WASHINGTON—Ryan Mattheus gets a big grin on his face at the mention of the 2009 deadline deal that sent him from the Rockies to the Nationals.
“I had Tommy John surgery (July 15) and had a cast on my elbow,” he said. “I was riding an exercise bike at Coors Field, and (then-farm director) Marc Gustafson came over and told me it hadn’t been finalized yet, but he wanted me to know before it gets on television that I was traded to Washington.
“It was tough at the time. I had never been with an organization other than the Rockies.”
No regrets now for Mattheus, a 19th-round draft pick out of Sacramento CC in 2003 who had yet to get to the big leagues in Colorado. Given a year to recover from surgery, he has since emerged as a key member of the Nationals bullpen.
Similarly, Tyler Moore has emerged from obscurity to become an important outfield/first base reserve. He was a three-time draft choice of the Nationals, turning them down out of a Mississippi high school (41st round) in 2005, and Meridian (Miss.) JC (33rd round) in 2006. He finally gave in when they took him in the 16th round out of Mississippi State in 2008. “I figured I was running out of time,” Moore said.
Much has been made of the high-profile success stories who boosted the Nationals to the National League East title, and there have been many, including Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Ross Detwiler and Drew Storen. But the team’s success goes much deeper.
Mattheus and Moore are perfect examples. They are role players but have played a significant part in giving Washington, D.C., a team in the postseason for the first time since 1933. They are testimony to the commitment the Nationals have made to using every avenue to put together a contending team.
Eleven of the 25 players on Washington’s NL Division Series roster were their own draft choices. And the Nationals did make a big splash with the free-agent deal for Jayson Werth, but there wasn’t any bidding war when they signed Chad Tracy, Adam LaRoche, Mike Gonzalez or Edwin Jackson.
Catcher Kurt Suzuki came from the Athletics for a minor league player in August, and Gio Gonzalez was part of a six-player trade with Oakland before the season. Sean Burnett came over from the Pirates, and Tom Gorzelanny from the Cubs. Roger Benardina was signed as an amateur out of the Dominican Republic, and Christian Garcia was signed as a minor league free agent.
“That,” general manager Mike Rizzo said, “is what makes this season so special.”
Rizzo might not have envisioned Mattheus and Moore as part of Washington’s foundation, but he thought they had what it took to help build the team. He made the call on Mattheus, well aware that he wouldn’t be able to pitch for at least a year.
“I had seen him in the Futures Game the year before and liked that hard sinker,” Rizzo said. “I knew we weren’t going to get an arm like his if he hadn’t had the operation. We were willing to wait for Ryan to get healthy.”
Rizzo quickly made Mattheus comfortable with the move. “He told me where I fit in the organization, that he felt I could pitch at the back end of the bullpen,” Mattheus said. “He said my first focus was on getting healthy, and once we got through that I’d move forward.”
Mattheus appeared in 10 minor league games at the end of 2010, and in 2011 he made 22 appearances between Double-A and Triple-A before getting called to the big leagues.
“It was tough at the time, but once I understood what was going on . . . ” Mattheus said, “Well, it’s worked out well.”
Things also have worked out well for Moore. “We had an area scout (Eric Robinson) that loved the kid,” Rizzo said. “A lot of scouts would look at him and say he didn’t run real well or didn’t throw real well. But (Robinson) kept talking about his explosive bat. He wouldn’t give up on the kid.”
And this season, in so many ways, the Nationals have found out the wait was worth it.