DALLAS - Back in 2008, after his last draft as general manager of the Nationals, Jim Bowden spoke glowingly about the waves of talent that would start lapping at the shores of the Anacostia River a few years down the road. It was easy to brush off Bowden's claims as the eternal hope of an eternally optimistic baseball executive saddled with a moribund club, but there were whispers that the addition of scouting whiz Mike Rizzo from Arizona in 2005 was paying tangible dividends, even if the best was yet to come.
Rizzo eventually assumed Bowden's role as the steward of the Nationals' front office when Bowden resigned in 2009 in spring training. By then, Rizzo had continued to stock the Nats' lower minors with talent, often relying on ownership's willingness to pay over slot for picks with high ceilings but concerns about questionable medical histories and signability issues. The confluence of dismal finishes, high draft selections, additional compensation picks for lost free agents and money to spend worked in Washington's favor, building up the threadbare system that had come from Montreal.
Now, the Nationals are at another crossroads, thanks to their shrewd drafting and insistence on building from within when fans were clamoring for them to dig deep for high-priced free agents. Their cupboards are full, organizationally speaking, and other teams have taken notice. Where national magazines used to have to struggle to come up with 10 legitimate prospects for annual offseason lists, they now have to pare down the possible options, worrying that they're forgetting someone worthy of notice.
The clubs beating a path to Rizzo's suite on the fifth floor of the Hilton Anatole, however, know full well of the talent the Nationals have stockpiled. They're asking about it. And while the Nats remain, in the words of one team source, "fixated" on finding a center fielder at the Winter Meetings, their possible trade partners are just as focused on prying away from D.C. some of those intriguing prospects.
Rizzo, who once didn't have the pieces necessary to engage in meaningful dialogue with his peers, now finds himself on the other side of the coin. He's the one everyone's coming to, and he's not necessarily interested in listening to them - unless he's the one getting what he wants in return.
"It's taken us a long time to get to that point where we are fairly deep and we have fairly impactful players in the minor league system," Rizzo said. "We don't want to erase that in one trade. We're going to be prudent and careful because we feel we've got pieces in place that can help us internally. We're not going to make a trade just to make a trade. Just because we have depth, we're not automatically going to trade from that depth."
Of course, if the right deal comes along, Rizzo will certainly lend an ear. But he's got two audiences to satisfy: the potential trade partners that come calling, hoping that the Nationals' carefully constructed farm system will be able to solve their problems, and his own player development staff, which is so invested in the players it is grooming that they don't want to see their guys making a name for themselves in a non-Nationals uniform.
It's an interesting dynamic, but one which will come into play over the next couple of days as Rizzo seeks the center fielder/leadoff bat he desires while trying to protect the players his hand-picked lieutenants have scouted, drafted, signed and developed. Eventually, push will come to shove and Rizzo will need to consider dealing from his depth, because he only has so much inventory that's attractive to others, and parting with the players in the minors will hurt less than trading an established major leaguer, which could fill one hole while creating another.
Update: A major league source has told me that the Nationals have made another run at center fielder Brett Gardner of the New York Yankees. However, the Yankees either aren't interested or want the Nats to pony up more than they're willing to pay for the speedster.