When the vagabond Montreal Expos landed in Washington, D.C. by way of a part-time "home" in Puerto Rico, with a barren farm system and the indifference of Major League Baseball, which would have happily contracted the Expos, but instead, pocketed $450 million for their sale, fans in the nation's capital who had waited more than three decades for baseball's return could look past the thin roster and celebrate a surprising 81-81 record in the team's inaugural season.
That first season began propitiously, with the team riding a hot start to a surprising division lead, but faded badly down the stretch. Ownership was learning on the fly, entrusting veteran GM Jim Bowden to stock the team on a threadbare budget while a new stadium arose along the DC waterfront. The results were predictable - a string of sub-.500 seasons with instantly forgettable players rotating through the lineup and diminishing crowds.
One acquisition Bowden made, however, would never lead Sports Center or make the front page of the Washington Post sports page, but it probably did more to change the fortunes of the franchise than any other - he hired a well-regarded scout from the Arizona Diamondbacks named Mike Rizzo. When Bowden slinked out of town in advance of a federal investigation into the team's Latin American operation, Rizzo was promoted to General Manager (first on an interim basis, but ultimately, on a permanent basis) and set about rebuilding the team into the steady contender it has become.
It is hard to overstate Rizzo's profound influence on the team and its success. Whether it was through strategic trades that brought key pieces like Wilson Ramos, Denard Span, Tanner Roark, or Doug Fister, draft picks like Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, or Bryce Harper, or others, like Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock and Derek Norris, who got packaged in a deal for Gio Gonzalez, Rizzo and his scouts have found gems throughout the draft that have created a steady stream of home grown talent to stock the major league squad but also act as trade bait when a player like Fister or Span comes available. To this combination Rizzo has made strategic free agent signings, the most notable being Jayson Werth, who, some initial stumbles aside, has not only performed at a level justifying the $126 million contract he signed, but has become the glue that holds the team together. Slick fielding Adam LaRoche has manned first base admirably for three years and provided solid run production.
The team announced its arrival as a contender in 2012, a year, or maybe even two ahead of what many thought was possible, but the 98 win season ended on a sour note, as the team coughed up a six run lead in the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS. A bumpy 2013 still resulted in an 86-76 record, but fell well short of expectations, with the team missing the playoffs. This year, after a slow start, the team is firing on all cylinders, even with the loss of third baseman cum left fielder Ryan Zimmerman spending much of the season on the disabled list. At the trade deadline, Rizzo again showed his acumen, poaching Asdrubal Cabrera from the Indians for prospect Zach Walters (another Rizzo find, coming over to the Nats in a deal for veteran pitcher Jason Marquis) and claiming veteran lefty Matt Thornton off waivers from the Yankees. Both men have helped stabilize two needs - Cabrera, a sure handed second baseman can also play shortstop and Thornton provides veteran experience out of the bullpen.
Of course, none of this means the Nats will ever win a World Series. The fickleness of the playoffs is such that the team entering the post-season with the best regular season record has only won the World Series about 20% of the time since 1995. The Red Sox, who finished last in the AL East two years ago, won it all last year, before falling right back to the bottom of the standings this year. But what Rizzo has done is mold a team that has a four to five year window where it will be very good and have a chance to win it all every year. That is no small thing. The farm system, which has been shorn of some of its talent in service of the major league club is again flush with everyday and pitching talent. And that talent is what will be needed to sustain the team through the end of this decade as young veterans like Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond are in line for nine-figure contract extensions in DC (or elsewhere) before a conversation even starts about Strasburg or Harper, both of whom could command close to $200 million when they hit the free agent market.
For now, enjoy your bounty, Washington. We have a perennial playoff contender being built "the right way," a GM who pilfers talent from other teams so often he should be arrested for robbery, and a bunch of guys it is very easy to root for (unlike the football team and its execrable owner).