Ever since pro sports instituted drafts, being bad has often led to being good. Case in point for Washington came this weekend when Stephen Strasburg, the first overall selection in the 2009 draft, shut out Atlanta for the first-place Nationals a day before Bryce Harper, the top pick in the 2010 draft, homered against the Braves.
Strasburg, April’s National League Pitcher of the Month, became a Nat because Washington was the worst team in the majors in 2008. Harper, May’s NL Rookie of the Month, followed suit because the Nats remained horrible in 2009.
Not one of the first overall selections since baseball’s draft began in 1965 have been enshrined in Cooperstown although Ken Griffey Jr. (1987) and Chipper Jones (1990) are locks and Alex Rodriguez (1993) will be if the voters overcome their steroid-related suspicions. The run of Josh Hamilton (1999), Adrian Gonzalez (2000) and Joe Mauer (2001) was terrific and could lead to enshrinements someday.
Of course, the Hall of Fame’s not even on the radar screen yet for Strasburg (28 career starts) and Harper (32 career games), but they are now mainstays for a team that has rocketed from below .500 last season to the top of the National League East.
What’s more, Strasburg, 23, and Harper, still just 19, are far from the only draft choices who have helped Washington ascend to contender status after seven seasons in also-ran land.
All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, 28, was picked fourth overall by Washington in 2005. Shortstop Ian Desmond, 26, and second baseman Danny Espinosa, 25, are also homegrown regulars. Harper has been joined at times in the outfield by Roger Bernadina, 27, and Steve Lombardozzi, 23, who have also spent their entire pro careers in the Nats’ organization.
Jordan Zimmermann, now the 26-year-old third starter in the rotation behind Strasburg and trade acquisition Gio Gonzalez, was Washington’s second-round selection in the 2007 draft. The Nats’ top pick that June was lefty Ross Detwiler, 26, who was a solid fifth starter before moving last week to the bullpen where he joined Craig Stammen, 28, a 12th-rounder in 2005 who has been superb in relief this season.
As good as pitching coach Steve McCatty’s bullpen has been, it figures to take a step up when closer Drew Storen returns from elbow surgery next month. Washington drafted Storen 10th overall – nine picks after Strasburg — in 2009. He saved 43 games last season at 23.
Including infielder Anthony Rendon, the sixth choice last June, the Nats have selected seven players in the top 10 of the seven drafts since they left Montreal for Washington before the 2005 season. They failed to sign pitcher Aaron Crow (now with Kansas City) in 2008, but Zimmerman, Detwiler, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Storen (when he finishes rehab) and Harper will comprise about a quarter of the roster as the Nats make their first postseason push in August and September.
It’s a sign of the progress that Washington made last season that its top pick in today’s draft won’t occur until 15 players have come off the board.
Leave the top 10 to Houston, Minnesota, Seattle, Baltimore, Kansas City, the Chicago Cubs, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Miami and Colorado, all of whom remain except the Marlins and the perpetually-downtrodden Orioles and Pirates remain below .500 a third of the way through this season.
If Harper, Strasburg and Co. can continue to produce like the stars they were supposed to be when they were drafted, then Rendon should have a special distinction as the Nats’ last top 10 selection for many years to come.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin