Washington isn't always a mess - look at the Nats - NBC Sports

Washington isn't always a mess - look at the Nats
Baseball's team to beat in 2013 was a laughingstock just three years ago, but `step by step' it stayed patient, focused and got a little lucky in its rebuild
Washington Nationals' Stephen Strasburg (37) waves to the crowd after hitting his first career home run.
March 29, 2013, 10:00 am

There probably have not been 10 teams in all of baseball history that were quite as hopeless as the 2009 Washington Nationals. They lost 103 games - the second year in a row that they lost 100 - and were the worst team in baseball.

But it was worse than that. The Nationals had just moved into a new park a year earlier ... and nobody in the nation's capital seemed to care. They were 13th in the National League in attendance. Their television ratings appeared to be a misprint. The Nationals averaged just 12,000 homes. That's "Wayne's World" territory. And that was WAY UP from what their ratings in 2008.

But it was worse than that. Their farm system was seemingly barren. Baseball America ranked them 21st among the 30 teams. They did not have a single prospect ranked in anybody's Top 30. The future seemed about as hopeless as the present.

But it was worse than that. The present wasn't just hopeless, it was hideous.

Their best player, Adam Dunn, was so bad defensively in left field and at first base that despite hitting 38 homers and posting a .398 on-base percentage, the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic still rated him worse than a replacement player (his minus-43 fielding runs is the worst fielding performance in baseball history).

The pitching staff's 5.00 ERA was the worst in the National League. The starting pitching was such an irreparable mess that, in desperation, they signed 34-year-old Livan Hernandez, who had pitched for five teams the previous four years. And one of those teams was the Washington Nationals.

When it gets this bad, what do you do? Where do you even begin? And how does it then become baseball's best team in three years?

"Step by step, without skipping steps," GM Mike Rizzo says.

Can it really come down to a simple cliche?

* * *

Mike Rizzo spent 12 years on the road as a baseball scout in the Upper Midwest back in the 1980s and '90s. Who knows what a baseball scout thinks about as he drives along those long roads up in Iowa and and Minnesota and Michigan looking for ballplayers? All Rizzo ever really wanted to do was play ball. It was what his father, Phil, wanted to do before he became a baseball scout. In fact, it was Phil who told his son that the dream was over, that he just wasn't good enough to play in the big leagues, that he needed to find a different way to stay in the game.

So for 12 long years, Mike did what his father did. He drove those wet and icy roads of the Upper Midwest, enduring the frost, predicting the rain, showing up at muddy fields in the hopes of seeing any game at all, much less a fastball with good sink or a shortstop with range. Rizzo never claimed to be able to see what other scouts could not. But over time, sure, he picked up a few things. He developed a few theories about the game. He came to believe that the best ballplayers - the WINNING ballplayers - combined two things: Talent and attitude.

The Washington Nationals' rise began in June of 2009, when Rizzo was still the interim general manager. They had the first pick in the draft - and it was a good year to have that pick because one of the most exciting young pitchers in baseball history, Stephen Strasburg, was coming out of San Diego State. The Nationals took him, of course. And with the 10th pick, they took another college pitcher, Drew Storen. They liked his makeup.

To give you an idea of where the Nationals were at that time, here was their most used lineup of 2009.

  1. Anderson Hernandez, 2B
  2. Nick Johnson, 1B
  3. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
  4. Adam Dunn, LF
  5. Elijah Dukes, CF
  6. Austin Kearns, RF
  7. Jesus Flores, c
  8. Alberto Gonzalez, SS

Um ... yeah. Rizzo realized pretty quickly that of those players (and other regulars like Cristian Guzman and Josh Willingham), only Ryan Zimmerman - the Nationals' first-round pick in 2005 - was good enough to play every day for a winning National League team (Dunn's bat was good enough, but only in the American League, where he could be DH). The news was no better on the pitching staff - only 2007 draft picks Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann seemed good enough.

So Rizzo went to work. Nick Johnson and Anderson Hernandez were traded away just before Rizzo was officially named GM in August. Dukes: Released. Kearns: Granted free agency. Cristian Guzman: Traded. Josh Willingham: Traded. Adam Dunn: Granted free agency. Pitcher after pitcher was let go. It was a two-year flurry. As Rizzo told a friend, he was getting rid of the untalented and the a-------.

"We had a plan," Rizzo says. "We knew that we had a lot of work to do. We weren't going to be able to build it one way. We needed to acquire as much talent as we could and in as many ways as we could acquire that talent. Trades. Free agency. The draft. Everywhere."

"Let me tell you something about Mike Rizzo," Nationals manager Davey Johnson says. "I don't think the guy ever sleeps."

