On Opening Day, Nationals Park was decked out in red, white and blue bunting as the Statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol dome peered in from beyond the left-field wall. The place was brimming with optimistic fans wearing jerseys of the team’s stars: Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman.
It was Opening Day for the Marlins, too, but even in this baseball-crazed city, no one quite knew what to make of the team from Miami.
Sure, there was Giancarlo Stanton, the strapping slugger. But what was 37-year-old Placido Polanco doing in the cleanup spot? Who, exactly, is Donovan Solano? There were faint recollections of Chris Coghlan as a Rookie of the Year. Casey Kotchman used to play first base in Cleveland, or was it Seattle? Hard to keep it straight because he is on his sixth team in six years. Nine of the 25 Marlins had never been on a major-league Opening Day roster previously. Rookie manager Mike Redmond, ex-catcher, was skipper of Class A Dunedin last season.
A hodgepodge lineup faced a meticulously constructed one. The result Monday was illustrative of the talent differential: Washington won 2-0 on the strength of two solo home runs by 2012 National League Rookie of the Year Harper while ace Strasburg shackled the Marlins by allowing only three hits in seven innings.
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It was a snapshot of two franchises going in different directions.
Washington is following a map and driving toward a dynasty, with young players signed for years. A long-term plan is blooming like cherry blossoms in April.
Miami is at another one of its funky intersections, uncertain which way to turn, idling in neutral.
The Marlins observed politely as the Nationals celebrated their 2012 National League East championship with a parade of pregame introductions and congratulations.
“That’s what you get when you win,” said Juan Pierre, 35, who is back with the Marlins as sensei/outfielder/leadoff hitter. “It was good for us to have to watch it.”
A regular-season record crowd of 45,274 enjoyed the festivities. The Marlins might draw half that number for their home opener Monday against Atlanta, when there won’t be any celebration of a last-place finish, a 69-93 record, the firing of Ozzie Guillen and the flushing of expensive big-name players who failed to produce. In fact, depending on who is introduced at Marlins Park, there could be bitter booing from distrustful spectators. (Can the term “fan” be applied to Marlins ticket-buyers anymore?)
“Although we were the visiting team, we appreciate how the fans support their team,” said Ricky Nolasco, who pitched respectably except for the curve and slider Harper whacked over the right-center wall. “It was a great atmosphere. They’ve got a good thing going here.”
Not so long ago, the Nationals had a very bad thing going here. What is now a hot ticket in town could be had for free in giveaways at local elementary schools. The Washington franchise was reborn in 2005 in the complex deal that enabled Jeffrey Loria to dump the Montreal Expos and purchase the Marlins while John Henry took over ownership of the Boston Red Sox.
Like the old Florida Marlins, the Nationals were stuck in a football stadium. Six years ago, they moved into a controversial, city-funded $611 million baseball stadium in an area ripe for gentrification.
They were awful. They lost 102 games in 2008 and 103 games in 2009.
But — and this is where the path of two teams with many parallels diverges — they hit the lottery. The two No. 1 draft picks they got as a charity case became Strasburg and Harper, who are now franchise cornerstones and baseball rock stars.
“Great timing to get two of the premier guys in the draft,” Nolasco said wistfully. “They’re going to be around for awhile, and that’s good for the fan base.”
Since Mike Rizzo was hired as general manager in 2006, the Nationals have emphasized building from the bottom up with amateur talent. In 2007, Washington’s farm system ranked 30th, according to Baseball America. Last year, it ranked first.
The depth on his minor-league rosters allows Rizzo to acquire the complementary talent he needs. He got pitcher Gio Gonzalez from Oakland by parlaying his prospects in a six-player deal.
In 2012, the Nationals led Major League Baseball with 98 wins and were the second-youngest team to make the playoffs in the past decade.
The Nots have grown into the Nats. They exude “Natitude.”
Loria and president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest have said they want to get back to the “Marlin way” of developing players, but has that truly ever been the philosophy of a franchise with two World Series spikes in 1997 and 2003 and many intervening troughs?
Loria and Beinfest can start to rebuild — a solid foundation and good faith — by signing Stanton to a contract that makes a statement about the Marlins’ future. The Giants signed Buster Posey (nine years, $167 million). The Mariners signed Felix Hernandez (seven years, $175 million). The Tigers signed Justin Verlander (seven years, $180 million).
Demonstrate a commitment to Jose Fernandez and Christian Yelich. Don’t tout them, then trade them. Develop — coach, teach — guys such as Rob Brantly and Adeiny Hechavarria. Make a wise choice with the No. 6 draft pick.
Loria has to stop bouncing around and find a payroll he can live with in the Miami market. Last season, the payroll was $100 million. This season it’s $35 million, the lowest in five years. In 2006, it was $15 million. Emulate the Braves and Cardinals and follow a consistent budget.
In their 20th season, the Marlins have been usurped by the likes of the Nats and the Tampa Rays, oddsmakers’ darlings for the World Series. Miami and Houston are viewed as the dregs.
But Opening Day is traditionally a day when hope springs eternal. As Pierre said, “It’s just one game, 161 to go.” The inconstant Marlins must look beyond their roster of temps, beyond October. Like their division betters, the Nats, they must make a plan and follow it.