Given his druthers, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo would prefer to build his club the old-fashioned way: through effective scouting and a well-honed farm system.
But trades for the past two offseasons that yielded the Nats left-hander Gio Gonzalez from the A's and center fielder Denard Span from the Twins have left the Nats' farm system a tad barren past a handful of top prospects.
In his annual ranking of minor league systems (subscription required), ESPN's Keith Law says the Nationals possess the major leagues' 21st-best farm system. Yes, that's No. 21 out of 30 teams. Or the ninth-worst, depending on your perspective of how full the glass is.
"I love their top five prospects," Law opines in a two-line explanation. "There's a bottomless crevasse somewhere not far after that."
OK, let's try to decipher just what Law means.
His top five prospects probably include names like the five that populated the top half of Baseball America's top 10 prospects list, released earlier this offseason. That would mean third baseman Anthony Rendon, right-hander Lucas Giolito, center fielder Brian Goodwin, third baseman Matt Skole and right-hander Nate Karns.
A lot of the Nationals' future will be determined by the recovery from several pitchers who are coming off of Tommy John surgery (Giolito, left-hander Sammy Solis) or shoulder issues (lefty Matt Purke). Rendon, though viewed as close to major league-ready as a hitter, has dealt with a severe ankle injury that has retarded his ascension through the system.
What's all this mean?
Well, it's a ranking of all 30 clubs. Someone has to be No. 21 - just like someone (in this case, the Cardinals) has to be No. 1 and someone (this time around, the Angels) has to be No. 30. It's a subjective ranking of one knowledgeable baseball scribe who is well-versed in scouting, player development and the minor leagues. Just ask him, he'll tell you.
The Nationals knew they depleted their farm system by trading four top prospects for Gonzalez and shipping 2011 first-round pick Alex Meyer to the Twins for Span. Rizzo made replenishing the farm system one of his offseason priorities and the re-acquisition of former Washington farmhand A.J. Cole, part of the Gonzalez deal, in the three-team Michael Morse swap, helped do that.
Yes, the Nationals will lose a first-round draft pick for signing free agent closer Rafael Soriano. Yes, Rizzo is loathe to give up a draft pick, because he understands that today's young talent is tomorrow's major leaguers. Rizzo's deep roots as a scout and evaluator make it hard for him to part with a prospect - or even a pick that might turn out to be a decent prospect.
But you draft players to fill only two roles. You either develop them to fill spots on your own major league club, or you use them in trades to fill your needs.
Rizzo knows this and has acted appropriately. A couple of decent drafts and the Nationals will be right back in the top half of the rankings. It's nothing to lose a lot of sleep over, especially after a 98-win season and the promise of a stellar 2013 campaign.
Where are the rest of the National League East teams ranked? The Mets are 14th, the Marlins are 16th, the Braves are 20th and the Phillies are 27th.