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Cubs will be hard-pressed to duplicate Nationals’ rebuilding

Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper (34) punished Cubs during four-game sweep. | Alex Brandon~AP

Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper (34) punished the Cubs during a four-game sweep. | Alex Brandon~AP

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Updated: October 9, 2012 2:56PM



WASHINGTON — Cubs manager Dale Sveum on Wednesday night called the Washington Nationals’ handling of the Cubs this week, “just men playing against boys right now.’’

Conspicuously left unsaid was that the “man’’ doing the most damage for the Nationals is a teenager.

“Yeah, I thought about that after I said it,’’ Sveum said before the Nationals finished a four-game sweep of the overwhelmed Cubs with a 9-2 victory Thursday at Nationals Park.

Bryce Harper, 19, singled and scored the difference-maker in Monday’s 2-1 win; he homered twice in Wednesday’s blowout; and on Thursday he tripled and then scored on a ball hit to the pitcher, breaking as Justin Germano turned to throw to first and sliding past the throw back to the plate.

Even the day he didn’t start, Tuesday, he came off the bench for the pitcher and hit a pinch double and scored.

“Unbelievable,’’ said the Cubs’ own kid phenom, Starlin Castro.

“Pretty incredible,’’ said the Cubs’ own first-round outfield prospect, Brett Jackson — who was a sophomore at Cal when he was Harper’s age.

The point isn’t so much that Harper’s a good player at a young age. No kidding.

Or even that he became a focal point of Cubs frustrations Thursday night when a pitch that nearly hit him in the sixth started a melee between the teams that resulted in three ejections.

The bigger point, when it comes to these Cubs, who brought 16 rookies into this lion’s den, is to be careful of quick and easy comparisons to the Nationals just because their contending core was young and struggling just a few years ago — losing more than 100 games in 2008 and ’09.

“Right now as an organization, we’re the Pirates and the Nationals and the Orioles of three and four years ago,’’ Sveum said, making, yet again, that comparison Thursday. “So you know there’s light at the end of the tunnel.’’

Maybe.

On the other hand, the Pirates still haven’t finished off a winning season since 1992. And the Orioles went through several makeovers and incarnations before being strong enough for the first time in 15 years to challenge the Yankees in September.

“I don’t think you fear anything like that until you start getting older at the lower levels and all of that,’’ Sveum said. “Right now it’s to the point where you put two and three really good drafts together and then put some of the guys you already had into the development factor, and in three years you hope everything comes together.’’

Sveum acknowledges the obvious, glaring need to fill for that to happen: much more big-league-caliber pitching.

Beyond that, one baseball insider in Washington for this series looked at the Cubs’ young players and questioned the comparisons to the Nats’ core, even a few years ago. “I know they’re young, but I don’t see the talent,’’ he said.

Maybe some of that will surface. Cubs officials, including Sveum, make no secret of the fact that most of the rookies are here to continue their development, not because they’re ready for the big leagues.

For now, another longtime National League evaluator projects only three current Cub rookies as legitimate big leaguers within a year: Anthony Rizzo, Welington Castillo and Jackson (as a bench guy).

When asked how many of his current players he’s confident will be on next year’s Opening Day roster, even Sveum only gets to nine names (Castro, Rizzo, Jeff Samardzija, Jeff Russell, Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, Darwin Barney, Matt Garza and Castillo).

Even if you assume Carlos Marmol, Travis Wood, Chris Volstad, and Shawn Camp get added to that list, that’s barely half a big-league roster roaming the Cubs’ clubhouse this month.

The Nationals recreated in three years? Maybe if Jorge Soler and Javy Baez get here quick — with some serious pitching — can the Cubs turn it around.

For now, the Harpers and Stephen Strasburgs aren’t anywhere to be seen.

“They’re not just winning because of those guys,’’ Jackson said. “Their entire lineup is being productive. … It’s something I believe is going to happen here, something that we have to be patient for, but at the same time press every day.

“We’ll get there.’’



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