So far, the Nationals' early drafts under former general manager Jim Bowden have been characterized by immediate bluster and eventual disappointment. Ryan Zimmerman, the team's first pick in 2005, has turned into a franchise player, and there have been surprises from those first drafts in Washington along the way - Jordan Zimmermann looks like a front-of-the-rotation starter, John Lannan has turned into a fixture in the rotation and Craig Stammen was with the Nationals for parts of two serviceable years.
But a plan that was supposed to revitalize the Nationals' farm system and funnel talent to the majors hasn't worked out, largely because the return on the team's top picks has been so poor.
Over the weekend, though, there was a small milestone and a glimmer of hope: Chris Marrero, the team's top pick in 2006, reached the majors at age 23 after switching positions, honing his defense and recovering from a broken leg over the course of five seasons in the minors. He joined Ross Detwiler, who has looked to be turning a corner in his third stint in the rotation, and Zimmerman in Saturday's starting lineup, marking the first time the Nationals have had three No. 1 picks in the same lineup. And though there's still a long way to go - and a mountain of other disappointing picks to consider - it might be too early to give up on Bowden's drafts.
Unlike general manager Mike Rizzo, Bowden centered his drafts on raw talent - toolsy players who might not arrive in the majors for several years, but could be impact additions at some point down the road. That's a draft philosophy that inherently requires more patience than the one Rizzo uses, plucking college players who can arrive in the majors after a quick tour through the minors. But the Nationals now have their top picks from 2005, 2006 and 2007 on their major league roster.
Some of that is owed to where they've picked in those drafts (fourth, 14th and sixth). But consider a team like the Royals, which picked second, first and second those three years. Alex Gordon, the third baseman Kansas City took ahead of Zimmerman in 2005, has been solid, but nowhere near as good as Zimmerman. Luke Hochevar, the top pick in the 2006 draft, has been an abject failure, while Mike Moustakas, who's still only 22, is working through a disappointing rookie season. The Nationals got an All-Star in Zimmerman, and they have two players who still look like they have potential.
And following those drafts, the Nationals hit what looks to be a mother lode, plucking Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and Bryce Harper in 2009 and 2010 before taking Anthony Rendon, Alex Meyer, Brian Goodwin and Matt Purke this year. Again, they've picked high, and they had the good fortune of being very bad in 2008 and 2009, when Strasburg and Harper were coming up. But they've also beefed up a scouting department that was running lean during Bowden's years, and a framework of home-grown talent is coming into place.
Now, there are still plenty of expensive, undeniable whiffs - Colton Willems, Josh Smoker, Jack McGeary, Sean Black and Michael Burgess, to name a few. And the failure to sign Aaron Crow in 2008 was an embarrassing moment for the franchise. But Marrero and Detwiler are helping Bowden with a little revisionist history, and they're providing a slight hint that the team's early drafts aren't devoid of value.