WASHINGTON – Jed Hoyer has unique insight into the way the Washington Nationals were built, and that’s why the Cubs general manager uses their blueprint as a reference point.
Hoyer interviewed for the general manager’s job here as part of a months-long process in 2009, becoming a finalist along with Chicago guy Mike Rizzo, the interim GM at the time, and Jerry Dipoto, who’s now the Los Angeles Angels GM.
The Washington brass erased the interim label in late August, after Rizzo finished the negotiations with No. 1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg and super-agent Scott Boras. The Nationals were nearing the end of a 103-loss season that would put them in position to draft Bryce Harper with the first pick in 2010.
Hoyer was working for the Boston Red Sox then, and would get the chance to run his own show with the San Diego Padres before moving to the North Side. The Cubs (14-22) dream about drafting players that could win multiple Cy Young and MVP awards and stop all the talk about the future. The Nationals are now viewed as perennial contenders after a five-year window in which they won 59, 59, 69, 80 and 98 games. It doesn’t happen overnight.
“We’re not there from a talent standpoint right now,” Hoyer said before Saturday’s 8-2 win at Nationals Park. “You look at where (the Nationals) were in ’08, ’09, ’10 and where they are now, it shows you the value of young talent and they’ve done a nice job mixing veteran guys with that talent.
“But right now I want to see us compete with these guys on the field. It’s a nice thing to look at – how they built their team – but at some point I want to see us beat them.”
In terms of measuring sticks, the Cubs are 7-18 against teams that had winning records last season. Five of their 14 wins have come against the Miami Marlins and Padres.
Though Hoyer says “absolutely there’s time” to turn the season around, there’s also mounting evidence that the Cubs will again be looking to sell off parts at the July 31 trade deadline. This front office won’t care about the optics of another 100-loss season.
The Cubs began the day leading the majors in errors (30) and their batting average with runners in scoring position (.181) was the worst in the majors, 28 points lower than the second-to-last team. Oh, and the bullpen has blown nine saves.
“We say it all the time: We don’t want to be a seller,” Hoyer said. “That’s not a position you want to be in. But if you are in that position, you have to take advantage of it. You’re certainly hoping you’re looking to buy. It’s a lot more fun.”
The Nationals are having fun and generating buzz and trying to make this a baseball town, which was all part of their business/baseball plans.
Just before the winter meetings opened at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in December 2010, Rizzo gave outfielder Jayson Werth a seven-year, $126 million contract that sent shockwaves throughout the industry.
Rizzo had played with Werth’s uncle in the minors and scouted him as a high school kid in downstate Illinois. Rizzo knew the character inside-and-out and wanted a force to change the losing culture. Werth had earned a World Series ring with the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies, blossoming as a player who grinds out at-bats, runs the bases hard and defends at a high level.
Werth emerged as The Right Player at The Right Time. Would the Cubs be able to do a megadeal in the next year or two if they were getting closer to that next level?
“That’s a good question,” Hoyer said. “I think you have to sit down and really look at the pieces, look at the finances and figure out exactly what the right timing is.”
Hoyer then credited Rizzo for acquiring Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland A’s just before Christmas 2011 and Denard Span from the Minnesota Twins last November. Those trades gave the Nationals a frontline starter and a leadoff guy/plus centerfielder.
“It has been sort of a step each offseason,” Hoyer said. “He didn’t take one offseason and then say: ‘Hey, here it is. I’m going to absolutely go for it right now.’ He added sort of a piece every winter that made sense. That’s a lot more realistic than being able to have that one offseason where you just sort of put your foot down.”
That’s the blueprint the Cubs are working from now.