The Nats are still a better team than the Cubs, and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer last week told the Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer he looks to the Nats as a blueprint for future Cubs success:
"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."
"Rizz" in this case isn't the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, but Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, who took a team that lost 100+ games two straight years (2008 and 2009) and had them in the playoffs, with the best record in franchise history, within three years. Hoyer continued:
"[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."
The Cubs' signing of Anthony Rizzo to a long-term contract extension is the first piece of what are likely to be several moves coming up, if not this year, then soon. At CSNChicago.com, David Kaplan writes that the Cubs could spend next offseason, or acquire one of those pieces by trade. The Red Sox' Jacoby Ellsbury is mentioned -- no surprise given the background of Hoyer and Theo Epstein.
What I wanted to do here, though, is look back at the Nats and what sort of "pieces" they added every winter that "made sense", and how they got from 93 losses (2010) to 81 (2011) to their N.L. East title of 2012.
Besides adding Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper by draft -- the No. 1 overall choices in 2009 and 2010 that most people figured would give the Nats a top starting pitcher and top hitter on just about the schedule they have -- the biggest splash the Nats made was signing Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal in December 2010. Remember, Washington was coming off three straight 90-plus seasons at the time and Werth had played in two straight World Series for the Phillies. Many thought the Phillies, Nats and Werth were all nuts to do this -- a bad team that hadn't had a winning year in seven seasons spending that much? A World Series team cutting off one of its key parts?
The contract hasn't worked out so well for the Nats -- Werth had an okay, but not great, year in 2011 and has spent much of 2012 and 2013 injured. But the signing put the National League East on notice that the Nats intended to contend. The Nats also signed Adam LaRoche that offseason; he missed most of 2011 with a shoulder injury, but came back strong in 2012 and is still a productive hitter for Washington.
Those moves, along with rescuing Mike Morse from the scrap heap, moved the Nats from 93 losses to a near-.500 record in 2011. The emergence of a lockdown bullpen with setup man Tyler Clippard and closer Drew Storen helped as well.
Then the Nats got Strasburg back from Tommy John surgery and added Gio Gonzalez by trade for the 2012 season, which brought them from .500 to 98 wins and their division title of 2012.
If the Cubs are on the same timetable, even if this year brings another 90-loss season, they could make a significant acquisition or two next offseason. The Cubs don't have a Strasburg or Harper, franchise players, and some of their better prospects might still be two or three years away. At the same time, the Cubs probably have a better major-league team right now than the Nats did in 2009.
Acquiring a player like Ellsbury -- presuming he is healthy -- might be one piece of that puzzle. The caveat to Ellsbury is that it doesn't seem likely that he'll ever repeat his incredible 2011 season. He'll be 30 in September and the Cubs would likely be paying for past performance, something the current management team has said they want to avoid. Ellsbury is only an example -- there are other similar players that might be acquired; some here have mentioned Shin-Soo Choo, though you'd also be paying for past performance with him and he's a year older than Ellsbury. Others have mentioned David Price, though right now starting pitching is a Cubs strong point. If it were me, I'd go all-out to get Giancarlo Stanton, presuming he's healthy, and sign him to a Rizzo-like deal.
The Nats' scrap-heap resurrection of Morse is harder to replicate. Who might be on the scrap pile next winter and whether you could revive him is impossible to predict. The Cubs have already done wonders with Luis Valbuena, who the Indians and Blue Jays both discarded before the Cubs picked him up last winter. Valbuena will never be an All-Star, but it's conceivable he might become a decent everyday regular, something I wouldn't have predicted a year ago; he's 27, so should be entering his best years. What other scrap-heap players do you think the Cubs might be able to resurrect?
The Washington Nationals plan sounds viable to me. As I noted above, the Cubs are right now a better team than the Nats were at the bottom; it shouldn't take long to get back to the top, with the right acquisitions made. 2015 is looking better all the time.