The ride up has been a lot of fun.
But All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond hasn’t forgotten the depths from which the Nationals have risen.
A third-round pick of the franchise in 2004 when they were known as the Expos, Desmond finally worked his way onto the big-league roster on Sept. 10, 2009 — when the club was on its way to a major-league worst 59-103 record.
“To come and withstand some of the games they had to watch back then — for them to stick around and believe in us and be patient is a testament to their loyalty,” Desmond said of Nationals fans, who in their second season at their new ballpark sent a message to ownership by filling an average of 7,000 fewer seats than the year before.
“Now we’re in a totally different boat. We’ve been able to turn things around here and really give them something to root for.”
A year after winning a major-league leading 98 regular season games, the Nationals have certainly raised the bar in the nation’s capital with division titles and October success expected.
So how did an organization that was drawing poorly, spending little and hardly winning turn it all around?
It built through the draft, spending the cash on top choices Stephen Strasburg (2009 No. 1 overall pick) and Bryce Harper (No. 1 overall pick in 2010) and then developing other picks like Desmond, second baseman Danny Espinosa (third round 2008); third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (first round 2005); starting pitchers Jordan Zimmermann (second round 2007) and Ross Detwiler (first round 2006); and relievers Drew Storen (first round 2009) and Craig Stammen (12th round 2005).
Then, General Manager Mike Rizzo went out and added pieces through trades and free agency such as All-Star left-hander Gio Gonzalez and first baseman Adam LaRoche. This year’s additions are closer Rafael Soriano and center fielder Denard Span.
“Any time you have success, there’s always a little bit of persistence in there,” Desmond said. “Obviously, we built a very good farm system, had a lot of good player development. It starts in the minor leagues. Last year one of the biggest keys for us was when a lot of our big guys went down we had somebody to replace them. It’s kind of been an accumulation of adding piece after piece and getting a little bit better.”
The team’s payroll — at $55 million in 2008 — is expected to be around $111.7 million. Harper, Strasburg, both Zimmermans, Espinosa and Desmond are all under club control for several seasons, all but ensuring a competitive squad.
The farm system is still stacked. According to Baseball America, the Nats have the 13th-best collection of minor-league talent in the game. Third baseman Anthony Rendon, right-handed pitcher Lucas Giolito and outfielder Brian Goodwin are the next round of stars.
As for attendance, the team drew an average of 30,010 last season — good for 14th in baseball — and up more than 5,000 a game from ’11.
The Marlins, entering their second season at a new ballpark with a small payroll and little-to-no expectations, have the potential to follow in the Nationals’ footsteps. According to Baseball America, they have the fifth-best collection of minor-league talent — led by their own versions of Strasburg (right-hander Jose Fernandez) and Harper (outfielder Christian Yelich).
Six prospects overall rank in the top 100: Fernandez (fifth); Yelich (15th); left-hander Andrew Heaney (43rd); outfielder Jake Marisnick (64th); outfielder Marcell Ozuna (75th); and left-hander Justin Nicolino (86th). They also have five of the top 80 picks in this June’s draft: sixth overall, 35th, 44th, 73rd and 80th.
But getting to that point and simply envisioning it are two different concepts.
Desmond and the Nationals, meanwhile, have their sights set on something else — postseason glory.
“What we did last year just gave us the confidence that we can play at that level,” said Desmond, whose team lost to the Cardinals in a thrilling five-game divisional series in October. “We have the ability, we have the players and I guess the guts to do more now. Now, it’s just about repeating and taking no games lightly and just being focused, playing a hard nine innings every single day.”
The losing? That’s in the rear-view mirror now in D.C.