Nationals give Cubs another reality check in rebuilding process

Nationals give Cubs another reality check in rebuilding process
August 22, 2013, 9:45 pm
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Dale Sveum played the Triple-A card in late April, sending the message that Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo could be demoted to Iowa.

While no one really believed the threat, a skeptical reporter posed the unanswered, underlying question to the Cubs manager: What if they’re not as good as you thought they were?

The Cubs will try to clear their heads on the West Coast, flying to San Diego on Thursday after a 5-4 loss to the Washington Nationals that lasted 13 innings, four hours and four minutes, all following a two-hour rain delay. It ended a 2-8 homestand that became another reality check.

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The Cubs (54-73) got shut out three times by the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, two division rivals that are built to last. They twice scored only one run or two runs, part of the frustrating trend line all season, leading fans to wonder when Javier Baez and Kris Bryant are going to get here (so they can face the same adversity as Castro and Rizzo).

Sveum pulled Castro from a game when his infield-fly-brain-freeze allowed the Cardinals to steal a run. The manager also dropped the All-Star shortstop to No. 8 before hitting him leadoff. The front office basically sold David DeJesus to the Nationals to save $2.5 million — the Tampa Bay Rays have since made a waiver claim — all part of this franchise’s mid-market operating philosophy.

“You played against some of the elite teams in the National League,” Sveum said. “That’s where the organization is trying to get to — those kind of starting rotations as well as the offenses.”

[CUBS: Shin-Soo Choo could be game-changer next year]

But it’s going to be unpredictable. Did anyone call Donnie Murphy hitting his eighth home run in 16 games, a two-run shot with Stephen Strasburg one out away from a complete-game victory on Thursday?

It wasn’t just empty words or a roll-your-eyes moment when Cubs president Theo Epstein said “progress as an organization isn’t linear.” Just look at the 63-64 Nationals, who stuck to the plan and were built the right way, but still realized their worst-case fears in 2013, dealing with injuries, underperformance, regression and bad luck. You know, baseball.

This coming off Chicago guy Mike Rizzo’s decision to shut down Strasburg in September of a 98-win season, the Washington general manager calculating the franchise would get more chances in October and should protect a long-term asset.

It fueled manager Davey Johnson’s “World Series or bust” declaration for a sub-.500 team now desperately trying to stay on the fringes of the wild-card race.

At Clark and Addison, this is not some simple equation: New front office + renovated stadium = championship.

“It’s a bad season,” Castro said, “but finish strong and next year you become normal again.”

[ALSO: All eyes are on Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro]

The Cubs are going to have to figure it out on their own, without real big-market resources (for now) or much veteran presence or a respected leader like DeJesus, who reached out to Castro after another mental mistake got him benched.

“That was probably his lowest moment,” DeJesus said on “Sports Talk Live” this week. “So now (it’s) just making that: ‘All right, I can’t get lower than that’ and change the way he is. He needs to just be a role model for the guys that are coming up behind him.

“Because he has so many young Latin guys that are coming up, like Baez, (Arismendy) Alcantara, (Jorge) Soler. He needs to learn how to be that leader. (It’s) just making that change and putting it in his brain that my conduct on and off the field needs to be professional.”

DeJesus also called Rizzo “my little guy,” a subtle reminder that the first baseman still hasn’t played a full season in the big leagues yet.

In the same way the Nationals can’t make assumptions with Strasburg, the Cubs can’t just take a good half-season from Rizzo and book 30 homers and 100 RBI every season for the next decade.

The Cubs have used 50 players this season, and only four remain from the 2012 Opening Day roster – Castro, Darwin Barney, James Russell and Jeff Samardzija. That had been the last time the Nationals visited Wrigley Field.

The Cubs had a bullpen built around Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol. Their centerfielder would get busted for using PEDs (Marlon Byrd). Their corner infielders would become a Twitter sensation (Ian Stewart) and an All-Star shipped to Japan (Bryan LaHair). All the change has been numbing. They will find out what they’re made of, sooner or later.

“We’re getting pretty used to it by now,” Samardzija said. “We got some pretty thick skin in that clubhouse.”