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The Nationals Blueprint

Real and fake ways the Cards can learn from DC

World Series 2019 Game 7 - Houston Astros at Washington Nationals

As you’re no doubt aware, the Nationals won the World Series this Wednesday. If you’re not — hey! Hi! You sure haven’t paid much attention to the news this week, but that’s cool. Some wild political things happened (evergreen news at this point) and the Nats won the World Series. I’m contractually obligated (j/k — I don’t have a contract) to write an article about how the Cardinals could emulate the Nationals and build their team to win the World Series. Well, not the 2019 World Series — but a World Series. Let’s do it!

Sign the Best Free Agent Pitcher Ever

This step is straightforward. Max Scherzer is without a doubt the best free agent signing of any pitcher ever. He’s been worth at least 5 WAR every season since 2012, which astute observers will note is before he joined the Nationals. He’s a captain, a leader of the pitching staff and team, and by all accounts a joy of a teammate. He’s also a little insane, which you want in your stars — if someone told you that he sabotaged the bullpen phones so that the team couldn’t get relievers warming up to replace him, you’d call bullshit, but you’d at least think about it.

So okay, how do the Cardinals duplicate this? Sadly, they can’t sign Max Scherzer after the 2014 season anymore, no matter how much A.E. Schafer might try. They also can’t wait for Scherzer to reach free agency again, because he’ll be too old. There’s good news, though: a pitcher who could at least theoretically end up being the best free agency signing of all time is on the market this year!

So all the Cardinals need to do to duplicate the Nationals is sign Gerrit Cole, then have him deliver so much beyond expectations that his large contract ends up as a huge bargain. Easy!

Draft the Best Pitching Prospect of All Time, Then Have Him Reach His Potential

This one is also straightforward! Stephen Strasburg was hype incarnate from the moment the Nationals drafted him, and for a bit before that even. He struck out roughly 73 batters in his first start, and though injuries dogged his early career, he’s been a rock of late, and he also might be the best postseason pitcher of all time (by results).

Of course, merely losing the most games in baseball doesn’t get you all the way there. Not even losing the most games in baseball in a year where there’s a generational pitching prospect gets you there. You need to do that, draft that guy, and then have him turn into the prince that was promised. This one might be tough, I’ll grant you that. Oh, also, you have to sign him to an extension that felt fair at the time but ends up being a bargain in retrospect, and he has to not break down despite injury concerns. Easy peasy!

Turn a Top-10 Pick into an MVP Candidate

Getting top ten picks isn’t that hard. You could just be really bad, of course, but you can do it even without that by being only regular bad but also unlucky. No, the hard part is turning your top ten pick into Anthony Rendon, rather than Bubba Starling (the pick before him) or Archie Bradley (the pick after him). Archie Bradley is a perfectly nice pitcher, but he’s not Anthony Rendon, and the Nationals wouldn’t have won the World Series if you’d swapped them at the beginning of the year.

Have a Lightly Regarded Prospect Go Nova

Before 2018, Juan Soto was the third-best prospect in Washington’s system according to FanGraphs, with an ETA in the majors of 2020. That… yeah. Now he’s shuffling and bat-carrying his way into America’s collective heart, and he’s also one of the best young hitters of all time. This could happen to the Cardinals, of course. Malcom Nunez could just rake and rake and rake until the team has to promote him. That probably won’t happen — the lowest wRC+ Soto has ever had at any level was 132 in a 27-PA stint in rookie ball, sweet Jiminy Christmas — but hey, it could!

Develop a Catchy Dance Craze

It’s Baby Shark’s world, we’re just living in it.

Okay, so none of those can happen really. The point of running through that is that trying to build your team to match successful teams is dumb when you do it line-for-line. That doesn’t mean that the Cardinals can’t learn from the Nationals, though. The Nationals had some absolute gems of players, sure, but they also did some interesting little things that El Birdos could learn from.

