South of here, team headed in right direction

May 18, 2007|By RICK MAESE

The question is posed with the understanding that there's no definite answer and the evidence can be bent in a variety of ways. But as interleague play begins tonight, it's worth at least asking: Who will find success first - the Orioles or the Nationals?

When the Nats moved into the neighborhood more than two years ago, most of the initial hand-wringing centered on having to share the economic pie. Because both teams have floundered in the standings, discussion about which organization could consistently field the more competitive team has lacked punch.

This year, even though the Nationals are on pace to lose more than 100 games and the Orioles are coyly flirting with their own division's basement, you can't help but notice a few differences between the two teams. None more telling than this: While the Nationals have been upfront with their fan base about anticipated growing pains, the Orioles seem to avoid admitting the hardest truths to even themselves.

"We knew generally what we were walking into here," Nationals president Stan Kasten says. "I don't think we knew the extent of the problem, but we knew there was a problem."

Kasten has been in his job for a year now and though the major league payroll has been slashed and the on-field product is often laughable, he's explained to fans that you can't measure the organization's growth by counting wins and losses.

He knew he was inheriting a last-place ballclub but was more concerned that he was taking over a minor league operation that was simply abysmal. So, mirroring what he did with the Atlanta Braves 20 years ago, Kasten sold new owner Ted Lerner and the fan base on a bottom-up approach.

His first day, he outlined three priorities: improving the on-field product through player development, an aggressive community relations program, and improving the customer experience so fans can sit through losses and still enjoy a night at the park.

"I understand that fans want to win today. I do, as well," Kasten says. "But there's a reason we're doing it this way. To do it the way others might do it - sign guys right now, bring in the big free agent, make the big trade - I think that takes you further from your real goal."

Such a plan requires incredible patience by everyone from the owner to the fan, but who's going to argue with the fruits? Unless you're the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox, there's really just one option, and that's why it's easy to forget that some of today's successful teams were losing games while they developed their farm systems, such as the Minnesota Twins (eight straight losing seasons) and the Detroit Tigers (12 straight). The Orioles lose games and develop little more than a bad reputation and fan resentment.

According to, the Nationals have one of the league's top budgets for scouting and player development. (Kasten won't give specifics but says they're spending "millions more" than before.) They added 10 new scouts after last season and have started to focus more efforts on international scouting.

"When I got here, I asked how many legitimate Dominican prospects do we have?" Kasten says. "The answer to that question was zero. Zero! "

Last year they signed a 16-year-old Dominican shortstop named Esmailyn Gonzalez for $1.4 million, a move the Nationals hope opens a door.

There are few guarantees, of course, and you don't know which injuries lurk or what prospects will pan out. When this season ends, they'll likely be in the division cellar, but everyone in the organization knows they'll be in better position. While teams like the Orioles spend their offseasons plugging leaks with chewing gum, the Nationals accepted that they'll have to lose before they can win.

"Anything else would have been unrealistic. It would have been B.S.," Kasten says. "All you can do is work every day to improve and move forward on all three fronts, and we know that we'll have a quantum leap on Opening Day next year. ... Yes, I feel for the fans. The majority, I think, do understand what we're trying to do. Everyone wants this process to be as quick as possible, and I still feel this is the quickest way to get there."

It's only this simple if your team is either very good or very bad. When you're mired in mediocrity and have a fan base that feels it's already suffered enough, it's tough to sell them on a couple more losing seasons. The alternative, though, is a torturous cycle, planting a hope in March and April that never lives to see June and July.

I asked Kasten how similar building the Nats has been to his earlier work with the Braves. Some specifics are different and certainly the economics of the game have evolved, but "the formula is not a secret formula," he said.

"It's been this way for a century. It was that way 70 years ago when Branch Rickey was first talking about an elaborate minor league system. But we have a secret ingredient here - an owner who is really willing to let you make the decisions for the best interest in the long term, willing to stand behind you while you avoid the quick-fix decisions."

So who do you think finds success first, the Orioles or the Nationals?

No, there's no definitive answer, but you merely have to look at the people drawing up the plans to formulate a pretty good hunch.

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