As suggested in the comments, it does appear that the Washington Nationals minor-league system is about to enter a new phase. Take a look at a lineup from earlier this week:
Four of those nine were directly developed by Washington, two more were acquired by trades of minor leaguers — all of those six are 29 or younger. We could go up and down the roster, but I’ll cut to the chase: The D.C. nine are young, homegrown, and appear poised to begin a run for postseason glory for the next several seasons. The Nationals are starting to draw comparisons to the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians of the 1990s, which, in terms of the minors’ goal of developing major leaguers, is a pretty high compliment — never mind the simplistic, talk-radio retort of reducing that success to the number of rings won.
But enough about the top of the pyramid. You’ll get plenty more of this from the mainstream media (at least on the four days between the day before, of, and after the local NFL team plays) and the national media, which is giving the Nationals the flavor-of-the-week treatment with the Atlanta series with broadcasts on MLB Network, Fox and ESPN tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday.
There’s a lot of talk about Washington entering Phase Two, which really applies to the parent club more than the minors, in my opinion. I tend to look at the minors progression like this:
1) The Nationals go all-in on H.S. picks, start to clear out the system that had been put on autopilot in 2002
2) College picks are used heavily to fortify the ranks while the Nationals use their first-round picks to get generational talents
3) The Nationals spend heavily on the final draft before the new CBA kicks in, cash in on some of the returns of #1 and #2 for a SP
I started to attach dates to those numbers, but there’s obviously some overlap and as you can see with #4, it’s not necessarily clear what the next progression is. I’d like to think that it means more American-born high schoolers are infused into the system, especially with the large group of 22-24-year-olds in the system, but I’ve yet to see a thoughtful analysis of how the new CBA is really affecting the HS pipeline. I doubt the knee-jerk reaction of “all the elite talent will go to college instead” will turn out to be true or even mostly true. But if the Nationals can continue their post-Smiley success with the likes of Wander Ramos and Estarlin Martinez, that might not be as big a problem as some folks fear.
What people think has been on my mind, too. The success of the parent club hasn’t engendered the kind of patience that I’ve been hoping for (and preaching). When I first stumbled upon Brian Oliver’s Nationals Farm Authority, there was a significant (and rather annoying) group of folks that were there only to advocate for the replacements of the 100-loss editions of the Washington Nationals. Thankfully they have largely gone away from sites like this, but the impatience, while muted compared to that cacophony, still echoes.
I’ve been hinting at it for some time now, but the next few years are going to be a test for fans of Washington minors. There’s been a lot of excitement because there has been a run of top-rated picks that were on their way to Washington. That flow is going to slow because there just isn’t the room at the top anymore. It doesn’t mean that the machine stops, but it should mean that expectations should be adjusted. Yes, that means more patience, but it also means a realization that some of the guys won’t make it to The Show wearing a Curly “W” — two of my favorites since this site launched, for example, now wear a Gothic “A.”
I’d like to think the organization is headed towards a mode where they continue to draft and develop talent regardless of current need. For example, Anthony Rendon and Matt Skole appear “blocked” by Ryan Zimmerman. But third base has been “taken” since 2006 and could be unavailable until 2019. But it’s foolish to assume that will happen. Players get hurt, their skills diminish, etc. The Boston Red Sox had a comparable situation 25 years ago at third base with Wade Boggs, but over the next five years his eventual replacement (Scott Cooper) and three others (John Valentin, Tim Naehring, and Jeff Bagwell) were drafted and came up to the majors, three for Boston and one for Houston in a trade that gets brought up nearly every July, and usually without mentioning all four left-side infielders.
In my opinion, a situation like that is true success in the minors — generating a steady stream of players that can play in the majors. It might not be all for the parent club, but if an organization creates depth it can keep the players it needs, and deal the ones it doesn’t. Plus, as we’ve seen all year long, doing this enables a team to withstand some injuries and build a bench that can fill in and push the starters.
What remains to be seen is whether the Nationals can do this without the benefit of top draft picks, which was a sneer about Tampa Bay when the Rays made a similar, sudden ascent in 2008. It wasn’t true then and the success since has further proven that knock wrong.
Without spoiling too much of the forthcoming season reviews, it does seem that organization’s strength has shifted from developing pitchers to developing position players. In that respect, the comparison to the Braves falls woefully short. But it’s also not uncommon — a lot of organizations have this dilemma.
As Earl Weaver famously said: “Nobody likes to hear it, because it’s dull, but the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same — pitching.”
The trick, of course, is to figure out how to get the mojo back on producing arms while continuing to produce the bats. I suspect that’s what we’ll be discussing a lot over the winter.