Building a champion: Develop bats, import arms

October 21st, 2019

While the Astros and Nationals took strikingly different routes to the World Series, they constructed their pennant winners in similar fashion.

Heavily favored to win the American League West, Houston seized the division lead for good by the end of April en route to a franchise-record and Major League-best 107 victories, a prelude to returning to the Fall Classic for the second time in three years. Washington dropped 31 of its first 50 games before grabbing a Wild Card berth with a 74-38 run, then staved off playoff elimination with late rallies against the Brewers and Dodgers to reach the World Series for the first time in the franchise's 51 seasons.

Both league champions did so by turning first-round picks into superstars, hitting big on a couple of international signings and fortifying their pitching staffs via blockbuster trades or massive free-agent contracts.

One-third of the Astros' potent lineup came from the first round of the Draft. lasted 11 picks in a deep 2011 Draft amid swing-and-miss concerns, went No. 1 overall in 2012 after wowing clubs in pre-Draft workouts and came with the No. 2 selection in 2015. Houston was fortunate that 2014 No. 1 overall choice Brady Aiken refused to reduce his bonus agreement after failing a physical, because it received the Bregman pick as compensation when Aiken failed to sign.

The Nationals turned the worst three-year stretch in franchise history (2008-10) into selections that yielded the most productive pitcher and position player on their 2019 club. They took , the best pitching prospect in Draft history, with the No. 1 pick in 2009 and with the No. 6 choice in 2011.

International stars contribute to the homegrown flavor of both teams. José Altuve's size made it difficult for him to attract scouts, and the American League Championship Series MVP signed for just $15,000 out of Venezuela in 2006 -- a mere fraction of the five-year, $47.5 million contact Houston gave as a Cuban defector a decade later. Washington's international program had been ineffective for years before finding Dominicans Victor Robles for $225,000 in 2013 and Juan Soto for $1.5 million (then a franchise record for a foreign amateur) in 2015.

After signing and developing impressive offensive foundations from within, the Astros and Nationals looked outside their organizations to bolster their pitching staffs. For three straight years, Houston president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow has added an ace via trade: from the Tigers in August 2017, from the Pirates in January 2018 and from the D-backs in July 2019. Those moves cost the Astros a total of 12 youngsters, eight of whom made MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list at some point in their career (Seth Beer, J.B. Bukauskas, Daz Cameron, Michael Feliz, Corbin Martin, Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove, Franklin Perez) and three others who have reached the big leagues (Jason Martin, Jake Rogers, Josh Rojas) -- but none of whom has caused them any regret.

Washington's splash pitching moves came via free agency. Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo drafted Max Scherzer 11th overall in 2006 when he was the D-backs' scouting director and gave him the largest free-agent contract ever for a pitcher (since surpassed) at seven years and $210 million (half of it deferred) in January 2015. Washington also paid out the biggest contract given to a free-agent pitcher last offseason, shelling out $140 million over six years (partially deferred) to .

Both clubs got value from budget-minded free-agent moves ( and for the Astros; Aníbal Sánchez for the Nationals) and one-sided trades ( from the Dodgers for Josh Fields for Houston; from the Padres for essentially Steven Souza in a three-team deal, plus National League Championship Series MVP Howie Kendrick from the Phillies for a fringe prospect and international signing money for Washington). The two World Series closers, and , were dumped by their former clubs in midseason trades.

The biggest difference between the Astros and Nationals is that the latter hasn't had as much success packaging several prospects for veterans. Dealing (along with Dane Dunning and Reynaldo López) to the White Sox for in December 2016 and (plus Sheldon Neuse and ) to the Athletics for (and ) in July 2017 may come back to bite Washington in the long run.

Whichever team wins the World Series will continue a recent trend. Both the 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox built champions largely by developing hitting and importing pitching, and the blueprint will have worked for a third straight season.