The Nationals just finished off their surprising season. The Capitals are about to begin theirs. We look now at the striking similarities in the two clubs' situations, and why there is more cause for optimism for each than there has been in years.
Young, rising superstars (Ovechkin / Zimmerman)
Both were candidates for Rookie of the Year, with Ovie winning and Zimmerman coming in second to Hanley Ramirez. Both had spectacular rookie seasons, and each had a sophomore season that, while still solid, was considered in some quarters (not here) as a letdown. Both are the on-field / on-ice face of the franchise. Both are one of the rare “untouchable” pieces of a re-building (or formerly re-building) team. Both will figure prominently in the imminent success to come. Alexander Semin and Niklas Backstrom could be translated as Jesus Flores and Justin Maxwell in Nationals-speak.
The Nats’ need to rebuild is well-known. Abused and re-abused and neglected and re-neglected by 29 hostile-or-indifferent owners, they plied their trade in front of hundreds in Montreal and dozens in Puerto Rico while waiting for Premier Selig to make up his mind on how to fix his little disaster. When they finally came to DC, Chancellor Selig again delayed in selling the team to an actual owner actually concerned with the affairs and future success of the team. When real owners finally came in they found a franchise in desperate need of a major overhaul, and here we are today, on the cusp of the fruits of that overhaul.
The Caps were put in a hole in no small part by an underperforming, salary-eating, moody Czech and a boderline-unstable coach, who may or may not have been in way over his head. While both these unfortunate circumstances were brought on by actual team ownership, they were the right moves at the time that simply backfired, horribly, and forced the team to reconsider its approach to team-building, even as it continued to pay part of said moody (and poor-punch-throwin) Czech’s salary in New York. That burdensome salary and memory is finally off the books, however, and the franchise can finally move forward.
Similar Pair of Rebuilding Years
It was almost, almost an exact match. The Caps finished their past two seasons with 70 points. The Nationals finished their last two seasons with 71 and 73 wins, respectively. While we would have appreciated the perfect symmetry of four 70s for the purposes of this comparison, we’ll take the three extra Nats’ wins, especially since those wins contributed to late season consternation in New York and Philadelphia.
The teams’ respective rebuilding seasons were also marked by brief periods of teasingly successful play (the Caps’ flirtation with 5th and 6th place in the East during November and December and the Nats’ tremendous roll of mid-May through mid-June) and maddeningly frustrating injury (see “flu” for the Caps and “decimated pitching staff” for the Nats).
Nationals: Ronnie Belliard and Dmitri Young. Ronnie turned out to be exactly what the team needed after Christian Guzman ripped his thumb apart. He filled in at second while Felipe Lopez shifted to short and dazzled us with his near-.300 batting average and competent glove. Young’s rise from Field 5 to Comeback Player of the Year speaks for itself. Nobody wanted him. The Nationals picked him up. He’s here for at least the next two years and routinely smacked singles and doubles all over RFK.
Two bargain bin (or lower) pickups. Two cogs. Sorry, 29 other teams.
Capitals: Remember the Chris Clark trade a couple years back? Didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Calgary didn’t seem to upset to part with him. Two years later, he keeps setting career highs in goals and points, not to mention looking dashing with the C on his sweater. To top it all off, he’s a great interview.
Ownerships, Others Agree Re-build is Over
Caps: This summer, the team’s actions said it was time to win now. The owner’s own blog would seem to back up the sentiment. He used the word “expectations”, and not in the sense of fighting for not-last-place. The Times and the Post see them as playoff-worthy. The team’s captain and venerable veteran leader agree.
Nats: Franchise actions during the summer said more than cryptic remarks from management ever could. First there was the magnificent and fully-signed draft class. Following this triumphant re-stocking of the crushingly written-off minor league system (see above on MLB management), the Nats re-upped Belliard and Young, sending the message that they were not a clearing house for current contenders looking to rent a player or two for late-season and post-season pushes. Instead, they were going to hold on to the veteran talent they had shrewdly picked up and use them as pieces of a soon-to-be successful team. No trading for more prospects this time. These actions say that there is talent here now and only a few more complimentary components are necessary.
Optimistic First-Time Bench Bosses
We've named one award after Manny Acta and called for another to re-named in his honor. This Titan of 'Tism partially inspired us to start this blog in the first place, and it's clear that the Nationals have been infected with his optimism, and that it's spreading, even if slowly, to the fanbase. Not bad for a first-year manager. Glen Hanlon has been guiding the Caps for a bit longer, but he's still in his first big-league coaching position. We find similar traces of 'tism behind the usually stoic expression of the former goaltender. This attitude doubtlessly played a role in keeping the team together during a pair of trying seasons, much more than the previously mentioned unbalanced coach was able to pull off.
I think we can all agree the teams are better off in these hands than in those of, say, Lou Pinella and Mike Keenan (names at one time or another flying around respective vacancies). And don't sell us that nonsense that the Cubs are in the playoffs because of dear old Lou. Not buying it. If kicking dirt and throwing a temper tantrum in front of 35,000 people is all it takes to be a brilliant manager, then I guess we're wrong.
There you have it. Two teams headed in the right direction. The Caps begin their season on Friday and will be wrapping it up when the Nationals are well into their new season. Then we can revisit this issue and see if our optimism has been rewarded.