Every few seasons, a small market team emerges as a surprise contender. Caught up in the rush of playoff talk, these teams often rush into trades without realizing the consequences of dealing away prospects in hopes of securing a playoff berth.
The Montreal Expos were that team in 2002. They made a blockbuster trade and in the process traded away three future All-Stars.
They were a good Expos team, full of good young starts that the franchise had developed through its minor league system, one of baseball's best during the late nineties. The roster was dotted with notable names such as Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro and Orlando Cabrera.
The Expos somehow managed to stick around the top of the standings long enough for Major League Baseball's self-appointed general manager, Omar Minaya to ravage the franchise's once promising farm system to rent Bartolo Colon for half a season in an attempt to stay in the playoff race.
Needless to say, the Expos did not make postseason. In fact, they were not even close. The Expos did finish the season with a winning record at 83-79, but that was hardly worth the price that Minaya paid. In the trade with the Indians to acquire Colon, Minaya traded Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, and Cliff Lee for 17 starts from a pitcher he knew he could not possibly keep.
The next year, the Expos finished 83-79, but with no new talent on the way, and homegrown stars like Guerrero taking advantage of free agency, the Expos franchise could not rebound and struggled to sustain their winning ways. Major League Baseball was forced to relocate the franchise to the nation's capital, where success has been hard to come by.
Fast forward to current day. The Nationals have finally begun to replenish their farm system—two straight 100-loss seasons allow a franchise to do this—and are winning at a respectable enough clip that some analysts are speculating that the team could contend for the wild card.
The best thing for Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo to do now would be to turn off the TV whenever such talk comes on. As a small market franchise, the Nationals cannot afford to mortgage their future on one season. The farm system is once again stocked with talent like it was in the late nineties.
Rizzo must realize that his franchise's best hope lies in following the footsteps of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays starting lineup is full almost entirely with players developed in the minor leagues. The few players not from the farm system have been carefully picked free agents. Teams like the Nationals and Rays cannot afford to make mistakes on free agents.
Reaching on a free agent is not worse however than losing a player that goes onto become a star. Small market teams benefit from the ability to resign their young players at a discounted rate. The Washington franchise could have had Lee, Phillips and Sizemore for the first six years of their careers. Instead, they lost these future stars in exchange for finishing four games over .500.
The Washington Nationals need to be patient this season and resist the urge to pull the trigger on a deadline deal. Mega-prospects such as Bryce Harper, Brad Peacock and Tyler Moore are dominating the minor leagues. The Nationals have once again created one of the best minor league systems. Destroying that in an attempt to contend this season would be a terrible mistake. Patience is a virtue, and passing on a major trade will allow the Nationals to reap the benefits of their prospects.