior to the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
The franchise’s top prospect according to Baseball America was Chris Marrero, he was followed by Ross Detwiler, Collin Balester, Michael Burgess and Jack McGeary. Detwiler is good, but not what you would expect in a Number 2 prospect. Marrero dealt with injuries as did McGeary who was recently picked up in the minor league part of the Rule 5 draft this year. Of course, also in that top 20 was Jordan Zimmermann, Tyler Clippard, Ian Desmond and John Lannan so pieces of the National League champion Nationals were in place – not to mention Ryan Zimmerman who was already established for the Nationals.
But that horrible 2008 season gave them the first round pick in 2009 when the top prospect in that draft was a pitcher out of San Diego State, Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg was already heralded as the best pitching prospect in a long time and was undoubtedly the number one pick to whoever had it.
The next year, Washington had a 59-103 record but once again ended up with the number one selection when the top prospect was Bryce Harper, a high school star who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Two years earlier as a 16 year old.
There was no doubt that Strasburg and Harper were the number one picks in their draft years, and that they were the two best prospects to get into the draft in a while. They were heralded even before they were drafted and it just so happened to be that the Nationals were the team able to choose both of them.
That is a whole lot of luck. And before you start, let me finish. Strasburg and Harper were not the only reason that Washington became the NL East champions. The Tampa Bay Rays used multiple years of futility to build a roster that contends from year to year. The rest of the roster construction was complex and took a lot of hard work by a lot of people, but part of the great outlook for the future of the franchise hinges behind those two. And there was a lot of luck to get those two players.
First, what if the Nationals had the first round picks in 2008 or 2011 instead? In 2008, there was no consensus number one pick. The Rays selected Tim Beckham with the first pick after considering Buster Posey, Pedro Alvarez, Eric Hosmer and Brian Matusz. Posey seems like the obvious choice now but it wasn’t the case at the time. Entering the 2008 season, Posey was the 17th ranked college player by Baseball America. Beckham was the number one high school prospect and the Rays, who were on their way to their first World Series, chose to go for more long-term benefit than short term impact. It turned out to be a misstep. Even the next year, Posey did move ahead of Beckham but was still behind Alvarez in Baseball America’s top prospects in 2009. It was never a slam dunk.
In 2011, the first overall selection was Gerrit Cole by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cole, who was originally a New York Yankees first round draft pick in 2008 but didn’t end up signing, is still a very good prospect but is still awaiting his Major League debut. The first part of the 2011 draft also had Danny Hultzen, a surprise number two pick by Seattle, Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy, Bubba Starling and – ironically – Anthony Rendon, who dropped to Washington. The top of the draft was actually expected to be Cole and Rendon with the edge probably being Rendon leading up to the draft but injury concerns dropped Rendon down to the Nationals making it three years in a row that the Nationals got the best player heading into a draft. But Rendon just goes to prove how rare Strasburg and Harper are. Number one picks that a team wouldn’t think twice about selecting.
The draft is often about scouting. Years of scouting goes into it, and decisions that are made can affect a franchise for years. Rarely is the decision as easy as it was for Washington in 2009 and 2010. Not to diminish scouts in either year, but it wasn’t the type of decision to take Beckham or take Cole.
The second part of it, is what would have happened if the Nationals just happened to not be the worst team in the league in 2009 and 2010. If only three games had gone the other way, Washington would have had the second pick instead of the first. In most years, it isn’t a big deal but in these particular years? The drop-off is pretty substantial. Imagine instead of Strasburg and Harper the Nationals future depended on Dustin Ackley and Jameson Taillon. Those were the players taken just after the Nationals selection. Or Donavan Tate and Manny Machado. Tony Sanchez or Matt Hobgood and Christian Colon or Drew Pomeranz. Those were the top-5 in either year. None have the upside or Major League experience that Harper and Strasburg do.
The Nationals were made from a bunch of moves since the team came to Washington, and now they are one of the favorites to win the World Series. A starting pitcher and outfielder are only two pieces, but without them and other smart decisions from the front office the Nationals could be a team trying to accomplish what they have already done. The Nationals could have a solid farm system with limited success at the Major League level. They could be the Kansas City Royals. A lot of it was differences in scouting, player development and work behind the scenes. Two parts of it was just a little bit of luck.