Nationals Appear On Right Track After Years Of Struggles

WASHINGTON—First the Nationals had a plan. Then they found the people to execute it. Now with a proven scouting system led by their general manager, a strong player-development staff and willing ownership, Washington enters this offseason with its highest hopes since baseball returned to the District nearly seven years ago.

GM Mike Rizzo and the rest of the organization are optimistic not only because of the 2011 club's 80-81 finish, but because of how they arrived there. A core of players has developed, and unlike in 2005—when a .500 team masked one of the worst farm systems in the game (even after third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was picked fourth overall that year)—there's more on the way.

"We're really excited about where we're at," Rizzo said a month after his team closed with a 17-10 record in September. "This is a special time. We finished strong, and we feel like we're on the cusp of taking that next step."

Injuries limited Zimmerman to 101 games in a season that, for once, answered more questions than it created. The Nationals finished third in the National League East for the first time. It's a far cry from 2009, when in Rizzo's first year as GM—with an interim tag until August—the club won just 59 games for the second straight season.

After years of fits and starts, a group of homegrown or shrewdly acquired pieces appears to be in place. Rizzo and the Nationals signed Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal that looks bad just one year later, but otherwise the Nationals have been moving in the right direction.

The progress has come before 2009 No. 1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg's first full big league season and 2010 No. 1 pick Bryce Harper's debut. On top of that, the franchise's draft this year was rated the best in the game after the Lerner family agreed to pay $15 million in bonuses for a number of power pitchers and bats with upside.

At the major league level, two 24-year-old rookies—switch-hitting second baseman Danny Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos—established themselves as up-the-middle building blocks to go with shortstop Ian Desmond, a 26-year-old who gradually climbed through the system after the Expos took him in the third round in 2004.

One of Rizzo's first moves as GM sent Ryan Langerhans to Seattle in June 2009 and has paid off with another late-bloomer: 29-year-old first baseman-outfielder Michael Morse, who won a job in spring training and led the team with 31 homers and 95 RBIs.

The Nationals also found one of baseball's best back-end bullpen combinations. Drew Storen, taken 10th overall in 2009, saved 43 games, while Tyler Clippard made the All-Star Game and led the major leagues with 38 holds as he struck out 104 in 88 innings.

In the rotation, 25-year-old righthander Jordan Zimmermann established himself as the team's No. 2 starter of the future in his first full season after Tommy John surgery. Strasburg, the expected ace, made it back from the same procedure to strike out 24 and walk two with a 1.50 ERA in 24 innings.

"We have core guys who made it possible to be excited because they're young, controllable and talented, and they showed what they can really do at the major league level," Rizzo said.

Reinforcements kept bubbling to the big league staff during the season. After being named the organization's minor league pitcher of the year, righthander Brad Peacock went 2-0, 0.75 in his first 12 major league innings. A 2006 41st-round draft-and-follow, Peacock and lefthander Ross Detwiler—the 2007 first-round pick who yielded just two runs over his last three starts, covering 19 innings—join Zimmermann as positive development stories for the organization. So might finesse lefthander Tommy Milone, a 10th-rounder in 2008 who pitched well enough for the Nationals to win all five of his starts.

The Next America's Team?

It's all part of what vice president of player personnel Roy Clark, the Braves' scouting director for much of their 14-season reign atop the NL East, says is the "informal mission statement" he and scouting director Kris Kline have: "To build a championship team with a strong emphasis on player development." That, Clark says, is what worked for former Nationals president Stan Kasten and GM John Schuerholz in Atlanta.

"Our goal with the Washington Nationals is to be the next America's team," Clark said. "To do that, we have to build a consistent winner. That starts with area scouts looking for winning players on and off the field."

The Nationals signed all their picks from the first 12 rounds. One player they did not sign was a 15th-round shortstop who had apologized for tweeting racist remarks. "I'm sure the kid's a good kid and he made a mistake, but we're not going to tolerate that," Clark said.

Makeup also has made a difference in the big leagues, as Rizzo said he first had to change the culture of the organization. From where the team began after the move from Montreal, it was no wonder.

When Washington returned to the majors at RFK Stadium in 2005, the operation was barely big league. Major League Baseball owned the team and had considered contracting it. This hurt most in scouting and player development, where budgets were slashed. So that 81-81 team fell to 71-91 and 73-89 before Nationals Park opened. Then came 59-102 and 59-103 records before a 10-win and 11-win improvement the past two years.

"It's a process," vice president of player development Bob Boone said. "In my case, it's been seven years, but (the changes have been) so dramatic. At first, we pretty much had to buy our Double-A and Triple-A teams. Now we have just about whole teams moving to the next level."

Boone was one of former GM Jim Bowden's most trusted lieutenants. Bowden said from the time MLB hired him that he wanted to build the team through the farm system.

"When Montreal came to Washington, the minor league system was pretty much decimated," Boone said. "We didn't have the personnel. But the big thing that's helping us is sticking to our principles that are standard."

To Randy Knorr, a former Expos catcher who has been in the system since 2005, the keys to success have been communication from farm director Doug Harris and a cast of coordinators he says "might be the best in all of baseball."

Knorr praised the work of field coordinator Bobby Henley and the expertise of Jeff Garber (infielders), Tony Tarasco (outfielders, baserunners), Spin Williams (pitchers) and Rick Schu (hitters). He said Boone, a seven-time Gold Glove-winning catcher as a player, and current bench coach Pat Corrales "offered honesty."

Work To Do

Not coincidentally, Rizzo was brought into the organization on July 24, 2006—the same day the Lerners became the owners. Rizzo, a former Diamondbacks scouting director, joined the franchise as assistant GM and vice president of baseball operations. By the end of the 2010 season, he signed a five-year contract and added a title of executive vice president of baseball operations.

For all the Nationals' domestic success, there's still work to do in the international market. During Bowden's tenure, the club signed shortstop Esmailyn Gonzalez for $1.4 million. Once reports broke in 2009 that the player had lied about his name and age, Bowden and special assistant Jose Rijo were fired. Johnny DiPuglia, formerly of the Red Sox, is now the club's international scouting director. He hasn't made a major signing yet, but the team has made improvements to its Dominican training facility in Boca Chica, from air conditioning to better nutritional options. Rizzo oversaw the Nationals' move there after he was first named interim GM. DiPuglia says he expects to see major progress "in the next five to seven years."

That's about how long it has taken the Nationals to attract national attention as a possible contender. Their manager, as of late October, remained interim skipper Davey Johnson, who "has grown up with these guys," Rizzo said of his former senior consultant. "He's the perfect complement to an organization because he's done it all."

Whoever manages the ballclub, Rizzo realizes the most important step is still to come. "You can have all the philosophical victories you want," he said, "but you have to do it on the field."