When Rizzo was hired the minor leagues were barren. Here take a look. That's a sad state of affairs. With Ian Desmond floundering and Zimmerman graduated to the majors, the Nats' minor leagues were god awful terrible. You know how hard it is to have a system where the Top nine guys have no impact? You usually accidentally walk into a couple of decent players. A systematic dismantling by MLB to prepare for a sale followed by early missteps by Bowden rendered the minors all but dead and it was Rizzo's job to help bring them back to life. He would do just that.
The 2007 draft was a big one for the Nationals. For all of Bowden's early issues losing draft picks for Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman, holding back on re-signing Alfonso Soriano and Jose Guillen after 2006 would give the Nationals a handful of early round picks in 2007.
The most important of these picks would end up being Jordan Zimmermann. ZNN was not a loved prospect by some, but Rizzo and Kris Kline fought for drafting him in the 2nd round feeling that this college guy would get to the majors quick as a middle of the rotation guy. The Nats needed reliable young arms. He would reward their faith by crusing through the minors in 2007 and 2008. (Still he wouldn't make most prospect lists - though Sickels liked him) Given little resistance from the Nats system, he was given the #5 spot in the rotation for 2009. He would hold his own in the majors until needing Tommy John surgery. The rotation was not much better upon his return so despite a mediocre finish in 2010, he still had a rotation spot there for him in 2011. He stepped it up becoming the Nats best starter.
The other key pick in 2007 was their first one, another college pick, Ross Detwiler. Unlike ZNN, the prospect gurus loved Ross' live arm. The Nats liked him so much that they rushed him up to pitch in a single game in 2007 as sort of a preview for fans. But truth was he wasn't worthy in 2007 and showed that was no fluke in 2008 struggling in high A-ball. 2009 went much smoother. He got a shot early and late that year and seemed to progress nicely. Unfortunately a hip injury derailed him until 2011. He came back nicely but things had changed between the time ZNN came back and Ross did. The signing of Edwin Jackson and the trade for Gio made him a fringe starter to start 2012, and he'd lose his role to Rizzo's Chien-Ming Wang obsession. Wang was terrible though. Detwiler got back in the rotation and was very effective giving the Nats yet another young starter.
In 2008 the Nationals draft would not be as successful as Aaron Crow didn't sign and they swung and missed with several high picks. They did hit on an important one though as Danny Espinosa was drafted out of college in the 3rd round. In the minors Danny developed on schedule moving up to AAA ball in 2010 and seemed ready for a tryout. The only issue was that Danny was a shortstop and Ian Desmond was already pencilled into that position. The Nats would be losing Adam Kenneday and Cristian Guzman at year's end, so Danny was asked to move to 2nd. He did and the Nats liked him enough (and had no reason not to try young guys) that he was handed the 2nd base role in 2011. He looked good in 2011 and good enough in 2012 to figure he's be the Nats 2nd baseman for the immediate future.
2008 was a garbage year for the Nats. As you can imagine, the Nats minors didn't supply any new good young players and their reclamation projects didn't pan out. Even players they liked in 2007 failed in 2008. Kearns crashed. Zimm got hurt. Meat Hook got hurt. Nick got hurt (again). Lopez kept quitting. There was an upside though. The Nats managed to squeak past the Mariners for the #1 pick in the 2009 draft. This was important because the #1 draft pick was a supposed generational talent at pitcher, Stephen Strasburg. This was a guy that would be in the majors in a high rotation spot very very soon. The Nats made the easy pick, Strasburg dominated the minors, and would be in the majors by the end of 2010. Unfortunately, just like Detwiler and ZNN, injuries would bring Strasburg down and he'd need Tommy John. He'd bounce back fine though and he a full time rotation guy in 2012... at least until they shut him down. He wasn't quite dominant yet but he was really good and there was reason to believe that great was just around the corner.
