Welcome back to another "What If?" Wednesday, where we'll continue to look at a moment in Nationals history that could have had significant ramifications if it had turned out differently. Today, we'll look back to the final weekend of the 2008 season, and what it meant for the 2009 draft.
Heading into the final four games of 2008, the Nationals were on track to have the second pick in the 2009 draft, a game ahead (or behind) the Mariners in the major league standings. But then their home finale against the Marlins got rained out, ensuring they wouldn't end up tied with Seattle for the worst record in the majors. And then as the Nationals went to Philadelphia for the final three games, the Mariners traveled south to Oakland for a series with the Athletics.
The Nationals did their part in dramatic fashion, falling in three straight games to the Phillies, who clinched the division against the Nationals for the second consecutive season. On the final day of the season, general manager Jim Bowden fired all of manager Manny Acta's coaches except pitching coach Randy St. Claire, wrapping up a 59-102 season with a thud.
As for the Mariners? They were sitting in good position for the No. 1 overall pick, largely because they'd gotten swept at home in June on the weekend before manager John McLaren got fired. But interim manager Jim Riggleman helped the team pick things up slightly in the second half, going 36-54 after McLaren's 25-47 start. And on the last weekend of the season, as the Nationals skidded to six losses in their last seven games, Riggleman led the Mariners to a sweep of the A's as they won their way right out of the No. 1 pick.
(The Nationals, of course, had dispatched the Padres - the other team in the running for the top pick - a week before by losing three games to San Diego at home. At the time, Bowden said the team was trying to win every game, before adding on the top pick, "Do we think about it? Sure, you think about it.")
Why was there so much intrigue about the race for the top pick - besides a trio of media contingents looking for something to talk about in the last days of a lost season? Well, the player sitting at the top of the draft was none other than Stephen Strasburg, the San Diego State right-hander who had become a sensation before the beginning of his sophomore year thanks to a run with the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. Strasburg - who was playing for Tony Gwynn in college and played for Davey Johnson in the Olympics - had the potential to be a transformational pitcher, a once-in-a-generation ace that could lift a team to prominence. And of course, he'd grown up a Padres fan, but the Nationals essentially took care of his chance to stay at home the weekend before.
His shot to stay on the West Coast went away in the last weekend of the season, as the Nationals slipped to the worst record in the game and guaranteed themselves a shot at Strasburg. In a twist of fate, Riggleman wound up as the team's manager a month after the Nationals took Strasburg in 2009, and Johnson was reunited with Strasburg this fall after Riggleman resigned and he took over.
But what if the Mariners hadn't swept the Athletics that weekend? Had they lost all three games, they would have finished 58-104, 1 1/2 games worse than the Nationals. And had they won one game, they would have been a half-game worse. Presumably, the Mariners would have taken Strasburg, and the Nationals would have been left to choose between the other players that went at the top of the first round that year - Dustin Ackley, Donovan Tate, Tony Sanchez and Matthew Hobgood.
The only player that's done much in that group, so far, is Ackley. There are players who went lower in the top 10 (Mike Leake and Mike Minor) who have made it to the majors, but Ackley was the consensus No. 2 in that draft and he presumably would have been the pick. He could have been at second base for the Nationals, which obviously would have changed their future, since Ian Desmond didn't come to the majors until the end of the 2009 season. Had Ackley been in the plans and Desmond had locked down the shortstop position, Danny Espinosa might not have wound up at second base - or he might have gotten a shot to supplant Desmond at short.
More importantly, though, the Nationals would have still been looking for the ace at the top of their rotation. Jordan Zimmermann's elbow would give out six weeks after they took Strasburg, and though he came back strong, the Nationals' rotation looks so appealing for the future because he is paired with Strasburg. There's no doubt that for all of Zimmermann's gifts, Strasburg is a supreme talent, and the Nationals plan to build around him for years. If not for a spirited weekend from their future manager on the opposite coast at the end of 2008, they might never have gotten that chance.
I'm curious what you think would have happened if the Nationals hadn't wound up with the No. 1 pick in 2009. Would they have taken Ackley? Would it have worked? How would their pitching staff and their middle infield look at this point? Leave your thoughts in the comments section and let me know.
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