There is no formula to winning. Every time someone figures out one formula someone else figures out a new one, but in reality most formulas for bad teams to become good teams have always been some variation on building through the draft. There is however an issue with this. Sometimes make bad choices when drafting, and sometimes through no fault of the teams the prospects fail. When this happens teams find themselves in a cycle of destitution. Fans want the team to spend to win, and teams want to save money to spend on scouts and draft picks, and if draft picks miss then the teams find themselves playing in front of empty ballparks, and not even having enough money to draft properly. When the Nationals signed Jayson Werth, and attempted to trade for Zack Greinke they made an announcement. This isn't about the slow and steady approach anymore. This is about breaking the cycle.
For every Tampa Bay Rays there is a Pittsburgh Pirates, or to state it even more accurately for every team that succeeds in building through the draft there are many more that don't. The Pirates, Royals, Indians, and Marlins have been following this program for years and while the Marlins have made cameos in the post-season those teams weren't without big time free agents like Gary Sheffield and Pudge Rodriguez, and in the brief eight years since the 2003 World Series the big market teams have begun to hold onto their prospects and covet young players more than ever making it even harder for teams to build from within. It is one thing when the Yankees and Red Sox are signing every free agent in sight to $100 million contracts, but it is worse for the smaller market teams when they are hoarding draft picks and signing first round talent in the later rounds due to signability concerns.
The motto of build from within has always come with its own set of consequences. In order to achieve the feat a team must employ scouts that are smarter than the scouts of other teams. Overpaying for scouts might mean spending an extra couple thousand as opposed to the extra couple million that overpaying players cost. It also limits the range of error on the players that are signed. When a draft pick is touted as the next best thing they better be, because the veteran that will be filling in if they fail won't even be at the level of a Marcus Thames. But being smarter and being better is just half the issue. For the other half people need to only look at attendance in Florida. Both the Rays and Marlins enjoy success on the TV and the radio, but have trouble getting people to come to the ballpark. A lot of that can be blamed on bad stadiums, hot weather, and a distracted fan base, but not all of it. People are emotional creatures, and would rather watch the stars they saw win stay with the team instead of constantly leaving for draft picks or being traded away for prospects, because simply put for every Hanley Ramirez there is a Cameron Maybin.
Prospects are great as long as they are prospects, but sometimes they get to the majors and aren't very good. At worst the busts end up like Andy Marte and at best they become productive back-ups like Austin Kearns, but they aren't the stars or can't miss superstars people projected them to be. Right now the Royals are expected to breakout in the coming years. They have a future Ace in Montgomery and future middle of the order bats in Hosmer and Moustakas, but they could fail or they could succeed and then the Royals become the Marlins of the AL. In 2006 Ramirez, Uggla, and Johnson all finished in the top 10 in ROY voting, but it has yet to lead to much success for the Marlins and now Uggla has been traded to the division rival Braves. The Marlins are counting on more young players like Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison, and Gaby Sanchez to lead them back to the post-season, but often times winning rosters need veteran filler.
Two teams last season were able to break the cycle. Buster Posey and Joey Votto had a lot to do with the Giants and Reds winning, but so did Aubrey Huff and Scott Rolen. Neither of those guys cost a lot of money, but they both over performed better than whatever other options the Giants or Reds had. The Giants could have rushed Brandon Belt to the big leagues, but that likely would have backfired and now that Huff is signed for two more seasons Belt could be used in the way many teams use prospects.
One of the best organizations of the past decade has to be the Atlanta Braves and while they would likely be an even better team with Elvis Andrus as their short stop and Adam Wainwright in the rotation both Mark Teixeira and J.D. Drew helped the Braves in their time with the team. The Braves are a team that has never been afraid of trading prospects based on what they might do. The problem with this example is the Braves were never considered a losing franchise even in years they did miss the playoffs.
Imagine if the Pirates in the next couple years decided to package McCutchen, Tabata, Alverez, and Tallion for Felix Hernandez. This would lead to open mocking, but an Ace pitcher is the hardest thing for a baseball team to acquire as Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has recently discovered. If a team has one they better hold onto them and if they need one they better be willing to sell the farm. If the Pirates made this trade and then went out and spent money to replace the position players they lost they would be a better team. Maybe not in one off-season, but after a couple off-seasons of spending money they would likely have replaced their center fielder, left fielder and third baseman. Buying offense is a lot easier than buying pitching especially on the level of a number one starter.
Of course the issue here is the Pirates don't have money. After 18 straight losing seasons they have more people showing up to watch SkyBlast than baseball games. This is where we get to the Washington Nationals. The Nationals looked at teams like the Pirates, Indians, and Royals and realized the true danger that they face. If the Nationals aren't able to break the cycle they won't have to worry about not spending money, because there won't be any to spend. The Nationals already rank near the bottom in attendance and without the bump they received from Phillies fans and Strasburg starts last season it could have been even worse. If they let the downward spiral continue they could never recover. In many ways the trust between franchise and fan base was broken when they went into the new stadium with a bottom of the league payroll, but this is Washington D.C. For every thousand people the Nationals alienate there are thousands more waiting to take their place. When Thomas Boswell called for Capitals Fans to burn their season tickets on Leonsis front yard how many took him up on the offer, and how many now can't get back into the building without overpaying for tickets on stubhub?
The Nationals this off-season looked into the bottomless pit of what awaited them if they continued to try and build from within. To wait for the 1 in 10 chance that a draft pick becomes a major leaguer and the 1 in 100 chance they become a star. They looked at the sad state of PNC Park, Kaufman Stadium, and Progressive Field, and decided that now was the time to start breaking the cycle. In reality winning is the only cure that exists, but when the 2011 season ends with a win total in the 70's instead of one in the 60's it will be a lot easier to sell the future to a fan base that has been hearing about the future for five years. At some point in time teams with good young players that they want to build around need to get the veteran filler to serve as the mortar the holds the bricks in place. Without Aubrey Huff Buster Posey would have been watching the World Series from his couch, and without Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, and even Livan Hernandez no one would even be entertaining the idea that the Nationals could win 70 games.
In many ways the Nationals are still betting the future on unknowns. As highly touted and as solid as Bryce Harper looks, can't miss prospected miss, and as exciting as Strasburg was in his brief time with the Nationals some players never recover from Tommy John's. The Nationals acquired a second superstar in Jayson Werth to pair with Ryan Zimmerman and tried to acquire a steady Ace in Zack Greinke. Greinke decided to not come to Washington, and many people have said it is actually a good thing as it likely would have cost Jordan Zimmermann, Danny Espinosa, Derek Norris, and Drew Storen. Of course every name on that list is an unknown. They could all end up being great or they could all end up as busts. It is more certain that Greinke would have been good than that anyone of those players turns into a productive major leaguer. Every one of them has promise, and Storen, Espinosa, and Zimmermann have all shown flashes at the major league level, but none of them has won a Cy Young award or been an all-star.
With Greinke's refusal to come to the Nationals the Nationals are now looking at that list of players or whatever the purposed trade actually was and hoping that even one of those players can live up to their ceiling. The Nationals attempt to break out of the cycle they found themselves in is nothing unique. Many other teams have tried to buy winning. The Astros signed Carlos Lee to pair with Lance Berkman, and the Mets have bought countless players to varying degrees of success. The Nationals are hoping that the prospect of a win total in the 70's and a future that contains Strasburg and Harper is easier to sell than another 100 loss season and a future of Harper and Strasburg, and in all reality Strasburg and Harper have a better chance of helping a 70 win team to the playoffs than a 60 win team, and who knows Zimmermann, Espinosa, and Ramos might even exceed expectations in 2011.