For all intents and purposes, Rizzo would take the reins over from Bowden in March of 2009. And by June he could see how this was all coming together. Desmond was finally looking ready in the minors. Zimmerman looked
like a team carrier. Flores, though injured now, seemed like a solid bet
at catcher. More importantly Zimmermann and Detwiler were finding themselves in the majors and they had Strasburg in hand. Lannan, while not loved, was young and effective enough to hold down a rotation spot for a few years. With a few smart moves, this team really could come together soon. With that in mind why not address the relief issue? Drew Storen was brought in specifically because he was close to major league ready and easy to sign. He would become the closer as soon as possible assuming no bumps. There were none. He dominated in almost every stop and was moved up the ladder quickly. He became the closer, and a very good one, on schedule in 2011.
2009 wasn't exactly a give-up year for the Nats but by this time the team he didn't feel there was any reason to keep passable but unimpressive arms. So the Nats waved bye to Tim Redding and Odalis Perez and hello to a gaggle of younger guys to see who would stick. Most didn't. Stammen (5.11), Mock (5.62), Martis (5.25), Olsen (6.00), Cabrera (5.85), and Balester (6.82) would start 75 of the Nats games that year. By the time the All-Star break came around, the Nats were 9 games behind everyone in the league and in the driver's seat for the #1 pick in the 2010 draft. Again it was a supposed generational talent who could be ready for the majors soon, though likely not as quickly as Strasburg. Bryce Harper was a HS phenom who people thought could be the next great outfielder. The Nats eased into the #1 pick and made the obvious choice. Bryce wouldn't quite crush the minors as hoped, but the Nats had him on a fast track. A mediocre AA stint still got him moved to AAA in 2012 and a blah AAA showing didn't keep him from moving up to the majors in 2012. At that point he showed himself to be ready to be a major leaguer if not an All-Star type player.
What you see here is how a couple things working out early on changed how the Nats did things. Drafting in 2007 and 2008 were very normal affairs, drafting a mix of players to see what would work. In fact 2007 had a HS heavy vibe with 7 of their first 10 draft picks being HS players. A good Nationals team was still far in the future. But when things started to appear to come together in 2009, the goals shifted. Only 3 HS players in their first 10 picks in 2009, only 2 (if we technically count Bryce - which I do) in 2010, and none in 2011. Part of it was a philosophy shift, I'm sure, but part of it was an attempt to get players that would help quickly. They couldn't wait for a 5+ year development like they got from Desmond. They would likely need help by 2013 and they drafted accordingly.
You also see how while guys like Desmond and Zimmermann were let to develop naturally Strasburg and Bryce were fast tracked. Strasburg you could argue deserved it, but Bryce didn't, not by results. But there wasn't a good reason to let Bryce develop in the minors only to have his first season and potential growing pains happen in 2013 and 2014. The team had gotten good faster than expected so Bryce needed to do the same.
Again you can see how the timing worked. With Ian, ZNN, Detwiler, Desmond, Clippard, and Jesus Flores, all hitting the majors around 2009 and looking like real major league players, with Zimmerman already signed and Strasburg as sure of a pitching prospect as one can get, the Nats could stop planning for the far future and start looking at the near one. This wouldn't have been the case if say college guys developed in 2004/2005 and HS guys in 2007. In that case you'd have a couple guys looking good around 2007 and by the time a couple more guys looked good in 2012, those first guys would be looking at FA. But no, the Nats lucked out with the right mix of guys getting ready at the right time. That let them draft Storen and move forward with Espinosa. With Bryce Harper coming the Nats had a very strong core but it wasn't quite enough.
Rizzo is a smart GM and a smart GM knows even after getting a feel in the majors some guys can't stay at that level. Would Espinosa be able to hit enough? Would Desmond? Would Flores, ZNN, Detwiler bounce back from 2009 injuries? Would Storen and Strasburg shine? Rizzo knew some of these answers would be no and that left too many holes for the team. There was work to be done trading and signing and here is where Rizzo would put the finishing touches on this core.