Understand Your Veterans

Ryan Zimmerman is Mister National. He’s also, to be blunt, not that great at baseball anymore. The team understood that, and while keeping him around is absolutely admirable, they kept him around with some other options. Howie Kendrick and Matt Adams both split time with Zimmerman, whose 2019 was interrupted by injuries and ineffectiveness. He can still hit — not always, and not like he could when he was RYAN ZIMMERMAN — but the team could use a bat, and so they kept him around, but they were realistic about it.

I think the Cardinals are actually in a good position to do this. The organization might have given Matt Carpenter a weird contract extension, but they seem to be totally onboard with playing who they believe are the best players, and also Yadi (who’s probably the best player anyway, so it’s cool guys, don’t hate me). But the Nationals could have kept running Zim out whenever he could play, and they’ve dialed his role on the team back, which is just good management, and the Cardinals should do the same.

Sign Lottery Tickets

The most memorable lottery tickets the Nationals signed this year sucked. Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough (fine, he was acquired, but still) were hot garbage and both are no longer on the team. But most lottery tickets fail. Howie Kendrick signed a 2-year, $7 million deal with the team and batted .300 with power and okay plate discipline both years while filling two positions of need. Daniel Hudson cost them a 23-year-old in A ball, and he became their closer. Kurt Suzuki wasn’t quite a lottery ticket at 2 years and $10 million, but he wasn’t far from it, and he was totally fine at catcher for them in the regular season before getting hurt in the playoffs.

The Cardinals are willing to sign lottery tickets, I think. Matt Wieters was kiiiind of that, though it was a weird lottery where the prize is being a backup who still barely plays. But for the most part, the team’s lottery tickets have come via trade. Chasen Shreve and Dominic Leone didn’t pan out; Giovanny Gallegos did. John Brebbia almost counts, but he was more of a depth signing who just turned out well. The point is, the team seems to implicitly understand that acquiring some guys who might be good is a good way to end up with a smaller amount of good players. Keep doing that! That’s the key to organizational depth when you have to trade some prospects every year for reinforcements. Also, when you can, do it for money or players you’re planning on releasing. This is a Cardinals strength.

Roll With the Punches

Going into last offseason, you wouldn’t look at the Nationals roster and think that they could improve their team most by signing a pitcher at the top end of the market. There was a massive hole at catcher, and a decade-long terrible bullpen. Craig Kimbrel and Yasmani Grandal were available, and some other good relievers besides. But the Nationals thought Corbin was the best way to improve their team, and they went for it.

This is a part of team-building that is unintuitive but important. Our minds crave balance — team’s not hitting? Work on improving the hitting. Bullpen’s bad? Patch it. But that’s not really how baseball works. If you can upgrade from a position of strength to a position of super-strength, that’s absolutely worth it. The Nationals aren’t dummies — they understood that they had holes at catcher and reliever, and went out to fill them. But they didn’t fall into the trap of signing the guy who does the thing they don’t do, just to do that thing. I’m not saying Grandal wouldn’t have worked out — he was awesome. But really, talent plays, and signing Patrick Corbin is a great example of that.

I’m not sure that the Cardinals really have this down, at least when it comes to lineup setting. You see a lot of ‘the team isn’t hitting, can’t play Harrison Bader’ despite the weirdness of that thought. But I believe John Mozeliak gets it. When the team had a ton of promising outfielders and the entire Marlins outfield was available, he pursued them despite it already being a position of relative strength. When Paul Goldschmidt could be had, he didn’t think about whether it made sense to prioritize offense over defense on an iffy defensive team by moving Matt Carpenter to third base — he acquired Goldschmidt.

Now, neither of those trades worked as slam dunks. Zac Gallen ended up being great, and Carson Kelly looked legit this year in Arizona. But the thinking behind them, the willingness to go for value where you find it rather than where you want it, is laudable.

The 2020 Cardinals won’t be the Nationals. They’re simply not the same kind of team. But they could learn some team-building lessons from them all the same, and I hope that these are the kinds of things the team takes away from 2019, not that the way to win in the playoffs is by building a super-rotation or having an MVP.