The Washington Nationals are the San Diego Padres. They are the same surprisingly inept team, the same low-attendance-drawing clubs, the same disappointments. Yet, they aren’t. The Nationals have used their woes to their advantage. They have turned their cellar-dwelling ways into a chance at success. The Padres on the other hand catch fire. They have flashes. They do not have sustained success (for the most part).
It’s too soon to say the Nationals will have sustained success. They are impressing most people this year, they showed signs of greatness last year, and almost everyone unilaterally agrees they are a team built to contend for years to come. So how’d it happen?
Since moving to Washington, the Nationals are a staggering 140 games under .500. They have been in the nation’s capital now for seven seasons and 34 games. excluding this season’s start, they are 148 games under. That means they averaged a 20-game under .500 finish in each of their first seven seasons. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way, but the average tells a story. It tells a story of a club patient enough to lose, but dedicated enough to make losing count.
In 2009, the Nationals scooped up Stephen Strasburg with the number one overall pick in the draft. In 2010, lightning struck twice and the Nationals were able to draft Bryce Harper number one overall. No one will deny the fact that getting Strasburg and Harper in back-to-back years, let alone getting them on the same team at all, is a once in a lifetime occurrence. However, the Nationals had a plan in place, and they executed it.
They have a new ballpark. They are spending more money. They are winning. They are attracting more fans. It’s economics.
Then there are the Padres. The Padres lose plenty, but they don’t have much to show for it. They shy away from players who may be difficult draft signees. They don’t want to pay big bonuses to “unproven” players. They sign veteran free agents rather than pursue top-level talent for long-term deals. This is the polar-opposite of the Nationals strategy.
Of course, Josh Brynes looks like he is trying to change some of the these things, but until and owner willing to spend some cash is installed, Brynes will have little control over the amount of money the team is willing to spend on draft day, on international free agents, and on domestic free agents.
The Padres, while they have built a solid farm system, are proving that solid simply isn’t good enough. To have the highest, or one of the highest, ranked systems in the league is only good enough if the players within that system develop and perform. There is still plenty of time for that to happen, but there is no one out there that simply makes the average fan stand up and take notice.
No one expects immediate success from a rebuilding team, but they do expect success. The Padres won 90 games in 2010. It’s hard to complain about that, but the consistency is missing. The Nationals have built themselves, with drafting, free agency, and contract extensions, into a team that looks like it could be a long-term competitor. The Padres have never had that going for them. If the 1998 team wasn’t broken apart, they could have had a shot. The 1996 team too. Yet, in more recent years, no one would have expected the teams of 2005 and 2006 to continue their success. And they didn’t. They fizzled out after the heart-breaking 2007 season.
The Padres need to take a page out of the Nationals play-book. Lose if you have to, but lose with purpose. Lose for a reason.