Hindsight is never wrong and there is more than one path to winning. But for the Nationals, the willful awfulness of 2008 and 2009 are paying off. Without the 2008 and 2009 seasons, the Nationals wouldn't be as good as they are, and it isn't just Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Having the first pick overall means a team has the first pick in every round. A.J. Cole was the first pick of the fourth round of the 2010 draft and one of keys in the Gio Gonzalez trade.
Early on, the Nationals made a decision: They were going to build a team from the bottom up. They were going to be an organization that focused on scouting and player development, and while those two No. 1 overall picks have helped, the Nationals roster has plenty of homegrown talent. Look back at when the new ownership took over. If they had been tempted to make a splash, the Nats could have re-signed Alfonso Soriano, signed J.D. Drew, or added a pitcher like Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt.
Each of those moves would have cost the Nationals in different ways. If the Nats had kept Soriano, they wouldn't have Jordan Zimmermann, and Soriano's 4.1 fWAR in 2008 compared to the Nats' combined left field production of 2.4 fWAR would have been enough to ensure the Mariners ended up with Strasburg. Take out Zimmermann and Strasburg and the 2012 Nationals are missing two big pieces of their rotation, and they might also have 2012 Soriano on the roster with two years and $36 million left on his contract.
If the Nationals were willing to keep Soriano in 2007 and make the statement that every win mattered, then they would also have kept Jose Vidro. Vidro was traded in December 2006 for pitcher Emiliano Fruto and outfielder Chris Snelling. That might not seem important, but Snelling was then traded for Ryan Langerhans, and Langerhans for Michael Morse. Going back and adding a few wins in 2007, 2008 and 2009 isn't worth what it would have meant to the future of the franchise.
Try it for yourself. Using either Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference WAR, try and add 16 wins in 2008 or 2009 to get to 75 wins. Then think about how difficult that was and just how fundamentally flawed those teams were. Seventy-five wins in 2008 and 2009 mean no Strasburg and no Harper. That is like taking 7.6 wins away from a Nationals team that happens to have a 7 1/2-game lead in the division.
Yes, 2007 was a lost year for the Nationals. Everyone knew it. Going for it that year would have been a fool's errand, and while the outlook on 2008 was just as bleak, the Nationals were moving into a new stadium. The temptation could have existed to add free agents and pick up as many extra wins as possible. The biggest hitting free agent that offseason was Torii Hunter, and the biggest pitching free agent was Carlos Silva.
With both Hunter and Silva, the Nationals would have avoided 100 losses. They may not have gotten to 70 wins, but they would have avoided 100 losses. They also would have avoided Strasburg and Harper, lost the payroll flexibility to extend Ryan Zimmerman, missed out on the acquisition of Gonzalez this past offseason and been saddled with a couple of difficult-to-move contracts. Consider if the Pirates had been the worst team of 2009 and had drafted Harper. Jose Tabata has been worth -0.8 fWAR and Harper 3.0 fWAR. That is almost a four-game swing, and the Pirates are currently 1 1/2 back in the wild card.
The approach the Nationals took isn't the only way to build a winning team, but without that suffering, the Nationals aren't set up as well for the future. The only impending free agents the Nationals have on their current roster are Edwin Jackson and Michael Gonzalez. Adam LaRoche and Sean Burnett have mutual options, but at most the Nationals will be losing four out of 25 players. The key pieces for the Nationals' success are all signed through the 2015 season. Changing the formula alters the outcome.
Perhaps the Nats would be winning right now with Hunter, Mark Teixeira or CC Sabathia, but along the way it would have cost them a piece or two of the current roster. By tying up payroll early on, it could have cost them the ability to keep Zimmerman past 2013, to have locked up Gonzalez as soon as they traded for him, or possible extensions for Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa or Zimmermann still to be worked out. There is no doubt that 2008 and 2009 were the darkest of days for the Nationals, but if it weren't for the bad days, the good days may have never arrived.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.