For the first time since the 2013 season, the Orioles come into their first matchup with the Nationals of the year having a better record than their neighbors in DC. In the lineup nine years ago for the Os were the likes of Markakis, Machado, Hardy, Jones, Davis and Wieters. The recently retired Ryan Zimmerman was batting third for the Nationals and second-year outfielder Bryce Harper missed the series due to a knee injury. All of that to say: a lot has changed between now and then.
The “Battle of the Beltways” has never seemed like a rivalry in the same way one thinks of Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox or even Dodgers-Angels. It doesn’t help that the Orioles and Nationals have only made the playoffs in the same season three times (2012, 2014 and 2016) since the Nationals arrived in DC in 2005. The most contentious battles between the two franchises may have come in the courtroom rather than on the baseball diamond.
However, that doesn’t mean that, as Orioles fans, we don’t want the undisputed claim as the better of the two teams in the region. For the first time since the early Buck Showalter days, Orioles fans can really make that claim. In tangible terms, the Orioles currently have a better record and a much better run differential. For the intangible, the disparity seems even larger and the difference in the amount of hope and optimism around the two ball clubs seems to finally match the difference in the quality of their stadiums.
Still, the comparison between the Birds and Nats that may be most informative for Orioles fans is not the comparison of current roster/records or the differing quantities of hope and optimism surrounding the two clubs. Rather, it is the comparison of the Orioles’ process in their rebuild to the process undertaken by the Nationals 10-15 years ago where O’s fans can truly gain some insight.
This Orioles rebuild is most often linked to the rebuild undertaken by the Houston Astros that eventually led them to be World Series champions in 2017, with additional World Series appearances in 2019 and 2021. Current Orioles General Manager Mike Elias was hired from the Astros organization in hopes of repeating that same process. Yet, with the Nationals, you have another team that went from a 100-loss season to a World Series championship within a decade.
That Nationals rebuild team certainly laid its foundation through a successful farm system. They were Baseball America’s #1 farm system in 2012, and many of those players went on to play big roles in their World Series win. Similarly, the Orioles entered 2022 with the best farm system in baseball. The recent debut of #1 overall prospect Adley Rutschman only feels like the tip of a very large iceberg when it comes to the role minor league development will play in the O’s rebuild.
While many of those stars have since come and gone, the Nationals still have Juan Soto, one of the unquestioned best hitters in all of baseball and a testament to the value the Nationals extracted from the international free agent market. This of course is one of the areas the Orioles have begun to heavily invest in since the arrival of Mike Elias. These two facets—successful drafting and aggression in acquiring international prospects—are the unavoidable essentials when it comes to successful team building.
However, what largely separated the Nationals’ rebuild from that of the Astros (and that of the Orioles so far) was the Nats’ willingness to supplement a core built through the MLB draft and international free agents with an equally aggressive approach in free agency and the trade market. That’s not to say that the Astros did not make use of trades and free agents; one needs to look no further than the 2017 in-season acquisition of Justin Verlander as evidence. Yet, that 2017 Astros team was built largely on the backs of talent like Altuve, Correa, Springer, Bregman and McCullers that Houston developed from the ground up.
The 2019 Nationals, on the other hand, would not have won the World Series without the contributions of big-money signing Max Scherzer and the additions of Adam Eaton, Patrick Corbin and Sean Doolittle via trades.
In addition to finishing third in Cy Young voting that year, Scherzer went 3-0 in 5 playoff starts, with a 2.40 ERA and 37 strikeouts over 30 playoff innings. Doolittle similarly sparkled throughout that playoff run, posting a 1.74 ERA over 10.1 innings. Eaton and Corbin shone particularly brightly in the World Series, posting a .320 average and striking out 10 batters in 10 innings respectively. The Nationals were willing to roll the dice on big contracts and big trades and in the end, they got a ring out of it all.
All of this is to say that, as the Orioles ascend past the Nationals, they need to look back to see how important free agent and trade activity can be when it comes to completing this rebuild. Yes, the Orioles have been burned by both of those avenues in the past. Overpaying for incredibly volatile free agents such as Chris Davis and Ubaldo Jimenez is part of the reason the Orioles found themselves needing a full rebuild.
In the same sense, trading for established big leaguers to cover holes in the roster has seen players like Jake Arrieta and Josh Hader blossom into All-Stars in other cities while leaving Baltimore little to show for it. These past failures, though, should not prevent Orioles management from pursuing free agents and trades aggressively in the near future.
If all goes to plan, by the end of the 2023 season the Orioles will feature a lineup headlined by Rutschman, GUNNAR HENDERSON, Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle—-while boasting a rotation lead by Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. All of those players have the talent to form the core of a World Series-winning team. However, those players only represent half of a lineup and less than half of a rotation.
The Orioles already have the lowest payroll in baseball and—even with the likely graduations of Rutschman, Rodriguez, Henderson and Hall—they will still have a farm system capable of delivering more contributing players. Without a doubt, the payroll flexibility and prospect depth will present the opportunity to be aggressive in acquiring those missing pieces—and soon.
The hope for fans in Birdland is that Mike Elias can take a page out of Mike Rizzo’s book in DC by starting to more heavily invest in the free-agent and trade markets. By doing so—and doing so with the same methodical and opportunistic approach taken throughout the rebuild so far—Elias and company should be able to catapult the Birds into true contention.