Ask a bunch of local baseball observers which of the region's two franchises is closer to contention, the Nationals or the Orioles, and the answer will be unanimous. Of course the Nats are in better shape than their American League counterparts up the road. There's nothing close to a debate to be had here.
Which actually is a remarkable development in itself, because it wasn't that long ago that the Orioles appeared to be the better-positioned franchise of the two.
Think back just three short years ago, when the Nationals were coming off a 102-loss season and attempting to construct a winner around a lineup that featured Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes and a rotation anchored by Shawn Hill and Jason Bergmann. At the same time, the Orioles (while hardly world beaters at 68-94) looked like they were on the right track with Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and a bunch of talented young pitchers who were about to arrive on the scene.
Read this paragraph I wrote on June 17, 2008, comparing the state of baseball in Washington to Baltimore:
"The moves Andy MacPhail has made since taking over have been quite dramatic and have completely reshaped the organization's fortunes. The Nationals have done a commendable job of restocking their farm system, especially with pitchers, but most of their top-tier talent remains at the lower levels of the minors and is several years from making it. The Orioles, meanwhile, already have Adam Jones, George Sherrill, Luke Scott and Garrett Olson on their major league roster."
Hmm, how'd that all turn out?
As we sit here today, the Nationals are strutting their stuff, looking very much like a franchise on the verge of something special, while the Orioles are in complete disarray, looking very much like a franchise that has no chance of ending its streak of consecutive losing seasons (now 14) anytime soon.
Yesterday, the strangest GM search in years ended when Baltimore hired Dan Duquette as their new president of baseball operations. The same Dan Duquette who hadn't worked in major-league baseball since 2002, when he was fired by the under-performing Red Sox and replaced by a kid named Theo Epstein.
How did Duquette wind up getting this job? Because seemingly every viable candidate in the Western Hemisphere turned it down. Tony LaCava. Jerry Dipoto. Allard Baird. DeJon Watson.
Things looked so bleak late last week, you almost wondered if Peter Angelos was going to bring in Jim Bowden for an interview.
Angelos, of course, is the No. 1 reason for this debacle. There may not be an owner in baseball with a worse reputation right now. How else could you explain LaCava -- long considered a GM-in-waiting -- turning down a job offer to remain as an assistant in Toronto?
Plain and simple, nobody wants to work for Angelos, who incredibly has gone through six different GMs since Pat Gillick departed in 1998: Frank Wren, Syd Thrift, Jim Beattie, Mike Flanagan, MacPhail and now Duquette. Actually, none of Gillick's successors have held the position of GM. For whatever reason, Angelos has insisted on giving these guys long-winded titles like "executive vice president of baseball operations."
Perhaps that's because no one who has been hired for that job has been given the autonomous authority to run the franchise like a typical GM. Angelos has always been lurking in the shadows, calling the shots himself or holding things up with his deliberate negotiating style and preventing deals from ever being completed in the first place.
And now he owns a team with few cornerstone players, aside from perhaps Markakis, Jones and Matt Wieters. That great stable of young pitchers never materialized, with Zach Britton, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman failing to realize their potential.
Throw in the fact they play in baseball's toughest division, and even the most optimistic Baltimore baseball fan has to admit the chances of this team escaping the AL East basement anytime soon is slim at best.
Now, contrast that with the Nationals, who three years ago had baseball's worst record and one of the game's worst reputations as a franchise. The job the Lerner family and GM Mike Rizzo have done since then to resurrect this organization and turn it from laughingstock into a popular sleeper pick to contend in 2012 is nothing short of remarkable.
How have the Nats done it? It begins with ownership, which has learned from its past mistakes, has been more willing to open up its checkbook the last few years and has given its GM the autonomy to run the baseball operation as he sees fit. And Rizzo has made the most of that opportunity, assembling a quality staff of scouts and player development honchos that has made some astute moves to transform a 102-loss franchise into a near-.500 club.
The Nationals have by no means completed this rebuilding process. They're really only halfway there. But that's a whole lot farther along than the Orioles are right now.
This winter, while the O's are busy overhauling their entire operation with a new GM who hasn't worked in nearly a decade, the Nationals will be seeking to add a couple key pieces to a roster that at this juncture needs only fine-tuning, not a complete reconstruction.
In the battle for Beltway baseball supremacy, the Nationals are way out in front of the Orioles. That's a position few could have predicted just a few short years ago.