From 2005-07, the San Francisco Giants won 222 games, languishing out of contention in the NL West after losing the World Series in 2002 and accompanying their franchise player, Barry Bonds, on a joyless march toward Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record.
Bonds broke that record on Aug. 7, 2007, against the Washington Nationals, who were the Giants’ cousins in mediocrity at that point. The Nationals would go on to win 73 games that season - seen as a minor miracle given their roster - and pulled together 225 wins from 2005-07. But the Nationals couldn’t have known at that point that the Giants were a few moves away from finishing their blueprint for a pennant winner.
Jonathan Sanchez, who pitched in relief for the Giants that night, won 13 games and fashioned a 3.07 ERA for San Francisco this season. When Bonds hit homer No. 757 the next night, the starting pitcher was 2002 first-rounder Matt Cain, who would become an All-Star two years later. And though they finished just two games worse than the Nationals in 2007, the Giants picked four spots ahead of them in the 2008 draft, which allowed them to take Florida State catcher Buster Posey - who many baseball people think is a franchise player for years to come.
In the last three years, the Giants have won 252 games, and are one victory away from their first world championship since moving west from New York. The Nationals, in that stretch, have won 187 times, finishing with the worst record in baseball twice.
So why have the Giants and Nationals gone in such opposite directions, despite the NL champions making few splashes in free agency the last three years? It’s simple. The Giants’ surge has happened as their draft picks have blossomed, while the Nationals have been stuck filling their lineup with veterans when their farm system should have borne fruit by now.
Cain was a first-rounder in 2002. The 2003 draft brought two-time All-Star closer Brian Wilson out of the 24th round. Sanchez came in the 27th round in 2004, and reliever Sergio Romo was plucked in the 28th round of the 2005 draft.
Then came the mother lode: Tim Lincecum, the 2006 first-rounder, won two Cy Youngs before his 26th birthday and has become one of the best pitchers in baseball. Left-hander Madison Bumgarner went 10th overall in 2007, and won Game 4 of the World Series last night at age 21. He looked like a keeper this season. And Posey, who could win Rookie of the Year honors shortly after he hoists the Commissioner’s Trophy, looks like the jewel of a talented draft.
And where the Giants have found impact players at the top of the draft and steals in the late rounds, the Nationals just haven’t done the same. They took third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in the first round of the 2005 draft, and he’s become a franchise player. But Chris Marrero, their 2006 first-rounder, was set back by a leg injury in 2008, and pitcher Colton Willems (taken with the 22nd pick in 2006) has already retired. The 2006 draft still has not produced a major league player, and only Marrero and a handful of middle-round pitchers would still seem to have a shot.
In 2007, the Nationals passed on Bumgarner and high school outfielder Jason Heyward, among others, to select Ross Detwiler with the sixth overall pick. Detwiler still has a chance to be a big league starter, but injuries and seemingly endless tinkering with his mechanics have stalled his progress. The 2007 draft has a chance to be better, with second-rounder Jordan Zimmermann, fourth-rounder Derek Norris and sandwich pick Michael Burgess still looking like they could be impact players. But to this point, that draft has produced two big leaguers (Detwiler and Zimmermann) who have 44 games between them. And the rush of pitching that was supposed to come from the draft - in the form of Josh Smoker and Jack McGeary - hasn’t panned out.
The 2008 draft, pockmarked by the failure to sign first-rounder Aaron Crow, could be partially redeemed by third-rounder Danny Espinosa, who might be the Nationals’ second baseman next year, and the Nationals are still excited about second-rounder Destin Hood, 15th-rounder J.P. Ramirez and 16th-rounder Tyler Moore, among others.
But the Nationals simply haven’t stocked their lineup - or, more critically, their rotation - with the impact players they would have needed to make their build-from-within strategy work by now. Sure, there are the middle-round finds like the John Lannans and Craig Stammens, but there are also the Justin Maxwells and Sean Blacks, the Jake Smolinskis and Stephen Kings - high-round picks from 2005-07 who, at best, are running out of time.
In a couple years, this could all be ancient history. The Nationals’ top-of-the-draft talent is quickly changing the makeup of the franchise; 2009 first-rounder Drew Storen is already here, and No. 1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg was, for a glorious few weeks, before blowing out his elbow. He should be back in full form by 2012, though, and by then, Bryce Harper (2010’s top pick) could be well on his way.
If you’re looking for a reason why the Nationals are still hoping and planning, while the Giants are still playing, though, it’s in the last few drafts. That was the quickest way out of mediocrity, and the Giants took it. The Nationals, on the other hand, couldn’t find the map.