The Washington Nationals have rapidly improved their farm system over the past few years, from one of the two or three worst while under the ownership of Major League Baseball, to one of the top ten.
Their new owners have made a serious commitment to building from within, starting with the brilliant pick of Ryan Zimmerman in 2005, and they were lauded by Baseball America for their draft haul of a year ago.
However, management cannot rest on its laurels, because there is still a long way to go. In order to make Washington a viable baseball city on the third try, they need several things to happen.
First, they have to identify, draft, and sign the best available talent that they can afford. Fortunately for Nats fans, the team has shown a willingness to, at least partially, ignore the commissioner's ridiculous slot system, and not waste their high picks on mid-level talent.
If they want to build a winning program in this age of hoarding your top young players, they had better make sure that they get their hands on some of those top young players.
Second, it would serve them well to look closely at more players like Zimmerman, who can leapfrog through the minors and establish themselves at the major-league level as quickly as possible. Zim got a September cameo in 2005, and was the team's regular third baseman within a year of being drafted out of the University of Virginia.
The Nats tried to bring last year's top pick, Missouri State pitcher Ross Detwiler, along the same way, calling him up when rosters expanded, but pitchers often progress more slowly, and while he has shown ability, Detwiler is still with Class-A Potomac, sporting a 5.09 ERA and 1.65 WHIP in 46 innings thus far this year.
They need to find more Zimmermans because there is so little established talent on the major league roster. The outfielders in particular read like a roster of backup players: Milledge, Kearns, Pena, Dukes, Langerhans, Mackowiak, Harris.
No one will deny that Milledge, Pena, and Dukes all possess considerable talent, but all have also gone through prolonged slumps with regular playing time this year, and Milledge and Dukes still have a long ways to go maturity-wise.
At least the cast-off outfielders are mostly young and worth taking a flyer on. The infield, other than Zim, is much older, with Felipe Lopez (28) the only other guy who will not turn 30 this year.
Among position players, the Nats should only feel good at this point standing pat at third base (Zimmerman), center field (Milledge), and catcher (Jesus Flores), while hoping that Dukes, Pena, or Kearns figure it out and gives them solid production in the outfield.
If none of them do, the Nats will hope stud prospect Justin Maxwell, their minor-league MVP last year, can remember how to hit for average (he's currently at .233, but with an OPS of .826 in AA) after his very respectable call-up last year.
Of the Nats' younger pitchers, none have been overpowering, but they have to be pleased with John Lannan's work this year. Lannan has only two bad starts all season, and has shown flashes of brilliance. As for the rest of the rotation, it is populated by journeymen (Odalis Perez, Tim Redding) and struggling youngsters (Matt Chico, Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann).
The Nats need Detwiler and Jordan Zimmerman, among others, to progress and eventually keep Manny Acta from having to replace his starter after five innings much of the time.
So who should the Nats draft? While their organization is highly ranked, much of that talent is still in Class-A and Class-A Advanced, so there is still a need to replenish the upper levels of the farm system, as well as identify another Zimmerman or two who can give the major league team an upgrade in a hurry.
Washington is an impatient town, and the Nats can't afford to put a bad team on the field in their wonderful new stadium for too long. If they do, people will stop coming to watch anyone but their hometown teams.
If the Nats can collect another All-Star stable of draft picks, they may in a good position to emulate this year's Tampa Bay team in either 2010 or 2011, especially in a division with teams relying on older players, like the Mets and Braves.
If they whiff on this chance, they may cost the team critical ground in their struggle to become a viable franchise, especially in a city that has rejected baseball twice already.