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Nationals following D-backs’ footsteps

As you’re watching or listening to the Diamondbacks-Nationals series this week and the story of Washington’s struggles in 2013 begins to sound like a familiar tale but you just can’t figure out where you’ve heard it before, let me help you out.

It’s the same story of 2012 Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Nats and D-backs have a great deal in common, most notably both teams have excellent nuclei of established young star players and both teams have very bright futures. However, one of the most difficult things a young baseball team confronts is how to repeat premature success.

The Diamondbacks weren’t supposed to win in 2011, and the Nationals weren’t supposed to win in 2012. Otherwise, Arizona GM Kevin Towers would have never told me in a preseason radio interview that .500 was the goal for the 2011 Diamondbacks, and Washington GM Mike Rizzo would have never placed a publicly decreed innings cap on his ace pitcher to start 2012. But both teams did win, expectations skyrocketed for the following season, and each organization learned the hard way how easy it is to exceed goals for one season compared with the difficulty of sustaining excellence over consecutive seasons.

The Diamondbacks caught a lot of breaks in 2011. The season began without any belief that there was a #2 starter on the roster, much less a staff ace. What happened? Ian Kennedy won 21 games and finished fourth in Cy Young voting. Josh Collmenter emerged from obscurity to become a stalwart in the rotation. And the starting infield Kevin Towers pieced together in April was overhauled entirely. Juan Miranda, Kelly Johnson, Melvin Mora and Steven Drew became the division-winning infield of Paul Goldschmidt, Aaron Hill, Ryan Roberts and Willie Bloomquist.

In 2012, the Nationals displayed a similar Midas touch. First baseman Adam LaRoche didn’t have a good season — he had a career-best season, and at the age of 33, received MVP votes for the first time in his ten-year career. Once the Nationals established their starting rotation, the same five pitchers stayed healthy the entire season, until Strasburg was iced for precautionary reasons. And a team that finished in the top third in fielding and scoring in 2012 finds itself in the bottom third in both categories this year.

But the Nationals will be back. Another year of seasoning and/or a return to good health for young stars Bryce Harper, Steven Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Anthony Rendon and others, and I suspect the Nats will return to the top of their division in 2014, just as the Diamondbacks have done this year behind a third-year superstar in Goldschmidt, an undefeated Patrick Corbin and a 23-year old rookie shortstop. To emphasize the team’s growing maturity, Arizona has actually had more injuries and bad luck this season than they did last summer, but they are managing to weather the storm.

Sustained excellence for a young baseball team is not an unrealistic expectation, but rarely in baseball do young teams book consecutive magic carpet ride seasons. Make no mistake though, the Diamondbacks and Nationals are both going to do a lot of winning throughout the decade.