The Nationals' rise from sad irrelevance to ownership of baseball's brightest future began six years ago in a hotel room in San Francisco. The digits on the room's alarm clock were inexorably advancing, and the assembled members of the club's front office knew what they were supposed to do before 1 p.m. Pacific time. It was July 31, 2006, the day of the trade deadline, and most of baseball's bottom-dwellers were furiously dealing away their mature assets to contenders in exchange for prospects.
The Nationals were 46--59, 17½ games back in the National League East, and they had the player who was supposed to be the prize of deadline day. Leftfielder Alfonso Soriano was already a star when Washington acquired him from the Rangers the previous December, but the 30-year-old had never had this type of year: 32 home runs with 26 stolen bases in only 104 games. He was due to become a free agent at season's end and would undoubtedly command an annual salary of more than a quarter of the Nationals' total payroll of $63 million.
Phones in the hotel room trilled incessantly as a dozen teams tried to wrest Soriano away from the Nationals. General manager Jim Bowden led the haggling, but with him were three men whose team-branded polo shirts were still creased from their shipping boxes. The Lerner family had gained ownership of the franchise just seven days earlier, after 4½ years of squalid stewardship by Major League Baseball. The three men were key members of the new front office: principal owner Mark Lerner, the son of D.C. real estate magnate Ted Lerner; new team president Stan Kasten, who had spent a dozen successful years in the same position with the Braves; and new assistant G.M. Mike Rizzo, a 45-year-old longtime scout who had been poached from the Diamondbacks after six seasons as their scouting director, during which he'd improved their farm system from among the NL's worst to one of its best.
The players the Nationals were offered for Soriano were talented but uninspiring: Kevin Slowey, a promising control artist in the Twins system; Mark Lowe, a young flame-thrower with the Mariners. Bowden, Lerner and friends kept shaking their heads. Then the alarm clock's digits read 1:00. The phones stopped ringing. The deadline had passed, and Alfonso Soriano remained a National.
The team completed 2006 with a 71--91 record and their third straight last-place finish. Soriano became baseball's fourth member of the 40-40 club, with 46 home runs and 41 steals, and then signed an eight-year, $136 million free-agent deal with the Cubs. But what happened in that San Francisco hotel room was the catalyst for a six-year rise to prominence for the Nationals, who last year had their best NL East showing (third place) since moving to Washington from Montreal in 2005 and this season won 12 of their first 16 games. For starters, one of the two draft picks the club received as compensation for losing Soriano turned out to be Jordan Zimmermann, a righthander taken in the second round in 2007 from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. Zimmermann, now 25, had a a 3.18 ERA in 26 starts last year and a 1.29 mark in his first three this season. Along with 23-year-old ace Stephen Strasburg (the Nationals took him first overall in '09), Zimmermann fronts a rotation that is the hardest-throwing starting five since velocities were first tracked in 2002. Washington's rotation boasts an average fastball of 93.6 miles per hour and a baseball-best starters' ERA of 1.82.
More important, though, was what the Soriano decision signified: the implementation of a roster-building philosophy from which the organization has not wavered. Washington realized that to become a contender, it needed to invest and trust in its own scouting and development of players—even if that meant enduring years of losing to produce top draft picks. "The Lerners made it clear: We're not in a hurry," says Bowden. "We want to build this through just like we build our buildings, from the bottom up. We don't build the penthouse first."
Bowden is now a SiriusXM radio host; he resigned from the Nationals in March 2009 after becoming embroiled in an FBI investigation into the skimming of signing-bonus money from Dominican players. (He has not been formally implicated and denied the allegations.) While Bowden laid the groundwork, one man is most responsible for turning the story of the 2012 Nationals from one about a team biding its time until the arrival of its savior—19-year-old Bryce Harper, the top overall pick in the 2010 draft—to one on the verge of contention. His bald head was one of those that kept shaking in that San Francisco hotel room, and he became Bowden's successor: Mike Rizzo.
They ate sandwiches slapped together by a man who always had a cigarette dangling from his lips. Of all the indignities endured by the young players drafted into the Montreal Expos organization in its final days, this is what first springs to mind for Ian Desmond. The players were supposed to be the club's future, and yet they couldn't eat a spring training clubhouse meal without picking ashes out of their ham and cheese.
Major League Baseball ran the Expos, who would move south and become the Nationals in 2005, as if the future didn't exist. Any good draft pick—like Desmond, a third-round choice in 2004 now in his third season as Washington's starting shortstop—was the result of dumb luck, as the franchise had no scouting infrastructure to speak of. Whatever prospects they had, they dealt away willy-nilly, most notoriously in June 2002, when they traded three future All-Stars—Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore—to Cleveland for 17 starts from Bartolo Colon. "Scouting and player development is the only way to build a reputable, long-term, consistently winning organization," says Rizzo. "We were really starting from below ground zero."
The effort took money, which the Lerners had, as their estimated $3.3 billion fortune makes them the game's wealthiest owners. While the Nationals' major league payroll has consistently ranked in the bottom third—this year it is 19th, at $80.6 million—the Lerners poured resources into the procurement of top prospects and of the talented men who could find them. Over the past three years no organization has spent more on bonuses for draft picks, and in 2009 alone Washington's scouting department added 17 employees. While some were young and versed in the latest statistical analysis, for Rizzo, stats will always come second. "We lean toward the eyeball rather than the numbers," he says.