The Washington Nationals squared off against their blueprint Monday night, trying to wrestle control of a torch the Atlanta Braves seem reluctant to relinquish. In perhaps the most anticipated three-game series to date, the Nationals have a chance this week to distance themselves in the NL East standings, an opportunity to beat an organization they’d spent years trying to become.
“We want to make sure we’re consistent every year like the Braves of the ’90s and early 2000s,” Mark Lerner, the Nats’ principal owner, said recently. “That’s our goal, to have that kind of quality and consistency.”
Given Washington’s young roster and Atlanta’s year-to-year stability, Monday’s showdown could become a familiar scene, the brash new kid fending off a perennial power. Then again, two teams built off a similar blueprint could be entering the season’s final month as little more than trains passing in the night.
“I can sit here and say unequivocally I think Washington is going to be a force in the National League for the next four or five years,” Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said before the Nationals’ 5-4 victory in 13 innings. “I can’t sit here objectively and say that about this [Atlanta] club.”
The Nationals took a methodical approach to building the organization and eight seasons later they boast a formidable roster that aims to treat Washington fans to postseason baseball for the first time since 1933. The Atlanta fingerprints are impossible to miss. Former team president Stan Kasten came to town after serving in the same capacity for the Braves. Roy Clark, the Nationals’ current assistant general manager, started as a Braves’ scout in 1989 and eventually spent 11 seasons there as director of scouting.
“We’ve seen over the last 10 years, franchises return to the player development model,” said Braves General Manager Frank Wren, “and use that to help themselves get back to prominence or remain in prominence. I think what we’re most proud of is we’ve never left that model.”
The Nationals took the field Monday night with 12 players who began their careers with the Washington organization, including starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. On its 25-man roster, Atlanta had 11 homegrown players.
While the Nationals have young stars such as Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg locked up for years to come, the Braves make their playoff push knowing that change is on the horizon. With little money guaranteed beyond 2012, Wren will have a lot of flexibility this offseason to decide how Atlanta can remain a division contender.
The Braves will say goodbye to Jones, 40, who’s already announced this season will be his last, but Atlanta has club options on right-hander Tim Hudson and catcher Brian McCann. Outfielder Jason Heyward, reliever Johnny Venters and right-hander Tommy Hanson are all available for arbitration and should have a significant impact on the 2013 payroll.
“There’s going to be a lot of turnover,” Jones said. “Personnel-wise, talk to me in spring training when I see what the roster looks like. I don’t know. I can’t really say. Number one, I’m not going to have a say-so in any of it. Number two, I don’t know how the Braves are going to choose to spend their money this offseason.”
Wren said the organization’s commitment to growing its talent in the farm system hasn’t changed since Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz turned the annual draft into their own private clinic two decades ago. Jones remembers playing in Class AAA alongside seven others who’d become regular starters in Atlanta.
“I think a lot of organizations have looked at them and liked the way they’ve run their operation on the major league level, as well as the minor league level,” said Nationals Manager Davey Johnson.
Several players on the current Braves roster similarly grew up together. Five of Monday’s starters, including Jones, Heyward and McCann, were drafted into the organization. It creates a clubhouse camaraderie that’s difficult to replicate. This year’s squad, for example, was desperate for a win last month when Jones encouraged his teammates to yank up their pant legs and take the field with knee-high socks. It worked, they won the game and have adopted the dress code every Monday since, including Monday in Washington.
Heyward, the Braves’ first-round pick in 2007, is only 23 years old but says the clubhouse rapport is impossible to miss. He likens it to family.
“They look at the makeup of players, not just their talent. . . . The Braves always seem to pay attention to the makeup of everyone,” said Heyward, who hit his 21st homer of the season Monday.
While the Braves will inevitably welcome new faces into the clubhouse next year, they need not look far this week to see the successes of the Atlanta model. The Nationals have a deep starting staff — “It feels like they’re all number one starters,” said Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman — and they have a strong nucleus to build around.
Jones likes what he sees in the Washington clubhouse. He’s appeared in the postseason 11 times in a 19-year career, and says he thinks the Nationals will be a force for years to come.
“It’s a good pattern to model yourself after,” he said. “I think we set the standard back in the early ’90s, how to build up a minor league system and live and feed off that for 10 or 12 years.”
James Wagner contributed to this report.