Man, that’s so … 2011. So while it’s fair to mourn the losses and reflect on the contributions of — holy cow, this list — Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, Daniel Hudson and Yan Gomes, Kyle Schwarber and Brad Hand, it’s also important to acknowledge that trying to compete for a decade has consequences. Add at the deadline frequently enough, and a system gets stripped. So here are the new Nationals: up-and-comers again, with their most intriguing characters on the way to South Capitol Street rather than mainstays there.
With such an overhaul, General Manager Mike Rizzo’s Nats have a job: develop the players they got in return for the flotilla they sent elsewhere and draft more behind them. That’s a throwback to how Rizzo first built this group that made five postseason appearances from 2012 to 2019, winning the whole thing on that final try. The charge now: revisit those principles and that time, because it resulted in a franchise that was positioned to win for most of a decade.
Oh, and one other thing: back up the truck for Juan Soto.
There’s the difference between this reconfiguring and the Nats’ first rebuild, back when they were still a shell of a major league franchise. It’s long-ago history, but it’s worth recalling now, because the fact that Major League Baseball bought the Montreal Expos, then stripped them bare, then moved them to Washington and then sold them off defined the franchise for its first five years in the nation’s capital. The system was barren. It had Ryan Zimmerman as a young, potential star in the majors — and quite literally almost nothing else.
All these years later, the Nats still have Zimmerman, who grew through the down times, signed two extensions here, married a local girl and now raises a family of DMV natives. He has been here long enough to be both the face of the franchise and then be supplanted by others. He turns 37 in September. Since mid-June, he’s hitting .155 with a .506 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. If this isn’t his last season, it’s close.
Soto plays the role of Zimmerman in this Nats’ overhaul, though in terms of on-field success, he’s more important. He is still just 22, which is staggering, and despite the sense that he had something of a sluggish start to 2021, he ranks 10th in all of baseball in OPS (.940). Go back to 2019, that championship season, and there is one player with at least 600 plate appearances who has posted a better OPS than Soto’s .979: Mike Trout (1.062). If you’re picking one player around whom to start a franchise, he still has to be in the top five.
So the credentials are established, and the talent is otherworldly. More than that, though, Soto is the Nats’ central figure at this crucial time in their history. With Scherzer gone, with Stephen Strasburg’s future very much in question given surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome and with Zimmerman’s retirement impending, Soto is the bridge from what the Nats were to what they might be again.
The job would be, then, to not let this draw out and to not let Soto get close enough to free agency that he can taste it. We know how that works out. Bryce Harper hit free agency — and left. Anthony Rendon hit free agency — and left. Turner got a year-and-a-half away from the open market — and was dealt, in part because who knows if the Nats could have signed him?
To be fair, the previous departures haven’t particularly hindered Washington. Indeed, moving on from some of the popular players the fan base mourned on their way out — Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Tyler Clippard, etc. — turned out to be wise decisions by Rizzo and his front office.
But it says here that Soto is different than all those who have gone before him, and by “different” we mean “better.” The trick to signing him won’t be to, say, look at the eight-year, $100 million contract given to Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr., recognize they’re of similar ages and abilities and offer Soto a slight bump from that because he’s a little further along in his career. That won’t work.
Rather, we’re talking something that would make it almost impossible for Soto — and, importantly, his agent, Scott Boras — to turn down. Think the 14-year, $340 million deal San Diego granted shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. this spring — and push further. Think Trout’s 12-year, $426.5 million contract. Think something that says to Soto, “We’re serious about contending again, and you’re going to be the centerpiece” — and lets the fan base know that.
This isn’t urgent — until it is. Soto can’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season, so the Nats could do nothing and still get three more years out of him. Given who he is as a person and his enormous talent as a player, those years will be productive, and he’s a reason to buy a ticket.
But with the Nationals hosting the Chicago Cubs this weekend, grab that scorecard, because it’s the only way you’ll know the players. Rizzo and his front office would do well to exhale, considering the frenzied job they just performed — and the work still ahead to take the return on those trades and make it into a future core.
Maybe part of that exhale, though, should be to walk the concourses, to drink in the jerseys on the fans who file in, so many of whom were patient and trusting as a 100-loss franchise became a world champion. They will see Scherzer’s 31 and Turner’s 7. They may see Hudson’s 44, because he recorded that last out of the World Series, or even Rendon’s 6. Harper’s 34 tends to be X-ed out, for whatever reason. There’ll be Zimmerman’s 11.
There will, too, be Soto’s 22. Thursday felt like a day of dismantling. What it did was give the Nationals a clear direction. The future includes a bunch of players we don’t yet know. But it better include Juan Jose Soto, because he’s better than them all.