By Ben Finfer
WASHINGTON (CBS) — There is a lot to be learned here in Washington D.C. Our capital is full of interesting schooling for those interested.
There are the numerous government buildings where one can attain knowledge on how our country is run. Or how it’s supposed to be run, at least.
If it’s a history lesson you seek then there are the museums. So many museums. Each with rooms full of discovery and enlightenment. Plus decent gift shops.
And of course there are all the memorials, a sobering reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by men and women throughout our nation’s existence.
Though not as meaningful as those lessons in the grand scheme of things, there is also something for Cubs fans to learn: the way for a floundering baseball franchise to become a successful one. The Washington Nationals have shown them the way.
It’s true the Nationals haven’t won the World Series yet, either. Last year, after claiming their first division championship since moving to D.C., they were eliminated by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs. But presumably the window of opportunity has just opened for them. They are poised to be contenders for a long stretch now.
They have put together a roster that consists of players from their own system combined with some high-priced free agents to fill in the gaps. Sound like a familiar plan?
If building a World Series caliber team were a cooking show, the Nationals would be the finished version of the raw ingredients we just saw the host chef throw in the oven. They are what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are trying to build at Wrigley Field.
Ryan Zimmerman is theirs. He has been the steady third baseman since 2005, except for a couple seasons where he missed time due to injury. He is only 28.
Ian Desmond is theirs. He broke out last season with 25 home runs and 73 RBIs, leading all Major League shortstops with an .845 on-base plus slugging. He is 27.
They have 25-year-old catcher Wilson Ramos, 26-year-old starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, and 27-year-old Gio Gonzalez, who they were able to acquire because they had prospects the Oakland Athletics wanted.
But most importantly they have Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper — potentially the best starting pitcher and hitter combination in the years to come. Individually, they each were the two most highly touted draft picks since Alex Rodriguez. And the Nationals were able to get them both.
A big part of that was luck. Washington happened to be incredibly awful at just the right time. Their number-one pick status was as well-timed as when the Cleveland Cavaliers landed Lebron James. The Cubs may require similar luck. Not every team that earns high draft picks automatically turns itself into a contender. Just check out the team in Pittsburgh. But the blue print is there and it’s one Epstein is trying to follow.
He has mentioned several times that the goal is to build a team that can fight for a playoff spot every season. Signing high-priced free agents and going for broke every few years is a system that doesn’t work. The Cubs have proven that throughout their history. Epstein knows this.
Sure, the Nationals have signed guys like Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, and Rafael Soriano. But that’s not the heart of the team. Those are the players that supplement Strasburg and Harper. If their young stars remain healthy — and that’s certainly a question mark with Strasburg — this will be a team that finds a way to win a ring at some point in the next decade. It’s why general manager Mike Rizzo felt justified in shutting down his young star pitcher last September. He knew it wouldn’t be his team’s last chance.
That’s what the Cubs want: multiple chances and a long stretch where a young nucleus can be complemented by other pieces.
Epstein has made this plan very clear since the day he was introduced as the boss. He knows it works because other teams around baseball have already tried it. It’s not just the Nationals. It’s the Tampa Bay Rays, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the San Francisco Giants.
Washington didn’t win it all last year and they might not win it this year. Strasburg has been shaky recently and Harper has been hit with a couple injuries, including an ingrown toenail that kept him out of Friday night’s game against the Cubs. But they have the right idea. They’re the Epstein Cubs after a few years of cooking.
And they also have a great gift shop.
Ben Finfer is the executive producer of The McNeil and Spiegel Show, heard Monday-Friday from 9am-1pm on 670 The Score and 670TheScore.com You can follow him on Twitter @BenFinfer.