Nine picks later, they drafted Stanford right-hander Drew Storen.
On that day, the Nats had the first pieces what they believed would soon be a dominant starting rotation and bullpen.
The rotation, anchored by Strasburg, became a force to be reckoned with in 2012.
Jordan Zimmermann made a complete recovery from Tommy John surgery and became a top-of-the rotation starter, joined by Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson.
Accompanied by Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and company in the bullpen, the Nationals’ pitching staff only allowed 594 runs, fewer than all but two ballclubs in the majors.
Meanwhile, the Nats’ bats were good—but not great—they scored 731 runs, the tenth most in the major leagues that season.
The 2012 season set the tone for future Washington clubs; when the Nationals made it to the playoffs, they made it on the coattails of their pitching staff.
When pitchers struggled in their assigned spots (see: 2013, 2015), the offense couldn’t make up the lost ground, and the Nats failed to make the playoffs.
This year, the Grade-A pitching has been less-than grade-A.
The Washington bullpen, at a 5.32 ERA, is worse than all but four other teams’ bullpens.
Guys that were expected to continue to perform well, like Blake Treinen and Joe Blanton, simply haven’t been able to make it work.
Other guys, like Sammy Solis, Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley, have been hurt.
By the logic of previous years, this would lead to the conclusion that the Nationals would be struggling, similar to 2013 and 2015, treading water around the .500 mark.
That would make sense—after all, those other four teams are all nowhere near the top of their respective divisions.
Instead, the Dusty Baker’s Nats entered Sunday’s game against the Phillies with the best record in the majors at 21-9. So, what’s different this time around?
For one thing, the obvious resurgence of the offense has played a key role.
We’ve always known that the combo of Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, and Anthony Rendon could make for the majors’ best offense.
Even so, something—whether it’s injuries or slumps—has always prevented that from being the case.
This year, even with the loss of Adam Eaton, the Nationals’ offense has finally reached its potential, and is putting up better numbers than anyone else.
If they were to keep up their pace from April (170 runs over 25 games) they would score approximately 1102 runs in 2017, shattering the record for most runs put up by a team in a single season (the 1936 New York Yankees currently hold the mark at 1065).
The offense won’t likely keep up this earth-shattering pace—it just doesn’t seem sustainable.
However, it could still very easily perform near its April clip, which wouldn’t break any major league records, but would still bail out the bullpen when it struggles.
Additionally, the starting pitching is strong; the combo of Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jeremy Guthrie, Joe Ross, A.J. Cole, Jacob Turner, and Tanner Roark have been good for a 3.63 ERA, a number that would assuredly be lower if it weren’t for Guthrie’s cataclysmic start against the Phillies in early April.
More important, though, is the way Dusty Baker is actually using his bullpen.
In previous years the Nationals have enjoyed success, the order in which the Nats use pitchers in the bullpen has always been predetermined.
Last year, Treinen had the seventh, Kelley had the eighth, and Papelbon or Melancon got the ninth.
In 2014, it was Aaron Barrett for the seventh, Clippard for the eighth, and Storen for the ninth, and in 2012, Ryan Mattheus, Clippard, and Storen went in that order to close out games.
In years that things haven’t worked, managers Davey Johnson and Matt Williams forced pitchers into roles they couldn’t handle, putting guys like Casey Janssen and Xavier Cedeño into jobs they simply weren’t ready for.
This year, mainly out of necessity instead of choice, the Nationals haven’t had much of a set order or set many roles; closer-to-be Blake Treinen faltered, and backup choices Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley both succumbed to injury early on in the season.
This has led to Dusty Baker having to throw guys in different positions than usual, closing out games with guys like Jacob Turner and Matt Albers.
This is a luxury that previous iterations of the ballclub didn’t enjoy; if one took, say, Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard out of the mix in 2014, the Nationals would have been hopelessly lost in the bullpen, with nobody doing their job in their new set roles, which is exactly what happened in 2015.
The Nats returned to sanity the year after, but after being forced to make a change in the closer spot, Baker has chosen not to give just one guy the job and watch him flail.
Instead, he’s been willing to put in whoever is best for the situation or whoever he thinks can get the job done that night.
Because nobody is flailing in the closer spot, or really, any set spot, stuck in a position that doesn’t suit them, the Nats’ bullpen has been able to make do, and the offense and rotation have picked them up.
This has made for a very different style of play from previous seasons.
Now comes the tricky part. Washington’s offense is good, but it isn’t always good, and they can’t afford to take chances in the playoffs.
The most likely solution is a trade for someone along the lines of Kansas City Royals’ closer Kelvin Herrera.
Yes, it would require the Nats to further deplete their farm system, but considering just how good both the offense and starting rotation are this season, it just doesn’t make sense for Mike Rizzo to hold back on getting the right guys to complete the team.
A trade along those lines could give the Nationals some much-needed stability in the back of their bullpen.
If there’s just one reliable reliever that does his job well, then Dusty Baker can mix and match and continue to play around with his bullpen until he finds something he likes.
That could mean having Herrera as the closer. It could mean pitching him whenever he’s needed and letting the Alberses and Turners of the world finish off games, or it could even mean putting Glover in the closer spot and Herrera before him.
In the meantime, the offense and starting rotation will continue to allow the Nationals to win a whole lot of games.
However, that doesn’t mean that GM Mike Rizzo and the team’s owners, the Lerners, should wait any longer to fix their bullpen.