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As Theo Epstein will tell you, when you're a general manager for a terrible team, you are really fighting two battles. The first battle you're fighting is the battle to get the major league team better immediately. That might sound obvious, but it really isn't obvious at all. The stuff you do at the beginning is mostly cosmetic. You can't turn around a terrible team by picking up a few free agents, and every GM knows it. But you do some shuffling anyway, just to create a little bit of excitement, to win a few more games and, most of all, to provide some cover while the REAL rebuilding happens.

So, Rizzo did that. The Nationals acquired a few short-term players. They signed future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez, and they signed former ALCS MVP Adam Kennedy, and they signed closer Matt Capps and starter Jason Marquis. None of this was going to make the Nationals winners and Rizzo knew it. It was all a bit of misdirection while they attacked the real problem which was, well, everything.

First, the Nationals made Ian Desmond the shortstop. Desmond was never considered much of a prospect in the minor leagues. He was a third-round pick back in 2004, and he had bounced around the minors, showing some speed, but he spent most of his time making outs (he hit .259 in his minor league career) and errors (averaging more than 30 per season).

The Nationals liked him despite all these things. He was tough. He seemed to get better the better the competition (his best minor league season was when he went up to Class AAA and hit .354 ... and he hit a double and homer in his first big league game). So, in 2010, the Nationals made Desmond the every day shortstop. That meant they had him at short and Zimmerman at third. The left side of the infield, anyways, was coming together.

Meanwhile, they had Strasburg absolutely blowing people away in the minor leagues (Strasburg came up to make one of the most hyped appearances ever for a rookie). And in June, with the first pick, they selected phenom Bryce Harper, who had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old.

Well ... it was a start.

* * *

The Nationals got both lucky and unlucky during their astonishing climb. They were certainly lucky that the two years they had the first pick in the draft happened to be the years that Strasburg and Bryce Harper were available. In this way, the Nationals were like the Seattle Mariners of the 1990s, who had the first pick the years that Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez happened to be available.

But Rizzo knew from the beginning: The Nationals would have to make their own luck. Strasburg - though he was handled very carefully - blew out his elbow after only 12 starts and required Tommy John surgery.

The Nationals went to work in the free-agent market. Their big move was spending $126 million to get Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth, who was coming off an MVP-type season, when he led the league in doubles and scored 106 runs. They gave a huge contract to first baseman Adam LaRoche, who had hit 25 homers for Arizona, and they also signed Rick Ankiel and Matt Stairs.

All these moves were generally criticized when they were made, and they looked pretty disastrous in 2011, particularly the Werth signing. He hit .232, his slugging percentage dropped 150 or so points, it wasn't good.

But the big league club was getting better anyway. Another lightly regarded infield prospect, Danny Espinosa, became the team's every day second baseman and despite a serious strikeout problem, he flashed some power (21 homers), speed (17 stolen bases) and defense. Mike Morse, who Rizzo had acquired back when he was interim GM, banged 31 home runs.

On the pitching side, Jordan Zimmermann emerged as a top-end starter and Detwiler, who was drafted the same year, was showing signs of doing the same. Storen became the team's young closer, saving 43 games. Rizzo traded for young catcher Wilson Ramos, who hit 15 homers. A pitching holdover, Tyler Clippard, proved to be dominating in the pen. And all the while, Strasburg's recovery was going faster and better than expected and Harper was stirring things up in the minors with his talent and force of will.

In the middle of the year, manager Jim Riggleman made a stand by resigning just as the Nationals were in one of their hottest ever streaks, having won 11 of 12. Riggleman wanted to talk about the team picking up his 2012 option. The team did not want to to talk about. "I'm too old to be disrespected," Riggleman said on his way out the door.

And that's when Rizzo hired Johnson to be the Nationals new manager.

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You see how quickly it turned? In 2009, they had two Zimmerman(n)s - Ryan and Jordan - and pretty much nothing else.

Going into the 2012 season, suddenly the Nationals had a young infield with established star Ryan Zimmerman at third, a young and promising double-play combination of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, and a pretty good hitting first baseman in Adam LaRoche. How did that happen?

The outfield, which had been an ugly mess in 2009, was suddenly looking very promising. They had Werth, who HAD to rebound from that terrible season and Mike Morse, who was coming off a big year. And everyone knew that Harper wasn't too far away.

The pitching staff suddenly had three good young pitchers - Zimmermann, Detwiler and Strasburg, who had recovered so fast he actually made five starts at the end of the 2011 season. The bullpen was loaded with good young arms. And then Rizzo made a deal with Oakland, acquiring left-handed starter Gio Gonzalez, who had been an All-Star in 2011. And he signed Edwin Jackson, who everyone had been expecting to become a dominant pitcher since he was 19 years old. Now, they had a starting staff that could match up with just about any team.

And, of course, they were now managed by Johnson, who had guided three different organizations to the postseason.

"I have to tell you," Rizzo says, "we knew coming into 2011 that we were a good baseball team. I won't say we knew how good, but we thought that we could contend for the postseason, especially with the adding of another wild-card [game]."

