What if ... the Nationals hadn’t drafted Ryan Zimmerman?

Long before the hope embodied by Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman was the face of the Nationals. When the team was still trying to gain a foothold on the D.C. sports scene, when vestiges of the Expos hadn’t yet been eradicated from towel carts and equipment bags, it was Zimmerman who provided optimism for the future. His selection as the transplanted team’s first draft pick in 2005 was a watershed moment, an opportunity for then-general manager Jim Bowden to select a player he could build around for years to come.

But what if the Nationals hadn’t selected Zimmerman, a third baseman out of Virginia, with fourth overall pick in 2005? Well, since it’s “What if?” Wednesday, we’ll set the way back machine to the days when the Nationals still played in RFK Stadium and ponder the course of the franchise if the Nats had opted for someone else with that pick. Imagine, for a moment, that a different power hitter was entrenched in left field, if Cristian Guzman’s career as Washington’s shortstop was short-lived or if a stud left-hander from 2005 made general manager Mike Rizzo’s pursuit for a top starting pitcher a moot point in 2011.

The first three picks in that draft were a mixed bag. Picking first, the Diamondbacks selected Virginia high school shortstop Justin Upton, a player still coveted by the Nationals and a contemporary of Zimmerman’s from the Tidewater region. Upton was in the bigs by the time he was 19, was a regular at 21, and won a Silver Slugger and got an All-Star nod last season. The Royals took University of Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon second, then waited until 2010 when Gordon, converted to left field, finally put injuries and inconsistency behind him and blossomed into a Gold Glover in his fifth season. Up third, the Mariners opted for USC catcher Jeff Clement, a burly Iowan with raw power who has played in all of 129 games over parts of three seasons and who yesterday signed a minor league deal with the Pirates.

That left Zimmerman for the Nationals at No. 4. Bowden had raved about the 20-year-old Virginia Beach product’s polish and poise, hinting that he wasn’t that far away from reaching the majors. At the time, it was believed that Bowden was saying what the public wanted to hear - that the new franchise had struck gold with its initial draft pick. In fact, Zimmerman sounded a little unsure of himself when he spoke to reporters crammed into a trainer’s room during a hastily arranged conference call on draft day. But true to Bowden’s prediction, Zimmerman was up in D.C. after four games at Single-A Savannah and 63 more at Double-A Harrisburg. He hit .397 in a 20-game September audition, smacking 10 doubles and driving in six runs, a hint of what was to come.

Since then, with the exception of time off for a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder in 2008 and last year’s abdominal injury, Zimmerman has proven to be a durable and productive player. He’s a career .288 hitter whose averages extrapolate to 25 homers and 95 RBIs for a full season. He finished second to Florida’s Hanley Ramirez in the 2006 Rookie of the Year voting, grabbed his first All-Star nod, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger in 2009 as a 24-year-old and followed up with a .307 average, 25 homers and 85 RBIs for another Silver Slugger in 2010. Now, all the talk around NatsTown is when Zimmerman will sign an extension to keep him in D.C. past 2013, when his current five-year, $45 million contract expires.

But who might the Nationals have taken if they hadn’t selected Zimmerman? What if the Mariners had shown incredible foresight and drafted their third baseman of the future, leaving Bowden and his draft room to ponder Clement or one of the other players taken in the first round? Luckily, 2005 was one stacked draft, so it’s possible the Nationals could have hit paydirt with another selection not named Zimmerman. And that’s exactly the kind of debate we crave for “What if?” Wednesday.

Of the 30 picks in the first round - we’re not extending this discussion into the sandwich/compensation round - only five picks haven’t reached the majors already. Nine of the first-rounders have made the All-Star Game and one of them claimed a Most Valuable Player award last season. Not a bad draft, eh?

Ryan Braun, drafted immediately after Zimmerman by the Brewers, was that MVP, of course - though allegations of some unknown nefarious substance are threatening an impressive albeit brief legacy. In five seasons, the Miami product clubbed 161 homers, won a Rookie of the Year and made four All-Star teams. Bowden often hinted that the Nationals couldn’t go wrong with their pick at No. 4. Maybe that’s what he was talking about.

With the sixth pick, the Blue Jays chose Cal State-Fullerton lefty Ricky Romero, who has become their No. 1 starter and won 42 games in three seasons. Romero was a first-time All-Star in 2011 and is the kind of arm staffs are built around. The Rockies took Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki next, and he has been an All-Star, and won a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger in each of the past two seasons. The Rockies have built their offense around Tulowitzki, now 27 and with five stellar seasons under his belt, and they rewarded him with a seven-year, $134 million extension through 2020.

Braun, Romero and Tulowitzki were can’t-miss prospects. Rice right-hander Wade Townsend, taken eight by the Devil Rays, never panned out and retired after spending 2010 in independent ball and never making it higher than Double-A. Wichita State right-hander Mike Pelfrey has found some success with the Mets, who selected him with the ninth pick in the first round - he’s 50-54 in six seasons. North Carolina high school outfielder Cameron Maybin, taken 10th by the Tigers, has been traded twice and is now trying to establish himself in San Diego, where he drove in 40 runs and stole 40 bases last season as a 24-year-old.

Any team would have loved to have a horse of a starting pitcher, a slugging outfielder or shortstop to build around. Ditto for Florida high school outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who is the starting center fielder for the Pirates, who chose him with the 11th pick, and slugging Texas high schooler Jay Bruce, who is coming into his own with the Reds, who grabbed him at No. 12. A dozen picks deep and 10 decent major leaguers have emerged, most of them front-line players.

Past those top 12, you get into the range of disappointments - the Orioles took high school catcher Brandon Snyder 13th, Nyjer Morgan tormentor and Jim Palmer pupil Chris Volstad was grabbed 16th by the Marlins out of a Florida high school and the A’s took Texas A&M shortstop Cliff Pennington at No. 21. There have also been some fringe major leaguers - John Mayberry Jr. (Phillies, 19th) and Brian Bogusevic (Astros, 24th), for example.

Like all drafts, there are the diamonds in the rough, too - guys that rewarded teams picking low with tangible results. The Red Sox made Oregon State’s Jacoby Ellsbury the 23rd pick, weathered a 2010 season with injury problems, and got a .321 average, 32 homers, 105 RBIs and 39 steals last season. Right-hander Matt Garza of Fresno State went 25th to the Twins and has 52 victories and a no-hitter to his credit in six seasons. The Cardinals, with a compensation pick for losing free agent Edgar Renteria to Boston, took Alabama prep outfielder Colby Rasmus, who is now the starting center fielder for Toronto. Of the 18 picks in the sandwich round, the biggest name was righty Clay Buchholz, an All-Star for the Red Sox taken with the 42nd pick out of little known Angelina College in Texas.

No doubt about it, the draft is a bit of a crapshoot. But when you’re drafting high, as the Nationals did in their early years in Washington, there’s both less margin for error and more chance to strike it rich. Zimmerman was first in a long line of top 10 selections, and a good cornerstone for a franchise with lots of needs.

Whaddaya think?: What do you remember about that first draft? Were you satisfied with Zimmerman or would you have preferred the Nats take someone else? If you’ve got suggestions for future “What if?” Wednesdays, leave them in the comments section below.

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