A little over a year ago today, the Washington Nationals, having signed two 1st Round Draft picks who'd be in the Majors relatively quickly in Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen, free agent right-hander Jason Marquis, closer Matt Capps and future Hall of Fame catcher Pudge Rodriguez and acquired a right-handed reliever, Brian Bruney, were considering the Winter an early success. Marquis would quickly discover that he couldn't pitch with "loose bodies" in his elbow, and the 32-year-old right-hander would spend most of the year recovering from the subsequent surgery which would make the first year of his 2-year/$15M dollar deal a near-complete wash. Bruney, the Nats discovered, did actually suffer from the control issues scouts had long discussed. Strasburg would arrive with a debut unlike anything the nation's capital has seen, but would end the season in August when a torn ulnar collateral ligament led to Tommy John surgery and a year's worth of rehab. Pudge Rodriguez too started strong and peaked early, hitting .413 with a .443 OBP, 524 SLG (.967 OPS? Pudge?) in 18 games and 63 at bats in April before a .233/.242/.350 May brought the then-38-year-old, 20-year veteran back to reality.
Storen and Capps, however, worked out fine for the first-year GM, who saw the Nats' second '09 1st Round pick pitch his way up to the majors by the third week of May and pitch well enough to earn himself a spot in the battle for the closer's role this Spring. Capps converted 26 of 30 save opportunities with Washington before he was dealt to Minnesota at the Non-Waiver deadline in return for highly-regarded catching prospect Wilson Ramos, who's expected to compete for the starting job alongside Pudge Rodriguez in 2011.
In a December 30, 2009 Washington Post article by Thomas Boswell entitled, "Rizzo's checklist for Nationals is halfway there", Mr. Boswell spoke to then-team President Stan Kasten and Nats' GM Mike Rizzo about the Nats' new leak-proof front office and their ability to compete for the best available talent. "After the evidence of the last two weeks, mounted on top of the past 13 months," Mr. Boswell wrote, "...it now seems probable that the Nats (Lerners) finally 'get it'...":
"Unless the Nats suddenly go into the fetal position, Rizzo and Kasten are now running a sensible mid-market revenue team. D.C., just mid-market? For now. Win, then recalibrate."
Mr. Boswell also wrote about the real work Mike Rizzo was doing to rebuild the franchise the nation's capital had inherited from Montreal, hiring, "17 scouts and front office execs [and] adding 10 full-time slots," including Davey Johnson and former Braves' Scouting Director Roy Clark to a front office that was finally getting down to the business of, "solid, traditional long-term team building,":
"No big predictions or $100 million, bet-the-farm signings. Just piece-by-piece opportunistic improvements, more depth everywhere and emphasis on patient farm system development, not forced feeding.
The evidence has reached the edge of critical mass. In a couple of days, or months, we may finally be able to say that the Nats, and their new GM, are doing things the right way."
A year later, however, the question still hangs in the air. Are the Nats and D.C. GM Mike Rizzo "doing things the right way"? What's now being described as Phase I of the plan to rebuild the Nationals has ended in the Nationals' general manager's mind, and the Nats have moved on to Phase II and "$100 million, bet-the-farm signings" like Jayson Werth's 7-year/$126M dollar deal. Mr. Rizzo also apparently thought the Nats' once-depleted system was deep enough to make a run at former Kansas City Royals' ace Zack Greinke, offering a package that reportedly appealed to the Royals, but the 27-year-old right-hander, who wanted out of Missouri and another two years of building toward contention, reportedly blocked a deal to D.C., where he no-doubt saw the same process playing out in the nation's capital.
The Nationals let their big middle-of-the-order bat, Adam Dunn, walk with only draft picks as compensation and traded hard-hitting but oft-injured outfielder Josh Willingham to Oakland for another hard-throwing-but-wild young reliever, 23-year-old Henry Rodriguez, and an outfield prospect, 25-year-old Corey Brown, who struggled in 41 games at Triple-A Sacramento, and though they signed Werth, chased some pitchers and are on the verge of signing a first baseman (likely Adam LaRoche) to replace Dunn, they're still building for the future with the 2012-13 seasons seen as the target date for fielding competitive teams.
But all of this was as expected as Ian Desmond's high error total. (ed. note - "Rizzo actually thought he'd commit more errors.") In the Washington Post article by Thomas Boswell, the writer discussed dealing Willingham for young pitching as the Nats eventually would, though it took another year, and the WaPost writer talked about adding a veteran arm or two who'd be gone by 2012 (Livan Hernandez, Marquis), at which point the Nationals would know what they had in, "Strasburg, Storen, Ross Detwiler, [Jordan] Zimmermann and that prize No. 1 overall pick in '10, [Bryce Harper], who could turn out to be a Griffey, A-Rod, Mauer or Chipper."
Jayson Werth's locked up so he'll be a part of the 2012-13 teams the Nats think will finally compete, and Strasburg, Storen, Zimmermann, Harper (and hopefully Detwiler) are all on target for the same time frame with Ryan Zimmerman signed through 2013 and hopefully due the same sort of extension his comparables around the league have recently received. A 10-game improvement between '09 and 2010 was also the expected incremental improvement, as Mr. Boswell noted that a 20-game improvement happens, "less than five percent of the time." Another ten wins this year and .500 baseball is a possibility, another ten and things begin to get interesting. Have the Nationals added ten wins this offseason? Or taken a step back? Why does there seem to be less faith in NatsTown than there was last winter, when the plan for the future's been laid out for some time now?