It had happened so fast that nobody had time to get used to the idea of the Washington Nationals being a good baseball team. But they were. The Nationals weren't exactly "lucky" in 2012. Ryan Zimmerman was dealing with something early in the season and was hitting .218 with no power in late June. Werth rebounded, but in early May he broke his wrist and missed three months. Wilson Ramos tore his ACL that same month. And their decision to limit Strasburg's innings would prove to be a year-long distraction.

But the Nationals were now so good, they didn't have to be lucky. They could overcome injuries and distractions. The pitching was overwhelming. They led the National League in ERA. Strasburg made just 28 starts before being shut down, but he struck out 11 batters per nine innings and righties hit just .185 against him. Gio Gonzalez actually led all qualifying starters in strikeouts per nine innings (9.3) and finished third in the Cy Young balloting. Jordan Zimmermann posted a 2.94 ERA, Detwiler established himself by the end of the year. It was a brilliant staff. And all four of them were 27 or younger.

And Bryce Harper arrived. He became the first 19 year-old in more than two decades to play every day in the big leagues (going back to Griffey). And he was quite possibly the best 19-year-old hitter in big league history, certainly the best since Mel Ott. He banged 22 homers (the most since Tony Conigliaro's 24 in 1964), stole 18 bases (most for a 19-year-old since Ty Cobb) and he slugged .643 in September.

The Nationals won 98 games and had the best record in baseball.

Still, it wasn't perfect.

The Nationals and Rizzo announced their intention early to stop pitching Strasburg after 160 or so innings in order to protect him after his Tommy John surgery. For months leading up to the shutdown - especially as it became clear that Washington was playoff bound - Rizzo was criticized and questioned, called a pawn of Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, and old again and again that he was doing a terrible disservice to his team and the player. There were some who suggested Strasburg should essentially revolt and refuse to be shut down.

"Was it hard shutting down Strasburg with the team playing so well?" I ask Rizzo.

"It wasn't hard," Rizzo said. I look at him with my most dubious look - the look that is supposed to represent "Come on, be serious here" - and Rizzo caught it and smiled.

"It wasn't," he said. "We had a plan coming in. We were sticking to the plan. I mean, look, the plan was working."

* * *

Davey Johnson laughs at the offer. I ask him if he's concerned at all about the expectations coming into this year. He says no, he's THRILLED about the expectations, THRILLED that people think the Washington Nationals are a good baseball team. He says that's one of the reasons you play - to be acknowledged as the best.

"So," I say, "You have a choice: You would rather coming into a season with all the expectations and attention than come in flying below the radar?"

"Amen," Johnson says.

They have it. All of it. Everybody's picking the Nationals to win in 2013. Not only were they the best team in baseball last season, they seemingly got better in the offseason. Rizzo doesn't sleep. He traded for Denard Span, who will bat leadoff, play center field and, in the words of Rizzo, "allow Bryce to play left field every day and just focus on getting better as a ballplayer."

Rizzo also signed starter Dan Haren, a three time All-Star, to fill in as the fourth or fifth starter, and Rafael Soriano to close games and free some of the great young arms like Storen and Clippard to pitch in other situations.

It's miraculous, really. Rizzo and the Nationals have turned over 21 of the 25 players from 2009 - only the two Zimmerman(n)s, Detwiler and Clippard survive - and they have built a team that seems without weakness. They hit. They hit with power. Rizzo expects them to be above average defensively at every position. They have amazing starting pitching. Their bullpen is loaded. You know you are in good shape when the pressing question of spring training is, "Do you plan on keeping a second lefty in the bullpen?"

How good can the Nationals be? Well, just as a starting point, you can ask how good Stephen Strasburg and Harper are going to be.

Harper ... there's no predicting his season because you have to go back 50 years to find a 19-year-old who played as well as he did last year. Mel Ott, if you want a comparison, hit .328 with 42 homers as a 20-year-old. Harper, as if anticipating that, has hit .476 with three homers and five stolen bases in spring training. So there's that.

Those were the two superstars that the Nationals drafted. They are unlimited. It would surprise absolutely nobody if they end up the season as Cy Young winner and MVP. But this Nationals team is so good, even if both of them had hugely disappointing seasons ...

"Oh yeah, Washington is still the best team in baseball," one fellow GM says. "You can take away Harper. You can take away Strasburg. Heck, you can take away Soriano too. It doesn't matter. That team is so deep - Mike did an unbelievable job. I mean, sure, if Zimmerman got hurt, that would be tough. If Desmond got hurt, look, it's a long season and anything can happen. Look at what happened to Philadelphia after they got all those great starting pitchers. But going in, Washington is the best team."

Look back at that 2009 team one more time and ask yourself: How the heck did this happen?

"Step by step, without skipping steps," Rizzo says. A cliche, sure, but it's exactly right. When a man doesn't sleep and an organization doesn't skip steps, amazing things can happen.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.

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Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski

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