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The Big Read: From Elijah Dukes to Bryce Harper: How the Nats made it to the top

Mar 29, 2013, 10:31 AM EST

Washington Nationals Photo Day Getty Images

Yesterday I called the Nationals the best team in baseball. Today Joe Posnanski explains how they got there. But first he reminds us of how truly wretched they were just a few short years ago:

Their right fielder, Elijah Dukes, had been involved in so many off-field incidents, the team hired a former police officer to watch him at all times (though not too well since Dukes would talk later of smoking pot before Nationals games) … Their best player, Adam Dunn, was so bad defensively in left field and at first base that despite hitting 38 homers and posting a .398 on-base percentage, the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic still rated him worse than a replacement player (his minus-43 fielding runs is the worst fielding performance in baseball history).

The starting pitching was such an irreparable mess that, in desperation, they signed 34-year-old Livan Hernandez, who had pitched for five teams the previous four years. And one of those teams was the Washington Nationals.

When it gets this bad, what do you do? Where do you even begin? And how does it then become baseball’s best team in three years?

Joe walks us through how. And, as always, The Big Read is a good read.

  1. alang3131982 - Mar 29, 2013 at 10:45 AM

    Well, you end up sucking enough to get two of the best first overall picks in recent history…that dont hurt…

  2. jm91rs - Mar 29, 2013 at 10:52 AM

    It is a fast turn around, but it certainly doesn’t hurt when two of the biggest “can’t miss” prospects are there for the taking with the first overall pick. Storen is a fine major leaguer, but imagine if they had used their crystal ball to take Mike Trout there instead. Bryce Harper patrolling an outfield with Trout would be something fun to see.

  3. vpisteve99 - Mar 29, 2013 at 11:16 AM

    I don’t disagree that the nats look like one of the better teams but I think they need to at least win the NL pennant before we start crowning them as the best or doing retrospectives on how they became so great.

    • evanwins - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:56 PM

      Your comment makes absolute perfect sense. And it gets nothing but thumbs down? Credibility of Thumbs Up/Down System: Zero Point Zero.

      No comments on why a thumbs down either. Nothing to back up their stance?

      • ryand17 - Mar 29, 2013 at 1:12 PM

        I agree completely. Granted the 2008 Cubs were a bit older than the 2012 Nationals but the fact that you only need to go back 5 years to find a team that had gone from 66 – 85 – 97 wins and then fell off the face of the earth should allow room for some caution.

  4. ryand17 - Mar 29, 2013 at 11:16 AM

    Decent read but I like how Joe conveniently forgets to mention their “best player” in 2009 was Ryan Zimmerman who hit 300 that year with 33 HRs, a GG and a 7.3 WAR

  5. icanspeel - Mar 29, 2013 at 11:18 AM

    Shows how important the draft is. Look at a team such as the Pirates or Padres, bad drafts set them back for awhile (Although I will note Pirates did improve) but still yet to have a winning season since 92

    • evanwins - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:59 PM

      Was there really any skill involved in drafting Harper and Strasburg? Did they have to think about who to take with their #1 overall pick those years? Most drafts aren’t that obvious.

      • 18thstreet - Mar 29, 2013 at 5:14 PM

        You can still screw up the negotiations. The Nats, under the prior GM, wasted a first round pick on a guy they didn’t sign — Aaron Crow.

        I don’t think there’s any such thing as a such thing in the draft. Bryce Harper was, what, 12 years old when the Nats picked him? To say there wasn’t risk involved, despite his obvious talent, is unfair.

  6. Uncle Charlie - Mar 29, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    To bad their FO their farm system is almost barren. They’ll go the way of the Phillies. http://www.minorleagueball.com/2013/1/28/3925786/2013-baseball-farm-system-rankings

    • asimonetti88 - Mar 29, 2013 at 11:50 AM

      They just graduated a ton of talent to the big leagues. It makes sense that it is “barren”.

    • voteforno6 - Mar 29, 2013 at 11:55 AM

      The Nats do have some good prospects – they’re just at lower levels of the system.

    • unclemosesgreen - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:04 PM

      That is a narrow and useless way to evaluate a team’s young talent. You’re better off looking at the team’s best players 25-and-under, including those at the major league. A young player suceeding at the major league level is worth 5 good prospects. A bird in the hand, my friend.

      The Phillies’ problem is that not only do they have a (top of the) bottom third farm system, they also don’t have much young talent on the MLB roster. The Nationals have no such issue.

    • carbydrash - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:15 PM

      Yeah, this seems to be a pretty fundamental misunderstanding here. The Phillies are old with a barren system. The Nationals have a ton of young players…in theory, their lower level players will become good prospects by the time they’re young players start heading to free agency.

      Also, the Nationals had the great fortune that two of their elite draft picks, Harper and Strausberg, spent virtually zero time in the minors. Most 20-year-olds are in A ball. Bryce Harper is fantastic enough that he’s already at the big league level. Which hurts their farm system ranking…but in a really great way.

      If the Nationals farm system is ranked 25th in 3 years, that may be a problem. Right now, it absolutely is not.

  7. chacochicken - Mar 29, 2013 at 11:27 AM

    Every time I hear or see Jordan Zimmermann’s name I think of the Gorton’s Fisherman. Trust the Jordan Zimmermann…I recognize I may be the only person on Earth who thinks of this.

    • unclemosesgreen - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:05 PM

      Not anymore.

    • yahmule - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:54 PM

      The fisherman’s crew hogs all the shrimp and the pitcher’s teammates won’t score any runs for him.

  8. kelshannon19 - Mar 29, 2013 at 11:29 AM

    Take notes Astros.

