As Nationals did, Cubs seek to build team piece by piece
BY GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org May 11, 2013 6:48PM
Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Edwin Jackson delivers a pitch against the Washington Nationals during the first inning of a baseball game, Saturday, May 11, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Updated: May 12, 2013 3:35PM
WASHINGTON — The Cubs’ fascination with the Washington Nationals rise from 100-game loser to 98-win success story goes back almost four years. It’s especially personal to one of the architects of the Cubs’ arduous process.
“It’s part of why I always look at them as a good model,” said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer — a finalist in 2009 for the Nationals’ GM job that eventually went to in-house candidate Mike Rizzo.
The Nats drafted Stephen Strasburg with the top overall pick during Hoyer’s monthslong interview process, and with the worst record in baseball that summer, they were on the brink of securing a shot at their next No. 1 phenom, Bryce Harper.
The Nationals already had a well-stocked minor-league system and growing financial promise.
“I studied their farm system like crazy and what they could do as a building process,” Hoyer said. “That’s why I look at Rizz and think he’s done a really nice job.”
The Cubs, who snapped a six-game losing streak in Washington with an 8-2 victory Saturday, won’t draw a lot of strong comparisons to the Nationals anytime soon — not these Nats or the version Hoyer flirted with in ’09.
But six weeks into a schedule that has been loaded with contenders built from within, the Cubs know how far they have to go, and they have a fresh, up-close look at how to go about it.
“There’s no question when you look at the Reds and look at the Cardinals and look at these guys [in Washington], we’re not there from a talent standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But some of these clubs [provide] a nice blueprint for how to get there.”
Perhaps none more, in Hoyer’s mind, than the Nationals. The pitching matchup Saturday offered a glimpse.
Strasburg, who signaled the start of Rizzo’s push toward the team’s playoff run last year, flashed his famous fastball and sharp breaking ball for seven strikeouts through four scoreless innings before a fifth-inning error at third base led to four unearned runs.
Cubs starter Edwin Jackson, signed to a four-year, $52 million deal, flashed his brilliance long enough to beat Strasburg for his first victory of the season. Jackson is a smaller-scale version of Rizzo’s signing of outfielder Jayson Werth to a $126 million deal more than a year before the Nats were ready to win.
“We were at the point with our young players that we saw them coming,” Rizzo said during the GM meetings last fall. “It was a year ahead of schedule because the player was there that year. We knew with the length of the contract, he was going to be with us when these guys really came into their own.”
The Cubs’ dearth of long-term starting-pitching depth made Jackson — after a failed bid to land Anibal Sanchez — part of the vision as a mid-rotation piece.
“[Rizzo] added a piece every winter that made sense,” Hoyer said. “That’s a lot more realistic than being able to have that one offseason when you sort of put your foot down.”
Jackson, who lived the other side with the Nats last year, said that’s a big reason he signed with the Cubs.
“I looked at the team and saw the upside and saw the potential that these guys have, contrary to what’s being said [by others],” he said. “It’s going to be a good team, regardless of what people think.”