WASHINGTON – The Cubs are heading toward their can’t-miss, franchise-altering moments, where they have to find their versions of Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.
As the Washington Nationals have grown from a 103-loss team into the defending National League East champs, they’ve made a series of methodical, calculated decisions, almost doubling their major-league payroll.
On a cool, windy Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park, Gonzalez showed why he’s a difference-maker, taking a perfect game into the sixth inning before the Cubs pieced together a 2-1 comeback victory in front of 38,788 fans.
The Cubs hold the No. 2 overall pick in the June draft, where they are expected to take either Oklahoma’s Jonathan Gray or Stanford’s Mark Appel in the hopes he develops into a high-end starter like Strasburg.
It’s another chance to feed the scouting-and-player-development machine that’s supposed to create enough inventory to be able to trade for a frontline pitcher like Gonzalez.
Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer interviewed extensively for the same job here in 2009, giving him unique insight into the Nationals organization. As the months-long process played out, interim GM Mike Rizzo earned the job while drafting and signing No. 1 pick Strasburg.
Trying to change a losing culture, Rizzo handed outfielder Jayson Werth a seven-year, $126 million megadeal in December 2010, buying some of that championship pedigree from the Philadelphia Phillies. A year later, Rizzo made Gonzalez the centerpiece of a six-player trade with the Oakland A’s.
“Mike Rizzo did a nice job timing things,” Hoyer said. “He didn’t start making those kinds of moves until they had enough young talent to do that. They had Strasburg and (Jordan) Zimmermann in the rotation when they went out and traded for Gio.
“They went out and signed Werth to that big contract when they were pretty close to being ready. So they certainly had patience as they were building, but when they felt they were close to having enough core pieces, (Rizzo went for it).”
It’s unclear when the Cubs will have enough prospects to feel comfortable making a win-now trade, or when the baseball operations department will start to see some of the revenues generated by a renovated Wrigley Field.
The date to circle on the calendar now is June 6. The Houston Astros are on the clock with the No. 1 overall pick for the second straight year. The belief is that the Cubs will take Gray or Appel, whoever’s still left on the board, but the Astros are unpredictable.
Last year the Cubs brought in Carlos Correa for a workout at Wrigley Field. Manager Dale Sveum compared the teenage shortstop out of Puerto Rico to a young Alex Rodriguez.
But the Astros worked out a team-friendly deal with Correa ($4.8 million signing bonus) and made him the top pick, leading the Cubs at No. 6 to choose Albert Almora, the high school outfielder from South Florida.
“Houston did a really good job last year,” Hoyer said. “We were sitting in a meeting last year, talking about what we were going to do and Carlos Correa got taken. We just assumed they were going in a different direction. They did a real good job last year (of) hiding their intent.”
The Cubs are past the midpoint of the spring scouting season, holding weekly conference calls and planning to formally meet again at the end of May. They’ll have to wait for the Astros before making a final decision.
“We don't expect to know until the name’s called in New York,” Hoyer said. “We’ll just read and react to what they do. (At) this time of year, you’ll get texts every once in awhile from friends thinking they know how things are going to fall out in the draft.
“The truth is, really only two or three people in the Astros organization know how it’s going to happen. We don’t expect to know until the last minute, but that’s OK. We’ll keep doing our due diligence.”
Those moments are building to when the Cubs are ready to contend, because it’s not like flipping a switch.
“You certainly don’t want to put yourself in a position where you’re gonna (say): ‘Hey, we want to put our foot down this winter,’” Hoyer said. “And then things don’t line up and now all of a sudden you can make some pretty bad decisions.”