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Don’t expect Cubs to duplicate Nationals’ ascension

WASHINGTON — Drool all you want over how quickly the Washington Nationals went from 100 losses to the playoffs. Just don’t count on the blueprint, or the timeline, matching up as nicely as for the Cubs.

Significant changes in player-acquisition rules along with mid-market spending realities in big-market Chicago have made it nearly impossible to repeat the Nationals’ three-year ascension.

Forget the Nats’ good fortune with their back-to-back No. 1 picks coinciding with slam-dunk prospects Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

The biggest differences between what Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was able to do and what the Cubs’ Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are trying to do involve the parts of the process teams can control.

For example, a full year before the Nationals were ready to win, Rizzo identified the free agent he was willing to overpay to help lead his emerging core. He signed outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal.

That’s the player he wanted, and that’s when he was available, Rizzo explained. The Nats were coming off six consecutive losing seasons at the time of the signing.

Could the Cubs make a similar signing next winter if the front office envisioned turning a competitive corner within two years?

“That’s a good question,” general manager Hoyer said. “We’d have to sit down and really look at the pieces, look at the finances, figure out exactly what the right timing is.”

The bigger issue might be whether cost-conscious ownership would sign off on a deal like that, given the focus on increasing revenues before increasing a baseball budget that has been reduced in recent years. At least twice in the last five weeks, chairman Tom Ricketts has failed to give a timeline for a budget boost when asked by media.

Beyond that, stiff penalties for overspending MLB-assigned draft budgets and overpaying for international amateur free agents have prevented teams from acquiring high volumes of top prospects a time.

Also, increased industry revenues and radical changes to draft-pick compensation have limited the number of pre-prime and mid-career free agents reaching the market.

What does that mean for the Cubs?

Even if you assume the right people are in charge — and opinions within baseball vary — the process almost certainly will be a more lengthy one than what Rizzo pulled off with the Nats.

The two immediate keys:

First, they absolutely must hit with the No. 2 pick in the draft June 6. Barring a health or performance setback, the Cubs plan to take the college pitcher the Houston Astros don’t — Stanford’s Mark Appel or Oklahoma’s Jonathan Gray. If that player doesn’t become an important part of the starting rotation quickly, it could delay the Cubs’ timeline by a year or more.

Second, get used to the July roster blowup. That’s one of the few tools available to acquire young talent in any quantity.

It makes starts like Scott Feldman’s on Sunday important. He threw six strong innings in the Cubs’ 2-1 victory over the Nationals, and he could bring value at the trade deadline with more of the same. That also goes for newly named closer Kevin Gregg, who earned his sixth save in as many chances with a 1-2-3 ninth.

“We don’t want to be a seller. That’s not a position you want to be in,” Hoyer said. “But if you are in that position, you have to take advantage of it.”



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