    • Old Gator - Mar 29, 2013 at 11:54 AM

      No point in the Feesh taking notes. Improvement requires investment, among other things – like competence.

      • unclemosesgreen - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:08 PM

        Scrooge McLoria isn’t lacking in competence – he’s just devoid of scruple. I predict the Feesh win the WS in 2015, and then sell off the entire roster after seasons’ tickets are all sold, and win 70 games in 2016. I’m on a hot streak with this stuff – lay your bets now.

      • Old Gator - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:23 PM

        It was Scrooge who, by all accounts, directed the Feesh’s disastrous 2011-2012 orfseason acquisitions, including the key misfire of Heath Bar Bell, and lobbied to hang on to the Hanster when the guy was clearly on a schneid – often overriding the better judgment of his baseball people. He mistook his youthful talent for flimflamming Charles Schultz and Vincent Price, and the ease with which he could snooker corrupt Macondo politicians, for baseball acumen, of which he ain’t got none. Most recently, of course, he demonstrated his public relations gift by going on a blessedly short-lived, charmless excuse offensive that consisted of one part hubris, three parts bullshit. Somehow or other, his factotums managed to keep his leash short and coax him back into his padded office before he could do much more damage.

        You will also note that underlying story behind the post-Chernobyl circumstances of the Gnats, as recorded deliciously by the sublime Mr. Posnanski, is that they were inherited from…guess who?

      • jimmymarlinsfan - Mar 29, 2013 at 1:16 PM

        Blah blah blah blah blah

      • unclemosesgreen - Mar 29, 2013 at 1:35 PM

        As much as you hate him, and believe me, I’m not trying to diminish that since it’s obviously a lot of hate, you will never hate him as much as Montrealers. The good people of Montreal were blessed with strong leadership, and they refused to bow to Scrooge McLoria’s demands to build a new stadium with public funds. They only just finished paying off bond service on Olympic Stadium in 2006, and it still doesn’t have a main tenant.

      • Old Gator - Mar 29, 2013 at 1:55 PM

        Jimmy’s as-always trenchant and articulate commentary aside – and let’s remember, he doesn’t live here, so it’s easy to play the fanboy decerebrate and toady when it’s not your kids whose schools are underfunded or your sewer mains that are deteriorating while a parasite like Scrooge McLoria makes off with the funds that could do so much to solve your infrastructure problems – I admire the City of Montreal for telling the slimebag to take a hike, and telling MLB to take their team with them if they can’t take “no” for an answer. Much as I love the game, I would rather have seen the Scrooge McLoria crime family go find some other metropolis corrupt, incompetent and gullible enough to fall for the bill of goods that the county fathers of Macondo did.

      • unclemosesgreen - Mar 29, 2013 at 2:01 PM

        Montreal had politicians who were agonizing over which hospitals to stop funding and which schools to close. They weren’t of a mind to spend their infrastructure money to placate swine.

  9. palmersports - Mar 29, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    Man that guy was trouble, sad though, he had some talent. All those bad years were worth it if you look at this team now, they are loaded with potential.

  10. evanwins - Mar 29, 2013 at 2:41 PM

    To the top of what exactly? Rankings? People’s expectations? Hype?

    This team is 1 year removed from a long string of losing seasons, 3 years removed from 2 straight 100 loss seasons.

    I appreciate how far they’ve come, I really do, but the fact remains that a lot happened in 2012 that opened the door for them to win and a lot of that had nothing to do with their play. For instance, the core of their main competition was on the DL for a majority of the season. The team that dominated the NL East for the past 6 years had a bad year filled with injuries, bad luck and under-performing players. And the Nats had EVERYTHING go right for them, over-performing, no serious injuries and great luck plus the element of surprise. I guess everyone is banking on that happening again but personally I’m glad we actually play the games to determine the winners.

    • unclemosesgreen - Mar 29, 2013 at 3:30 PM

      They ended the regular season with the most wins in MLB. That’s the top.

      They have a young core of premium players and they added Dan Haren, Rafael Soriano and Denard Span. It’s not that everything has to go right for them, it’s that they’re so deep that everything doesn’t have to go right and they will still be tough.

      • evanwins - Mar 29, 2013 at 3:41 PM

        Oh, well Dan Haren and Denard Span? Yeah, they make all the difference. And you’re right, Chad Tracy shows real depth…but they probably won’t need him because Ryan Zimmerman never gets hurt.

        Hey, how deep are they on left-handed relievers?

        BTW, I just saw J Zimmerman get lit up by the Yankees and the great D. Span make 2 really bad throws in 2 attempts.

        And didn’t the Phillies have the best record in baseball just one injury-racked season ago?

      • 18thstreet - Mar 29, 2013 at 5:21 PM

        It sure seem to me that they took a good team and made it better. I don’t see what there is to criticize. It’s pretty damn desperate to say that they don’t have enough lefties in the bullpen. Soriano and Storen allow 30ish percent of lefties to reach base (career). Clippard is a righty, but he was actually better against lefties last year.

        Denard Span is going to be taking away at bats that previously went to Michael Morse and Roger Bernadina — obviously an upgrade — and he’s a great fielder.

        Things will go wrong. Things always go wrong. But Rizzo has done admirable work.

      • schmedley69 - Mar 29, 2013 at 6:29 PM

        And don’t forget Gio Gonzalez. Steroid accusations aside, the guy was Cy Young caliber last year, but faded down the stretch. Is he really that good, or was last year an aberration? I think the Nats are being setup for a hard fall. I don’t think that they are as good as people are making them out to be, and now they have a big old bullseye on their backs. Can they handle the pressure? Only time will tell. I’m going out on a limb and predicting that they don’t win the division.

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