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As with any demolition-and-rebuild job, things had to get worse before they got better, but even the Nationals couldn't have anticipated how awful they would be in 2009. That year the club dealt with the Dominican scandal; Bowden's resignation; the firing of manager Manny Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire; and a second straight 59-win season. Symbolizing the state of affairs was a night in April when the team's two best players, sluggers Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman, trotted out onto the field with jerseys that read NATINALS. "Typical, I guess would be the right word to explain it," says Zimmerman, the franchise's 27-year-old centerpiece who in February signed a $100 million extension that locks him up through 2019. "They're not going to misspell Yankees."
All the while Rizzo was scanning the country for players who could help turn things around. In June '09, for example, he spotted an aging Mariners prospect with holes in his swing and no true position. Mike Morse, the G.M. says, was "the biggest damn minor league shortstop you ever saw, but I saw a big physical guy that could hit the ball a long way." Rizzo sent journeyman outfielder Ryan Langerhans to Seattle for Morse. Last season, at age 29, the 6'5", 245-pound first baseman--outfielder hit 31 homers and drove in 95 runs.
Rizzo also focused on amateurs, and his results have been astounding. A farm system that once ranked 30th, because baseball has only 30 teams, developed virtually unmatched depth. Strasburg and Harper were the easy picks. The harder ones were pitchers such as A.J. Cole (2010) and Derek Norris ('07), both fourth-rounders; Tom Milone, a 10th-rounder in '08; and Brad Peacock, who was selected in the 41st in '06. The organization's depth allowed Rizzo to turn that pitching quartet into Gio Gonzalez, the 26-year-old All-Star lefthander who was acquired in a trade with the A's in December.
The trade demonstrated that the Nationals' long rebuilding plan was approaching maturity: Packaging their resources to get Gonzalez gave them three top starters who could make them a perennial contender. "What people don't comprehend is how long it takes to win," says Bowden. "The Rays, it took them 10 years. It took Oakland six or seven [in the 2000s]. The whole key is, How do you get Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder atop your rotation? Now, in Strasburg, Gio and Zimmermann, they've got them." They will for a while. None of the three can become a free agent until after the 2015 season.
Davey Johnson became convinced that his future lay in pro baseball when he was nine years old and he served as a spring training batboy for the Washington Senators at Orlando's Tinker Field. A 13-year playing career followed, then 14 seasons as a major league manager, including a world championship with the 1986 Mets. Last June, Johnson was working as a senior adviser to Rizzo, 68 years old and more than a decade removed from his last managing job, when his boss asked if he'd return to the dugout to replace Jim Riggleman, who had resigned. "It seemed like a chance to come full circle, from batboy for Washington to manager for Washington," says Johnson.
The Nationals went 17--10 in September, and Johnson loved the players who had hung tough with him: Zimmerman, Zimmermann, Strasburg (who returned from Tommy John surgery to make five starts down the stretch) and outfielder Jayson Werth. But Johnson also loved the players who would soon join them. Despite sacrificing those four prospects for Gonzalez, the Nationals still have one of the game's best farm systems, led by 21-year-old Anthony Rendon, the top hitter in last June's draft who is now playing at Class A.
Above all, there is Harper. In his second spring training Harper endeared himself to his teammates with his rambunctious, 19-year-old ways. One day, while they were shagging balls during batting practice, Werth off-handedly mentioned that it might be a good opportunity for Harper, a former catcher, to practice his outfield play. "I said, make sure you get your work in, and the next thing I know he's running full speed into the outfield fence," recalls Werth with a chuckle.
Harper had a good spring but did not secure a spot on a 25-man roster that included only two players, Zimmerman and backup catcher Jesus Flores, who were with the team on Opening Day 2009. "I explained to him, we don't want you to come up here and struggle," Johnson says. "When you come, then there won't be any turning back." Harper scuffled through his first 15 games with Triple A Syracuse—he hit .220 with one RBI—but, says Rizzo, "he's not overmatched whatsoever by that league. We've got a lot of worries in this organization. He ain't one of them."
It seemed unlikely even two Junes ago, when the Nationals made Harper their second straight No. 1 overall pick, but when the phenom does debut—and it could happen in a matter of weeks—he will not do so with savior expectations. Rather, all that will be expected of him will be to provide some help in the outfield, and a solid lefthanded bat in a lineup that, with Morse on the disabled list with a strained back, had produced just 3.6 runs per game through Sunday. Harper's promotion will represent not the fruition of the plan that was symbolically implemented six years ago in that hotel room in San Francisco. It will be just another step on what looks like the franchise's journey to sustained excellence.