The date is July 30, 2021. A busy trade deadline has just concluded and two recent World Series winners have signaled the start of new eras for their franchises.
One team is the Chicago Cubs, champions of the baseball world just five years prior. The 50-54 Cubs traded eight veteran players to contending teams to reboot their farm system. About 700 miles southeast, the 47-55 Nationals put their 2019 World Series title firmly in the rearview mirror by trading away eight of their own veteran players.
Later that day, the Nationals and Cubs would open up a three-game series against each other. Including that series, in which Washington won two of three, the Cubs went on to post a record of 21-37 after the trade deadline. The Nationals closed the year out 18-42 but posted a -70 run differential to Chicago’s -102. Their respective finishes in the standings resulted in the Nationals landing the fifth pick in this summer’s MLB draft and the Cubs seventh.
These two teams have followed similar trajectories ever since the deadline, even closing out the year with similar payrolls. According to Spotrac, the Cubs ranked 13th in end-of-season payroll at $144,607,670 with the Nationals one spot behind them at $140,390,775. This was after both clubs ranked among the top seven in payroll each of the previous three seasons.
Chicago President Jed Hoyer insisted at the deadline things would be “different” than the team’s last rebuild, which lasted five seasons. Nationals President and GM Mike Rizzo talked of a return to contention in the “near future” while expressing his disdain for losing.
Fast forward to January 2022, and the Cubs and Nationals are at a pivot point.
The Cubs got off to a busy start to the offseason pre-lockout working toward those goals. They claimed starter Wade Miley off waivers from the Reds, signed former Nats catcher Yan Gomes to a two-year deal and scooped up non-tendered outfielder Clint Frazier on a one-year bargain. Their biggest move, however, was committing three years and $71 million to starting pitcher Marcus Stroman. The former All-Star gave Chicago a player to build around in the near future as it attempts an accelerated rebuild.
Washington hasn’t signed a player of Stroman’s caliber this offseason. It hasn’t signed a player of Gomes’s caliber, either. The Nationals have made two free-agent moves, both one-year deals: Alcides Escobar for $1 million and César Hernández for $4 million. The infielders fill important depth roles for the club, but they hardly affect the trajectory of the franchise.
Now, these are still two very different rosters. The Nationals have Juan Soto to build around, while the Cubs’ best player player entering the offseason was probably Willson Contreras. So consider the Chicago's moves to this point a form of catch-up. FanGraphs does, projecting the Nationals as a 75-win team next year with its current roster and pegging the Cubs around 73 (yes, just one spot behind the Nationals).
Washington is also still on the hook for some big contracts. Chicago’s top five most-expensive players next season will make around $60 million between them. The Nationals will be paying about $90 million to theirs — and that doesn’t even include the nearly $30 million in deferred money the team owes to various players this year.
And yet when the lockout does end, both teams will still be sporting similar payrolls. They each will have about $70 million available before approaching their spending limits of previous years. They will also have farm systems that are on the rise but still in need of improvement. Baseball America ranked the Nationals’ farm system as 23rd overall in its last update. The Cubs? You guessed it, 24th.
There’s still plenty of time for Washington to make impactful moves this offseason. Even after the flurry of signings that were conducted ahead of the lockout, talented players are available in free agency. The Nats by no means need to go all-in on 2022. This is, after all, a developmental year for the franchise as it attempts to figure out which players it can count on to be part of its next championship-caliber team.
But it’s not too early to identify some veteran pieces that can play a role in the organization’s turnaround. If the intention is still to contend sooner rather than later — and Soto’s three years of team control offer a glimpse of that timeline — then the Cubs' string of free-agent signings can only mean one thing once Major League Baseball business resumes: Your move, Nationals.