In 2007, the Nationals drafted a young right-hander by the name of Jordan Zimmermann, out of the University of Wisconsin-Steven's Point. Jordan was relatively under the radar. Not many knew of his talents or who he was. Zimmermann was part of what would become normal for the Nationals: building through the draft, identifying talent, and becoming successful through the organization.
A second round pick, Jordan fell to the Nationals by chance. The 2006 season saw an Alfonso Soriano that had a great year as a National, but he elected to take a larger offer from the Chicago Cubs before 2007. Fans were frustrated and claimed the owners of the team, the Lerners, were cheap and didn't see the Nationals as anything more than another source of income. Due to Soriano's departure though, the Nationals were given the Cubs second round pick as compensation, and with it came Jordan Zimmermann. Now, every time the right-hander throws a pitch in the Major Leagues wearing a curly W hat, we know who to thank.
Results were slow to come for the D.C. baseball team. After moving to Washington in 2005, the best record the team had achieved was 81-81. The team had a pretty strong start to the 2005 season, but fell short to end up in the middle of the road. 2006-2011 proved to be losing seasons, with Nationals fans feeling little hope for a winning baseball team. Most overlooked what the organization was doing, which to be fair is easy to do. The Nationals lost 102 games in 2008 while fans were still fans were frustrated and disappointed, the difficult season led to an exceptional silver lining. The 102 loss season earned the Nationals the first pick in the draft and thus they selected Stephen Strasburg 1st overall.
Despite the good news that the Nationals drafted Strasburg in 2009, fans of the team still did not have much to cheer about. Ryan Zimmerman had a stellar year, but his performance was surrounded by mediocre teammates and another 103 loss season. Nationals fans were still frustrated and continued to question the direction of the organization. Acting general manager Mike Rizzo preached patience to the fans, that good times would come. That frustrating year lead to another first overall selection in 2010, in which the Nationals selected Bryce Harper.
During the 2009 and 2010 season, the Nationals tried many combinations of players that had been previously been drafted. Ian Desmond made his MLB debut as a September call-up in 2009. His presence in the lineup was felt immediately. In the 2010 season, Ian Desmond was named the full time short stop over the incumbent Cristian Guzman. Similarly in 2010, Danny Espinosa made his MLB debut as a September callup. Before the 2011 season, he had claimed the starting 2nd base job replacing a hodgepodge of characters at that position. It took time, but seemingly out of nowhere, the Nationals infield was set. A trade to the Twins of closer Matt Capps in 2010 landed the Nationals Wilson Ramos, the team's future starting catcher. They then signed Adam LaRoche to be the full time 1st baseman.
2011 showed the Nationals were finally improving. Jayson Werth was acquired in the off-season, Drew Storen was ready for a full year, and there were high hopes for Jordan Zimmermann. Though Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche were injured for a large portion of the year and Strasburg was recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Nationals compiled a reasonable 80-81 record. Not too bad for a team that was missing some key pieces and had some players that were utterly average. The Nationals called up Ryan Mattheus in 2011, had a very good bullpen, and got a big year from Michael Morse. Ask any Nationals fan, 2011 was a pretty fun season considering they were still a sub .500 team. The Nationals were showing they were completing what they had started: building a team through the draft.
2012 showed the Nationals' decisions and previous difficult seasons had finally paid off. Most expected the Nationals to compete for a playoff spot, but the Nationals blew that expectation out of the water. The Nationals had great years from the entire starting pitching staff (which was completely overhauled with the addition of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, not to mention the return of Strasburg), the entire infield, and a productive outfield (especially after Harper was called up early in 2012). Not to be forgotten, the Nationals bullpen performed quite well despite some early issues with Henry Rodriguez, Brad Lidge, and an injured Drew Storen.
The Nationals had suffered losses, losing streaks, and countless amounts of frustration from 2005-2010. 2011 had its frustrations, but nowhere near the levels of previous seasons. 2011 to the present showed the long-term dividends of previously difficult years. Today, the Nationals and Jordan Zimmermann avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year deal. Zimmermann was the final piece that was without a contract for 2013 after Ian Desmond, Craig Stammen and several others avoided arbitration prior to Spring Training. It all goes back to how this started; the draft. The Nationals picked up several of their key pieces through the draft, while also stocking the farm system, then filled any lingering holes through trades of those prospects, such as the trade that brought Gio Gonzalez to Washington.
It is fascinating to see how the Nationals have gotten to where they are. Primarily building through the draft, for players such as Strasburg, Harper, and Zimmerman(n) (both of them). Other players were brought to Washington through productive trades, such as the Gio trade (amazingly, Rizzo isn't slowing down with his quality trades either, as evidenced by the Span/Meyer acquisition). Free agents have had a smaller impact, but an impact nonetheless. Jayson Werth has been the Nationals biggest free agent acquisition, but typically the Nationals do not make a big dramatic splash in the free agent market. The difference is that now, unlike years past, free agents want to come to the Nationals. The Nationals have built a very good franchise, and they did it their way all of it starting through the draft. What is impressive is how successful it has been and still has the potential to be.