Even though the organization is seemingly in the best shape it has ever been, fans are still not happy. They have yet to see any results on the field with this year's "new and improved" squad slowly sliding back into oblivion. Even though a couple injuries (Strasburg, Zimm, LaRoche) have a lot of the blame, it's hard to chastise fans for feeling down. When you have year after year of losing the last thing you want to hear is "just a few more years of this, I swear".
But still this is an organization that may have some light at the end of the tunnel finally. To remind you let's take a trip back to where it all came from.
The No-Plan Years
The Nationals had been gutted by MLB. Any competent GM would have known this team couldn't be competetive any time soon. Jim Bowden is not a competent GM. Instead he rolled the dice trying to put a winning team on the field right then and there, possibly to help the team look more attractive ($) to potential buyers. He picked up Guzman and Castilla costing the Nats draft picks. He made 9 trades with the idea that the Nats could win receiving back the older player in 8 of them. While individually these trades did little to hurt the Nats, their farm system was bereft of any true prospects, collectively they combined to move the Nationals in the wrong direction, getting older for what was at best a marginal improvement.
But a 2nd half collapse couldn't deter Bowden and he made a couple more trades looking toward winning in 2006, most famously for Alfonso Soriano. While more sensible that the 2005 dealings, they still failed to bring in any young talent. It took a complete failure in early 2006 for Bowden to finally throw in the towel and stop trading for guys that could vividly remember the Challenger explosion.
The "Other Man's Trash" Plan A
Bowden was no longer looking to try to win RIGHT NOW, but he was still eyeing winning in the near future. The deal he made for Kearns and Lopez reflected that. He sent out talent, most of it fairly young, to receive back fairly young, major league ready, talent in return. With the Nats prospects being what they were, the only fairly young major league ready talent they could get though were the ones other teams didn't really want anymore. It was essentially a challenge deal. To be fair to Bowden all objective analysis had the Nats coming out as the clear winners. It should have worked out. But it didn't and it was only made worse by the loss of a couple decent prospects.
*It's not impossible that after this season Bill Bray could be the only one in that deal still on a major league roster. Daryl Thompson should be around, he isn't that old or bad yet, but maybe not. Everyone else still with an organization involved in that deal is barely hanging on. Crazy.
The Kasten / Rizzo Dump
At this point in late 2006, Stan Kasten and Mike Rizzo arrived on the scene and the effects were dramatic. The team started its slow build toward respectability, which we are only seeing the fruits of now. They let Soriano walk for a draft pick when they felt a trade would not get back decent talent. The Nats shipped out any other major leaguer worth a damn at the end of 2006 and received back whatever they could get for organizational depth. In retrospect it was probably too aggressive. In trading away Livan, Mike Stanton (again), Daryle Ward, Marlon Anderson, and Jose Vidro the Nats picked up 7 young players, the best of which is probably Matt Chico. But what choice did they have? This was the move that should have taken place as soon as MLB took control of this team.
*This was a bit of bad timing for the Nats. There's a 5+ year period we are just pulling out of where prospects were terribly overvalued in relation to actual major leaguers. GMs were holding onto players and passing up good opportunities at immediate success because of what I can only think was peer pressure. Some "money bucket" proponents still back this kind of thinking. Hate those guys.
The "Other Man's Trash" Plan B
The plan adapted again - almost a combination of the last two. Bringing in a lot of players, but not organizational depth really. More AAAA guys that might help sooner rather than later. Langerhans, Speigner, Pena, Milledge, Dukes, Clippard, Bonaficio, Gonzalez, Anderson Hernandez. The talent swapped was roughly equivalent but the Nats were trending younger, while at the same time they were very aggressive in the 2007 draft, bringing in talent without much concern for cost.
(As for 2008 - Let's put all the blame on the Aaron Crow debacle on Bowden and move on)
The deals we've seen more recently are like the one for Kearns and Lopez, but the talent given up in return was of roughly the same age, and if they were younger they were marginal prospects at best. No longer were the non-contending Nats going to support another teams minor league system for the sake of decent major leaguers. Willingham and Olsen for PJ Dean, Jake Smolinski, and Emilio Bonaficio. Morse for Langerhans. Burnett and Morgan for Hanrahan and Milledge. It was followed by another "dump" but they seemed to realize the most value they could get back was in good relief arms. Garate, Mattheus, H-Rod. Not all were winners but it was enough. Most importantly in dealing Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos they showed they were willing to deal good young major league players for good prospects. They would trade now for later. In the meantime they stopped drafting toolsy OFs and slugging corner infielders, the type of players that were abundant in the majors, and focused on drafting pitching and MI.
Now the Nats are in a decent position. They still aren't in a great one. Their drafts have produced a little less talent than you'd hope for, and they haven't gotten really lucky in any of their deals yet. But they have a core of young talent and a management that's willing to deal and sign to keep replenishing the system. They also seem finally willing to spend money to supplement the young players (since it is rare that you can simply build 100% from within). Maybe they aren't going to be any good in 2011, but with a decent trade or signing and no injury setbacks, I'm liking 2012 to be better on the major league level and 2013 after that. That's something I didn't think before any other year.
At other sites Kilgore - makes a killer-gorer point about Rizzo and an RISP quote he made.