Marty Niland: Nationals’ transformation mirrors Rays’ progression

The Nationals have to feel good about taking two of three games form the Tampa Bay Rays this week.

Tuesday night’s pine tar dust-up aside, the Nats can take pride in bouncing back from a tough series against the Yankees and beating a very good team. If the Nationals could look into a mirror and see themselves in a few years, they might look just like the Rays, but with red jerseys instead of blue. In fact, as an organization, the Rays are everything the Nats want to be.

From 2005 to 2007, the Rays were actually worse than the Nats. In their first 10 years of existence, they had never had a winning season and had never won more than 70 games. They had finished in last place every year but one, that 70-win campaign in 2004 when they crept up to fourth place. Sound familiar, Nats fans?

The team’s transformation from worst in baseball to 94 wins in one season under baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman is well documented in Jonah Keri’s bestseller, “The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First.” And since that magical 2008 season, the Rays, playing in the same division with the biggest spenders in baseball, have become a mini-dynasty of their own, winning a second division crown in 2010 and a wild card playoff spot last year.

A look at the makeup of this year’s Rays gives us a glimpse of how the Nats want their building strategy to play out. According to Baseball Reference, the top starters - David Price, James Shields, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson - are all draft picks. So are outfielders B.J. Upton and Desmond Jennings, and third baseman Evan Longoria, who has been hurt for most of this season.

Some of their free agent acquisitions, like Carlos Pena, have been worthwhile; others, like Luke Scott, have not paid off, but they are not locked into long-term deals with any of them. A few veterans will be eligible for free agency after this season, but it’s likely the Rays won’t need to risk an imprudent big money singing unless there’s a major injury.

In short, the team that made the playoffs last season and is contending for the American League East title this year is essentially the same one you’ll see in two or three seasons, barring a major trade. That’s the kind of roster consistency the Nats are building among their pitching staff and their top hitters. Now it’s up to those players to deliver the division titles and playoff appearances that can turn the Nationals into an organization that can produce the results the Rays are accustomed to.

One day, Nats fans may look back on this series and remember it as the time the Nats showed they were a better team than the Rays on the field, and began to surpass them as a franchise.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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