- The Washington Times - Monday, May 25, 2009

The pulse of a rivalry was barely palpable over the weekend at Nationals Park, the so-called “Battle of the Beltways” providing in marketing fluff what it lacked in actual intensity - or attendance.

Just 22,586 fans showed up for Friday night’s game between the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles, the second-lowest crowd to attend a game between the two teams in the District. The interest in the rivalry might have been driven up last year by Orioles fans curious to see Nationals Park for the first time, but it has dipped again this year to about the expected level for a series between two last-place teams.

So the task of trying to assess which team is closer to contention might be roughly akin to placing bets on whether Tom Green or Chris Tucker will be first in line for an Oscar, but in the spirit of the, uh, budding rivalry, here goes.

At first glance, it appears the two teams have a lot of similarities - potent lineups stocked with veteran hitters and a few young bats and not enough pitching to make the offensive surplus matter.

Both clubs are led by veteran baseball men - Orioles GM Andy MacPhail and Nationals president Stan Kasten squared off in the 1991 World Series with the Twins and Braves, respectively - who committed to rebuilding their current employers with pitching.

Baseball America, in its annual organizational talent rankings, gave the Orioles the edge over the Nationals primarily on how they’ve fared in accumulating pitching prospects.

The Orioles are ninth in this year’s rankings thanks to pitchers like Chris Tillman, who came from Seattle in the 2007 trade for Erik Bedard, and 2007 draft pick Jake Arrieta. Brad Bergesen pitched Sunday against the Nationals, and Jason Berken could get called up to pitch Tuesday.

Washington slipped from 10th to 21st in the rankings in part because of the failure to sign 2008 first-rounder Aaron Crow but also because pitchers like Ross Detwiler and Josh Smoker didn’t make much progress last season. But the state of the Nationals’ pitching supply is different this year.

Detwiler has followed an impressive start at Class AA Harrisburg with two good outings in the majors. Colton Willems, a first-rounder in 2006, has pitched well at Class A Potomac, and the Nationals have, at least for the time being, fortified their rotation with five pitchers under the age of 25: John Lannan, Craig Stammen, Jordan Zimmermann, Detwiler and Shairon Martis.

If the progression of those pitchers doesn’t give the Nationals a slight edge over the Orioles, there’s always the triple-digit shot of adrenaline their farm system is going to get later this summer: Stephen Strasburg.

It seems the Nationals are poised to draft and sign the San Diego State right-hander, who has been just short of flawless in college baseball the last two years. If he’s anywhere near that good as a professional, he should be the kind of front-line pitcher that transforms the rotation.

Washington will get another good player with the No. 10 pick, too, and while the Orioles could get another pitcher at No. 5 (possibly Crow), the Nationals’ haul could have more of an immediate effect.

And while their division might be the toughest in the National League, it’s nowhere near as difficult as the AL East, with mammoth roadblocks like the Red Sox and Yankees, as well as the defending AL champion Rays and the up-and-coming Blue Jays.

The Nationals might be further off the path of contention for now, but they have a chance to make a quick leap with smart drafting and a few good offseason moves. For that reason, no matter that they lost this series, they can look forward to an edge on the Orioles down the road.

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