At the end of the 2009 season the Washington Nationals repeated as worst team in all of baseball with an embarrassing 59 wins.
By the end of the 2012 season the Washington Nationals would win 98 games. They would shut down Stephen Strasburg for the playoffs, following through with this decision based in some small part by the knowledge that they had a core of young players under team control. The team that was mired in failure a mere three years ago now looked to be winners for the foreseeable future.
The usual narrative of the Nats rise overlooks how it happened. It reduces the complex mix of drafting, signing, timing and luck to a mere three events; the signing of Werth and the back-to-back draftings of Strasburg and Bryce Harper. The latter symbolizes the young talent brought to the Nationals, the former symbolizing the "winning culture". Of course this is silly. The winning culture came, not with signing Werth, but with assembling the talent that it takes to win. The talent assembled was far more than Strasburg and Bryce, who would have an impact but would be far from the team carriers most thought they could be.
In order to properly tell the story let's first look at the core that Rizzo saw late in 2012
C Ramos 24
2B Espinosa 25
SS Desmond 26
3B Zimmerman 27
CF Bryce 19
RF Werth 33
SP Strasburg 23
SP Zimmermann 26
SP Gonzalez 26
SP Detwiler 26
RP Storen 24
RP Clippard 27
RP Stammen 28
RP Mattheus 28
There were other important parts to the 2012 team, but this was the core I was talking about. There are 14 players here either signed or under team control through the end of 2015. Only one, Jayson Werth, was over the age of 28 meaning that there was little chance that age would greatly diminish the abilities of this team, and making it more unlikely that injuries would play a part. I'd argue that the heart of a baseball team is a mere 17 players - 8 offensive starters, 5 starters, 4 relievers - the players where if all goes well they would have 90+% of the ABs and pitch 90+% of the innings. Things never go completely well but because you don't know where they'll fail you plan around those 17. That means the Nats were left a mere 3 players away from filling all 17 slots for 2013 and potentially didn't have to worry about any key spot until 2016.
How did the Nats get to this amazing place so quickly from the depths of despair?
The work done PR (pre-Rizzo)
It's easy to assign all the success to Mike Rizzo for the current success of the Nats, but that would be overstating things just a bit. I'm not going to tell you anything that went on before Mike Rizzo joined the team in the middle of 2006 "laid the groundwork" for the Nats success. Talk about an overstatement. But it is true some important things were already in place when he walked in the door.
The most important piece was Ryan Zimmerman. An young All-Star, MVP type caliber player who played a position that sometimes lacks easy to find talent, he would seemingly be a cornerstone to any future runs. He was drafted in that great draft class of 2005, would develop immediately into a MLB starter and would further blossom into a star as the Nats bottomed out. A Virginia native he wanted to stay and made that clear, all the Nats had to do was not mess up the deal. He was originally under control through 2011 but they (Katsen/Bowden - Rizzo was on board by now but more of a development guy) signed him before 2009 to a deal that would keep him in DC through 2013. With the inside track already laid down, Rizzo would extend that deal through 2020 prior to the 2012 season.
Ian Desmond was a HS short stop drafted in the 3rd round by Omar Minaya for the being forcibly euthanized 2004 Montreal Expos. He would develop slowly, performing wretchedly on an attempted fast track through AA in 2006, instead he would move up on the promise of age and perform just well enough when at the next level. It wasn't until 2009, his 6th year in the minors, that Desmond would suddenly have a break through season and force his way up into the majors. This helped keep his clock from starting earlier. Much like in the minors, in 2010 and 2011 he would perform well enough in the majors to stay but would not impress anyone. This would lead to questions on whether the Nats would be better off getting another MI and forcing one of Danny or Ian to the bench. But then in 2012 he would break through providing Rizzo with a SS for the immediate future.
After the 2007 season, the Yankees were looking to sell high on a very young starter they didn't like named Tyler Clippard. They thought they matched up well with the Nats who needed starters, and could grab a reliever for him. Bowden, always up for a deal, agreed and sent Jonathan Albaladejo to New York. The Yankees were right. Clippard wasn't going to pan out as a starter. His walk rate was too high in AAA and simply unusable in the majors. But the Nats saw his unhittable stuff and gave Clippard a chance as a relief pitcher. He still didn't have great command but the limited role allowed his other aspects to shine brighter. After starring in AAA in a relief role he was promoted for good in 2009 and has steadily improved since to become the Nats key relief arm during this run.
Craig Stammen had been drafted in 2005 as a potential starter and was moved through the minors with that in mind. He was unimpressive early and by the end of 2007 it was doubtful whether he'd stick around much longer, putting up a 4.18 ERA and a 1.68 WHIP in A+ ball as a 23 year old. But the Nats didn't have the best minor league system which afforded Stammen another shot and he came through in 2008 pitching great in A+, then great in AA which allowed him to move up to the more age approriate AAA. He would stop there for the year but in 2009 he put up an impressive start leading to a major league shot. He'd fail as a major league starter given solid chances in 2009 and 2010 and would be equally as unimpressive in AAA in 2011. However, Davey wanted a righty long man in his pen so Stammen got the call in 2012 and was an effective mop-up guy and has remained in the pen as "the other guy" mopping up 6th and 7th innings.
You'll notice one big key here is the timing of the development of these players. Zimmerman was immediately a star, which meant he had to get paid very soon in the process. He wanted to stay which I'm sure made the whole thing easier, but still his immediate development was something that couldn't be repeated for everyone or else some of these guys would be walking before the Nats coalesced into a annual winner. Clippard was drafted out of HS in 2003, Desmond drafted out of HS in 2004, Stammen as a junior in college in 2005. Yet Desmond and Stammen would both crack the majors at the same time in 2009 and Clippard would put in his first major innings that same year. This wasn't a plan, either. The Nats holding back talent until it was time. Look at the minor league stats, these guys came up this way organically. This type of luck in timing is crucial.
So when Rizzo took over the whole shebang early in 2009, three key spots for the future plus one useful arm were in rounding into form. That's a nice thing to walk into, however that's hardly enough to open a window of winning. To do that Rizzo would have to rely on some of his own work in the draft and get some new work done on the phones, and he'd have to get that timing to keep working out for him.