The Cubs respected the Washington Nationals for their step-by-step building process – a foundation of first-round draft picks accented by sharp trades and free-agent splashes – and saw the similarities in the Wrigley Field blueprint.
Now these are two National League powerhouses, stacked with blue-chip talent and running on high-voltage personalities, positioned to win now and in the future. There will be so much star power and young talent on display when the Cubs open a three-game series on Monday night at Nationals Park, where it should look and feel like a playoff preview.
The last NL All-Star voting update featured the entire Cubs infield (Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant) leading their positions, plus Dexter Fowler and Bryce Harper listed first and second among outfielders.
That 6-for-8 doesn’t include Cy Young Award winners Jake Arrieta and Max Scherzer. Or the two-time World Series champions in the Cubs rotation (Jon Lester and John Lackey) or the former No. 1 overall pick/Tommy John survivor who recently scored a $175 million extension (Stephen Strasburg).
Or Daniel Murphy, last year’s Mr. October when the New York Mets swept the Cubs out of the NLCS, who’s now hitting .374 for the Nationals. Or Jonathan Papelbon, the throat-grabbing, Irish-jig dancing WWE-style villain now just trying to get by with guts in the ninth inning in Washington.
Or Joe Maddon and Dusty Baker, who combined have won six Manager of the Year awards and actually like to express their viewpoints and talk about anything other than baseball, at a time when other teams appear to be run by robots.
It’s time for bat flips, eye black and clown questions, bro.
“You’ll never bring the game back to where it was,” Baker said. “Young people as a whole are different. They’re more flamboyant, more demonstrative in their highs and their lows.
“If they don’t mind, I don’t mind. I try to keep it in check somewhat, because I’m still old-school, but with modern ideas and thoughts that they help give me.
“It makes it easier for me, because I got a 36-year-old daughter and I have a 17-year-old son. So I got to kind of be in the middle between them as far as them keeping me hip and me showing them some wisdom and knowledge in life.
“We’re really kind of helping each other. With the players that are out there (now), they like to kid with me, and I kid with them. But I know how far to go with them, and I think they know how far to go with me.”
Baker has been exactly what the underachieving Nationals needed after an 83-79 finish last year – even if he might have only been an emergency backup plan after negotiations broke down with Bud Black. Where Matt Williams struggled to communicate with his players and looked helpless during that free fall, Baker’s genius is being able to relate to almost anyone.
“It feels like we’re playing a lot looser,” Scherzer said. “There’s not a lot of panic when certain situations happen, and we have confidence in each other to be able to come back.”
“He keeps things light,” Murphy said. “He keeps things in perspective and understands if you lose a ballgame, it’s not the end of the world. It’s about winning series, winning road trips, winning homestands. Fortunately, we’ve been able to put ourselves in a position to do that.”
Chicago guy/Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is the architect. Baseball America sees the Nationals having a top-five farm system headlined by a top-five prospect (Lucas Giolito) on track to join Scherzer and Strasburg in the rotation at some point in 2017 (if not sooner).
After a winter where the Cubs and Nationals chased some of the same big-name free agents – with Zobrist and Jason Heyward wanting the chance to make history in Chicago – they could wind up targeting the same players around the trade deadline. Will the New York Yankees finally give in to the future, drop out of the wild-card race and create bidding wars for power relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman?
The Cubs and Nationals appear to be headed on a collision course toward October, and that would be something to watch.
“I know our guys,” Maddon said. “They’re really authentic, and I think they’re really charismatic as a group. If you’re a young man or a young woman that really wants to follow Major League Baseball, it’s easy to like our guys.
“It’s the way they project. They’re good on the field, but beyond that, I think they’re affable, gregarious, interesting. There are all different words you can use to describe our guys besides being good baseball players. Hopefully, we’ll be able (to) help out in regards to regaining younger fans in the game today.
“It’s not unique to us. There’s a lot of that going on in Major League Baseball right now.”