It was done in large part through the draft.
The Nationals took advantage of a positional draft advantage and a hefty budget to get the job done.
From 2007 through 2011, the Nationals, according to Baseball America, spent $51 million on draft selections. They picked up eight players currently on their 25-man roster. Only the Pittsburgh Pirates spent more at $52 million.
Washington didn't just get ordinary players, either.
Three-fifths of the Nats' starting rotation, which is among the best in baseball, came in those drafts. They got lefty Ross Detwiler with the sixth overall pick and righthander Jordan Zimmermann with the 67th overall pick in 2007. They got Stephen Strasburg with the first overall pick in 2009.
A year later, with the first overall pick again, they got Bryce Harper, a rare player who was ready for the big leagues long before his 21st birthday.
They also picked up second baseman Danny Espinosa, reliever Drew Storen, and important bench players Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi during that time period.
The Phillies, by comparison, have three four players on their 25-man roster drafted since 2007: Justin De Fratus, an 11th-round pick in 2007; Michael Stutes, an 11th-round selection in 2008; Tyler Cloyd, an 18th-rounder in 2008; and Joe Savery, the 18th overall selection in 2007 who was called up Friday. None of the three opened the season with the Phillies or has spent a full season with the team.
"I've mentioned for years that I don't think you can burn the candle at both ends," said Marti Wolever, the Phillies' assistant general manager in charge of scouting. "Look at the dollars spent by teams like Washington and Kansas City over the last five years and some other folks internationally and that's going to equate to great players. When you don't have the picks and you pick lower and you play by the rules, you're going to get in the back of the line."
There is some validity to what Wolever is saying. It is definitely more difficult to be successful in the draft when your team is winning or forfeiting first-round picks because of free-agent signings.
Before last year's draft, baseball had suggested guidelines for what drafted players should be paid based on where they were selected. There was no penalty if those guidelines were not followed, however. The Phillies, for the most part, followed those guidelines.
So did the Atlanta Braves, but they've had far more success in the draft since 2007 than the Phillies. Both teams spent right around $22 million on the draft from 2007 to 2011. The Phillies actually spent slightly more.
Atlanta's current roster, however, includes seven players from those drafts, and all seven are playing significant roles with the team.
They got rightfielder Jason Heyward with the 14th overall pick in 2007 and first baseman Freddie Freeman in the second round with the 78th overall pick. Reliever Cory Gearrin, who has allowed runs in just two of his 29 appearances this season, was taken in the fourth round.
After taking Craig Kimbrel late in the 2007 draft, the Braves selected him again in the third round of the 2008 draft and he has emerged as one of the best closers in baseball.
A year later, the Braves took Mike Minor with the seventh overall selection. He has been their best starter this season.
In 2010, the Braves got shortstop Andrelton Simmons in the second round and slugger Evan Gattis in the 23d round.
It's not only a lack of high picks that has left the Phillies' farm system thin. In an effort to keep the good times going, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. traded away some top prospects.
None of them have burned the Phillies yet, but Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart in Houston's system and Travis d'Arnaud with the New York Mets were all among Baseball America's top 100 entering this season. The Phillies' only prospect in the top 100 was Jesse Biddle.
There have been some bad picks, too.
Savery has not worked out, and outfielders Anthony Hewitt and Zach Collier, the team's first two picks in 2009, have struggled mightily on their way through the minor-league system.
The draft rules changed last season. Severe penalties have been installed for teams that exceed their allotment of draft cash. The Phillies have a pool of just over $6 million for the first 10 rounds this season, which ranks 22d among 30 teams. The Braves rank 26th at $4.5 million and the Nationals are last at $2.7 million.
"I think we've gone back to more pure scouting versus walking in and buying what you want," Wolever said. "This is more about your scouting ability now and I think that's the way it is supposed to be."
Contact Bob Brookover at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @brookob.