In Nationals, O's see themselves
Goal of building homegrown talent shared along 'Beltways'
NEW YORK -- It's a sibling rivalry more than a natural one, a series between a pair of teams that have more in common than reasons to be at odds. The Orioles and Nationals will kick off Interleague Play this weekend, and when they look across at each other, they may really see reflections of themselves.
Just ask second baseman Brian Roberts, the second-longest-tenured member of the Orioles. Roberts, a two-time All-Star who has yet to experience a winning season with Baltimore, sees a pair of teams that are fighting to carve out a new identity while competing in two of the sport's toughest divisions.
"You'd have to say that the National League East would be the most similar to the American League East -- and you'd probably have to say that the Nationals are the team most similar to us," said Roberts. "They haven't won in a long time, and I think they're trying to find a direction for their organization -- or maybe they even feel like they have one now. It's one of those things that's going to play out over time for both organizations."
Both Washington and Baltimore have become heavily centered around drafting and development in recent seasons, using a time-worn strategy to improve their organizational depth. The Orioles have homegrown stars in Roberts and Nick Markakis, and they also have several high-caliber prospects in the upper levels of their system.
The Nationals, meanwhile, have Ryan Zimmerman in their everyday lineup and recent draftees Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler wedged into their rotation. Washington will add another highly regarded prospect with the top overall selection in next month's First-Year Player Draft, further diversifying the team's stockpile of talent.
Baltimore manager Dave Trembley knows how that path works, having dealt with high-wattage prospects like Matt Wieters and Brian Matusz in Spring Training. Trembley's toughest task at this point is exercising patience, because he knows the Orioles are close to beginning a full-fledged youth movement.
"I can't speak for the Nationals, but I know what we're trying to do is build our team from within through player development and scouting," said Trembley. "We'll bring up some young players and have a good nucleus of veteran guys. We're patient, and we're setting standards for what the expectations are and building for the future. I don't think we're alone in that pursuit, and I think more and more, teams will probably take that course."
Perhaps most importantly, neither team is looking for a quick fix. Both the Orioles and Nationals know that their respective windows for contention lie a few seasons off into the future, so they're encouraged to make the most of what they have now and to start building a foundation for their next winning team.
"I don't know enough about their system," said Trembley, "But I know our system has improved and that we're getting close to moving a lot of our Minor League guys along in getting here. I think our system has got some guys that without a doubt are going to be Major Leaguers for a long time for the Orioles. I don't know that much about their system, but I would think that they're probably trying to do the same thing we are."
In Baltimore's case, the degree of difficulty is quite high. Both Boston and New York have been at the top of the American League for the past decade, and Tampa Bay came out of nowhere to win the division -- and pennant -- last year. Toronto is in first place right now, underlining how hard it will be for the Orioles to vault to the top.
Washington, meanwhile, has a similar situation. The Nationals have to contend with the Phillies, the defending World Series champions, and the Mets, who have just missed the playoffs in each of the past two years. There's also the Marlins and Braves standing between Washington and the top of the pack.
That's how the lay of the land looks on an everyday basis. For now, the Orioles and Nationals have to compete in the Battle of the Beltways and a possible claim to local bragging rights.
"In order to build it into a rivalry, you'd have to have an extremely passionate fan base in both markets," said catcher Gregg Zaun. "And both teams would have to be winning for anybody to care. I don't know anything about what's Washington's got coming, and I only know a little bit about what they have there already. I can only speak for the Baltimore situation, and I don't think we're too far away from being good. But as far as when the two organizations will be good at the same time and whether or not they'll have that following, I couldn't tell you."
"I don't really pay attention much to the National League," added first baseman Aubrey Huff. "If either of us was in a different division, maybe we'd be a little bit better team."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.