- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2008

If you have a scorecard from one of last weekend’s games between the Nationals and Orioles, you might want to keep it for posterity - these two teams could look very different when they meet again next season.

For the sake of the fans, they BETTER look different.

This month is important for the future of both teams. Each faces different challenges in its effort to get to the same place - a baseball operation set up to succeed for the long term, to compete consistently for postseason play from the major leagues to the rookie leagues.

The consensus before the season was that the Nats were closer to that goal than the Orioles. They were basking in rave reviews for their 2007 draft. They had assembled a team that appeared stronger than the one that battled to 73 wins last year.

Now, though, the Orioles seem closer, particularly given the position they are in to capitalize at the trading deadline and stock up on more young talent.

Team president Andy MacPhail did a masterful job of infusing some young (and not-so-young) and energetic players into the organization this winter with deals that sent Erik Bedard to Seattle and Miguel Tejada to Houston.

The Orioles got 10 players in the trades, highly touted prospects like Adam Jones and others like reliever George Sherrill who could be parlayed into even more young talent if the club goes in that direction this month.

That’s the challenge facing the Orioles: After 10 straight losing seasons and with a record of 42-40 entering Wednesday night, do they give up on a competitive season to look to the future? They have at least three valuable commodities for any postseason contender: Sherrill, Brian Roberts and Aubrey Huff.

Roberts, 30, remains an attractive target, an All-Star second baseman and nearly perfect leadoff hitter. Relievers are valuable in postseason play, and Sherrill, 31, has been one of the best this year.

Huff, 31, still has a year left on his contract but not for an outrageous amount (a little more than $6 million in 2009). He could give a team a solid bat.

Trade deadline deals are not what they used to be - teams are tighter than ever with good prospects in this new age of player development. But the Orioles still could get better for the future with trades in the present if they are willing to sacrifice the pleasure fans would get from the rest of a competitive season.

Of course, in Baltimore there is the wild card of owner Peter Angelos. I remain convinced that sooner or later he will sabotage a decision that is fundamentally MacPhail’s to make, and it will be business as usual again. That is always the fear for Orioles fans.

Nationals fans should fear the opposite, that their owners won’t step in. Interference of some sort is required if the Nationals want to move forward.

I suspect Nationals general manager Jim Bowden is in survival mode these days - not that his job is in jeopardy.

But given the list of questionable deals that have failed this season, you have to wonder whether the affection for Bowden that Mark Lerner holds is there throughout the rest of the Lerner group - especially considering that the Lerners, who take money seriously, are spending and will spend a lot of it on players who aren’t doing much to earn it.

Bowden paid $6 million this offseason to two catchers - Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada - who have caught a combined 28 games this year and whom the club hopes rarely will be behind the plate again the rest of the season.

The Nats are paying nearly $5 million this year to Felipe Lopez, who now plays behind utilityman Willie Harris.

They are paying Wily Mo Pena $2 million this year - that’s $1 million a home run - and guess what? They will have to pay him another $2 million next year if he chooses because he has an option. They are paying $5 million to a 34-year-old, physically limited first baseman who arrived at camp out of shape, and the club is facing the prospect of paying Dmitri Young another $5 million next year when he will be a year older and likely in no better shape.

And I don’t know what is worse, paying Austin Kearns $5 million for not playing much this season or paying him the $8 million he is due next season for playing.

Throw in the season-ending injury to Chad Cordero, who was the subject of trade talks last season, and his $6.2 million and that’s a lot of money with little return.

If Bowden were the District, the Lerners would sue him.

The Nationals, unlike the Orioles, don’t have a wealth of talent to offer in trades; in fact, the only player of value may be the current closer, Jon Rauch.

If circumstantial evidence shows - and I believe it does - that the Nationals are not as close to competing as they thought, they should trade Rauch for young players.

But the Nats have a bigger challenge: the culture of failure setting in at the major league level of the organization.

It’s not just the losing. It’s the toleration of someone like the lackadaisical Lopez. He needs to be dealt, even if it means the organization pays 90 percent of the rest of his contract this year.

Then there is Young, one of the supposed leaders of this team, calling for, in an MLB.com interview, the return of Robert Fick to the club - as if he is the missing piece for success.

You think Nationals officials go to bed every night worrying about Elijah Dukes? That’s nothing compared to the fear they had about Fick when they woke up every morning.

This is the culture you want for the Washington Nationals? This is the identity you want for your team?

To change this direction, the general manager would have to admit his mistakes. That will require an intervention.

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