In a sport where talent takes years to develop and a few injuries could derail entire seasons, one of the most difficult goals MLB general managers strive to meet is achieving sustained success.
Since 2012, only four teams have put together a winning season each of the past eight years: the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals. It's a feat reached by the few, and there are costs incurred for going for it every season.
When The Athletic's Keith Law released his annual farm system rankings this offseason, he slotted the Nationals in at 29th out of 30 teams, down six slots from where he ranked them last year. But as he wrote, fans shouldn't be too upset about how far the team fallen down the list.
"You don't care, right, Nats fans? You got a ring! That's what the farm is for, and Mike Rizzo and company worked the heck out of their system to get to that World Series," Law said.
When the Nationals promoted Mike Rizzo to general manager in 2009, they were bringing on a renowned scout and talent evaluator to guide an organization that was in desperate need of both. In the midst of a 103-loss season, the Nationals were fresh off the Esmailyn "Smiley" Gonzalez scandal that forced an overhaul of their player development program in the Dominican Republic.
Over his first two years, Rizzo drafted future big leaguers Harper, Anthony Rendon, Robbie Ray, Matt Grace and Aaron Barrett, among others. He made out like a bandit in trades for Wilson Ramos and Tanner Roark. Owner Ted Lerner lured Jayson Werth to D.C. on a lucrative seven-year deal to give the young club a veteran leader.
And right when their depth of young talent reached its peak, the Nationals were ready to contend.
In the winter of 2011-12, Washington swung a trade for Gio Gonzalez, shipping prospects A.J. Cole, Derek Norris, Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone to the Oakland A's. In his 2012 farm system rankings, Law put the Nationals 21st but said, "this was potentially a top-10 system before the Gio Gonzalez trade, no worse than top 15."
The move was a signal by the Nationals that they were willing to sacrifice significant prospect depth for moves that benefit them both in the present and future. Washington signed Gonzalez to an extension less than a month after acquiring him, giving the team a set left-hander to join Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann atop the rotation.
That proved to only be the start of a trend for Rizzo. He parted ways with former first-round pick Alex Meyer in November 2012 to get three years of Denard Span. Doug Fister landed in D.C. the following year because Rizzo was willing to deal Robbie Ray, Steve Lombardozzi and Ian Krol.
The hotly debated Adam Eaton trade cost the Nationals three of their top pitching prospects, including 2019 All-Star Lucas Giolito. But in the eyes of Rizzo, it was acquiring them five years of control over a corner outfielder who could hit at the top of the order.
But the cost of sustained contention can take a toll on the organization's depth, especially when the team never sells at the trade deadline.
The Nationals have the worst farm-system ranking of the four aforementioned teams with winning records every year since 2012. However, the Cardinals (ranked ninth) went three straight years without making the playoffs and the Yankees (sixth) retooled by trading Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller in 2016. As for the Dodgers (third), they're the exception-no team has been better at building up its farm system while remaining in the playoff picture every year.
Washington has played every season since 2012 with World Series aspirations, and soon the price of buying at the trade deadline almost every year will come back to haunt them. The first sign of that, a drop in their farm system ranking, has already arrived.
But farm systems exist to help teams win the World Series, and that's exactly what the Nationals did. It's something the Dodgers and Yankees can't say about their past eight seasons. Now, as the team looks to defend its title, what happens next will be a new test for Rizzo and the Nationals: managing the MLB roster without their prospect depth creating opportunities through trades.
The Nationals made one trade this offseason for a player with major-league experience: reliever Ryne Harper, who only cost them a 2-year-old pitcher in rookie ball. Unless they're willing to part ways with top prospects Carter Kieboom or Luis Garcia, or perhaps former first-rounders Mason Denaburg or Jackson Rutledge, the Nationals won't be making many splashy trades. Instead, they'll be tasked with finding value in lower-profile moves, such as the trade for Harper.
It's the same game for the Nationals, but they'll need to go about it a different way. Rizzo has already shown he can master it the old way. It's up to him and the rest of the front office to prove it can do it with fewer cards in its hand.
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How the Nationals fell to the bottom of MLB farm system rankings originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington