The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nationals’ deadline fire sale unfolded in a matter of days. But it was years in the making.

Dave Martinez and the Washington Nationals are starting anew. (Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
14 min

On the night everything changed, somewhere on Interstate 95 between Philadelphia and Washington, Dave Martinez heard the bus fill with buzzes and beeps, the sound of news breaking to dozens of phones.

Light murmurs followed. But Martinez, the Washington Nationals’ manager, didn’t turn around in his seat. He didn’t make a speech about sticking together in those last hours of July 29. He knew, by then, that starter Max Scherzer was probably headed to the Los Angeles Dodgers and that shortstop Trea Turner would go, too. He knew an era was ending, that six other veterans would soon head to new teams. So when the three buses stopped at Nationals Park, he joined players, coaches and staff in a line that snaked toward Scherzer, everyone hugging and saying goodbye to the ace.

Then Martinez did the only thing that made sense: He walked to his office, in the quiet of an empty clubhouse, to prepare for the next series.

“But I couldn’t get much done,” Martinez remembered. “Max followed me in. We had to do it one last time.”

For close to an hour, they sat across from each other, talking about the past and present, the World Series run in 2019 and Scherzer’s chance to win again with the Dodgers. Others filtered through, patting Scherzer on the shoulder, adding laughs that echoed through the dark hallway leading to the field. Martinez and Scherzer poured some whiskey. They cried a bit.

And once Scherzer left, driving home, once more, to Northern Virginia, Martinez couldn’t focus on the Chicago Cubs. The scouting reports on his desk might as well have been grocery lists.

“Wow. It really happened. Life without Max, life without Trea, this will be different,” Martinez recalled thinking. “It hit me.”

How the Nationals wound up trading Scherzer, Turner and six other players just 21 months after winning the World Series was close to a decade in the making. Both internally and publicly, many in the organization view the trade deadline fire sale as the price for chasing championships, over and over, until the farm system was bare and the on-field product was sagging. They are pleased with the 12-player return for eight veterans — including top prospects in catcher Keibert Ruiz and pitcher Josiah Gray — and glad the team went all-in on what General Manager Mike Rizzo believes will be a quick rebuild.

Keibert Ruiz is one of the top prospects in baseball. Now he’s the Nationals’ new hope.

But members of the front office also felt this was a way to patch deficiencies that could no longer be hidden by the team’s success.

One was a minor league system hurt by not only trading prospects for immediate help in recent years but also misses in the draft, missteps in player development and a lack of investment in staff and resources, according to three people with knowledge of the club’s inner workings. Another issue was signing starter Stephen Strasburg to a seven-year, $245 million contract in December 2019, in the afterglow of the World Series, which clogged the payroll and complicated efforts to sign Turner to a long-term extension. Another was not locking up Turner before the price rose considerably and the sides drifted apart.

Keeping the shortstop might have helped hasten a rebuild by making Washington more appealing to free agents wanting to win sooner than later. A roster with Turner, Juan Soto and a handful of young, promising players, for example, probably would be far more enticing to say, Scherzer, than a Turner-free roster with Soto as its only star.

But when it became clear the Nationals would not sign Turner to an extension, the decision to trade him became something of a no-brainer: Never, in the remainder of his time under team control, would Turner be worth more than with two Octobers left before free agency. And for Scherzer, who indicated he was open to a reunion when he hits the market in November, Turner’s departure makes the Nationals less likely to contend next season — and thus less likely to bring back Scherzer, according to multiple people familiar with his and the team’s thinking.

In trading Scherzer, the Nationals conceded that 2021 wasn’t their year. By trading Turner, they admitted that 2022 might not be pretty, either. Reasons aside, it is a sharp change for a city that has grown used to winning baseball, starting a decade ago and peaking with a championship parade down Constitution Avenue. After the World Series, the club made an attempt to extend its title window, paying Strasburg and filling other holes with a bunch of short-term contracts for serviceable veterans. Ultimately, though, that effort cratered to forfeiting the present for a better infrastructure in the future. Entering Saturday, the team is 2-10 in August and 10-28 since July 1.

This account of the Nationals’ trade deadline was based on interviews with 11 people within the organization, plus a half dozen others, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss their views.

The Washington Post also requested an interview with Mark Lerner, the Nationals’ managing principal owner, and team spokeswoman Jennifer Giglio asked for a list of questions. Two days after they were sent, the topics including not extending Turner, trading close to a third of the roster and deciding whether payroll savings will be invested in other parts of the organization, Lerner declined to comment through Giglio.

“For 10 straight years, we competed with the best and brightest in all of baseball,” Rizzo said July 30, shortly after the sell-off was finished. “We were as good as anybody in the game; we won four division titles; we’ve been in the playoffs five times; we won a World Series with this group.

“And there’s no shame in having to take a step back, refocus, reboot and start the process again. And that’s what we’re preparing to do.”

A ‘dual path’

Ten days before the trade deadline, Rizzo stood in front of the home dugout at Nationals Park, sipping hot coffee during a humid afternoon. The 30-minute interview was a rapid-fire look at the team’s turbulent season.

It began with 11 players sidelined amid a coronavirus outbreak, delaying Opening Day by a weekend. From there, the Nationals stumbled through April and May but found life in June, riding left fielder Kyle Schwarber’s all-time hot streak. His 16 homers in 18 games were part of a 14-4 run that revived their playoff chances. They shot up the standings, making a trade of Scherzer — let alone a trade of Turner — feel like a distant possibility.

Then came July.

Max Scherzer joined a Nats team on the rise. He delivered dominance until the end.

Schwarber strained his hamstring July 2; the Nationals fell, 9-8, to the San Diego Padres on July 8 after blowing an 8-0 lead; and they went into the all-star break on a four-game losing streak. Still, buying at the deadline was a probable route, according to multiple people in the front office. The belief was that the second-half schedule was much easier; the team had 11 games left with the first-place New York Mets and could get a jolt if Strasburg returned from nerve irritation in his neck. But then the slide continued.

Woven through the poor on-field performance was turmoil off it: a domestic violence allegation against Starlin Castro, once the team’s starting third baseman, that ultimately resulted in a 30-game suspension from MLB and the Nationals’ promise to release him.

Rizzo was asked about all of this July 20 but didn’t consider the season a wash. Not yet, at least.

“We’ll attack the trade deadline as we always do. We’ll be aggressive in whatever we do,” he said. “This year it’ll be a little bit different because of where we’re at in the standings. We’ll kind of go by a dual path, try and maximize our place in the standings, wherever that is, whenever we make that decision.”

Soon, it was made for them. The Nationals lost a series finale to the last-place Miami Marlins on July 21 and were swept by the last-place Orioles in Baltimore. The next week started with brutal news: Strasburg visited a specialist in Dallas and opted to undergo season-ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, which normally involves removing the first rib and any relevant scar tissue to relieve pressure on nerves and blood vessels. In the two seasons since signing his extension, the 33-year-old has logged 26⅔ innings and faced only 118 batters.

Juan Soto, left in the wreckage of a rebuild, feels new pressure as the Nats’ face and future

On July 23, injuries had sapped the Nationals of Strasburg, Schwarber, another starting pitcher, both of their catchers and two key relievers. A handful of healthy players, including Patrick Corbin, Brad Hand, Victor Robles and Jon Lester, were performing well below expectations. Hand, signed in the offseason as the best reliever on the market, was in his worst stretch of the season, blowing back-to-back saves against the Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies.

That dropped the Nationals to 45-54, good for fourth place in what once looked like a winnable division. So with four days until the deadline, they decided to tear it down.

Trading Scherzer, Hand (to the Toronto Blue Jays), Schwarber (Boston Red Sox), Lester (St. Louis Cardinals), reliever Daniel Hudson (San Diego Padres), catcher Yan Gomes (Oakland Athletics) and utility man Josh Harrison (also Athletics) was obvious, because they were finishing contracts and could fetch mid-level prospects. But to make the fire sale worth it, to improve their bottom-ranked farm system in a meaningful way, the Nationals had to go one step further. They put Turner on the block.

A changed landscape

Turner’s agents at CAA Sports talked to the Nationals multiple times during 2020 spring training. They exchanged at least three proposals, with the Nationals offering in the neighborhood of six years and $100 million, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.

From the archives: You can’t take your eyes off Trea Turner. Sometimes he wishes you would.

Turner was then one of MLB’s more productive shortstops but not necessarily an elite one. From 2017 to 2019, seven shortstops accumulated more FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement than Turner, including then-Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor and Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who signed a six-year deal worth $120 million before the 2019 season.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the sides stopped negotiating and lost momentum. And a year after helping the Nationals win a title, Turner took a star turn. He hit .335 in 59 games in 2020. His strikeout rate plummeted. He tied for fourth in stolen bases and hit 12 homers, a relative power surge that left him trailing slugging shortstops Fernando Tatis Jr. and Corey Seager for the lead at that position.

All the while, Turner said he would be open to talking to the Nationals about a long-term deal. Rizzo said he and Turner’s agents planned to speak more. But by this spring, shortstops were the focus of the baseball world. A massive class was set to hit the market in the coming offseason, meaning Turner probably would have a better sense of what he might command when reaching free agency a year later.

When Cleveland sent Lindor to the New York Mets, Turner’s representatives began hammering the favorable comparisons between the two, arguing that whatever Lindor got in an extension would probably be a fitting number for Turner, too. The Mets gave Lindor 10 years and $341 million. To Turner and his team, the landscape had changed, something they communicated to the Nationals and others in the aftermath.

Svrluga: The Nationals have a new direction. It better include Juan Soto.

The Nationals didn’t make another offer, according to multiple people familiar with the situation. When the team traveled to Tampa in early June, Rizzo met with Jeff Berry, one of Turner’s agents, but the two never discussed numbers. It seemed the landscape had shifted out of the Nationals’ comfort zone.

When examining the Nationals’ calculations to lock up their stars long-term, there are a few important pieces of context to consider.

It’s true that Ted Lerner, the team’s founding owner, is valued at around $5 billion. At the same time, the team’s television deal with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network is the source of a long-fraught conflict and legal dispute. The team has sued MASN for millions in rights fees it believes it is owed, and the lawsuit remains unresolved.

And while the Nationals have been among MLB’s top spenders by payroll in recent years, they do not have a history of locking up position players to long-term deals.

They let Bryce Harper walk. Anthony Rendon, too. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington’s first draft pick, remains the exception to the rule. They have, however, invested in pitching. Strasburg and Corbin are due $258 million combined between the end of the 2021 season and 2026. Both were integral parts of the Nationals’ championship run. Neither has been nearly the same since.

All that shows an organization that has spent but could probably have spent more, has spent smart but could sometimes spend smarter and has had a clear history of being competitive along with its fair share of awkward goodbyes. Turner’s exit fell into that category.

“I’ve been pretty honest,” Turner said at his introductory news conference at Dodger Stadium, a session in which he repeated that he would have loved to play in Washington for the rest of his career.

“I said I would talk about an extension whenever and waited for that to happen, and it didn’t happen. So I’ve been told a lot of things over the last two years, and, for me, actions speak louder than words.”

The sell-off suggests the Nationals’ baseball operations staff made an uncomfortable choice: On one hand, Turner seems like a once-in-a-generation player, the rare combination of speed and emerging power who can change a game in multiple ways, making him perfect to lead a rebuilding team’s push to the future.

On the other, committing to Turner now probably meant giving around 10 years to a 28-year-old hitting his prime just before the upswing of a rebuild. Paying him more than $30 million annually — or Lindor money — to be the difference between the Nationals finishing third and fourth in the National League East for a few years, only to begin contending when he entered the second half of his career, might have tied up resources that could have helped elsewhere.

A fan called Nationals Park to find out about a rain delay. She was surprised by who answered.

“You have to at some point lock guys up earlier, because if you don’t lock them up early, then they get real expensive,” Zimmerman said July 31. “But also, locking him up early, you’re taking a risk. We could sit here and talk about this for hours. There’s so many variables to put in there. That’s why it’s so hard for these things to happen, and you don’t see it that often.”

Turner was such a rare midseason commodity that four teams engaged the Nationals in serious dialogue about a stand-alone deal for him, according to a person familiar with the talks. But ultimately, it was Turner who became key to getting a big prospect haul from the Dodgers, the kind Washington could build around.

‘I felt comfortable as a Nat’

Shortly before the deadline, Rizzo sat with Scherzer and told him the team was planning to sell. So Scherzer, understanding of the Nationals’ position, prepared to exercise rights earned as a veteran of 10 major league seasons, the past five with the same team. They enabled him to veto any trade the Nationals brought his way. Instead, he made his desires clear.

Scherzer wanted to play for an NL team to allow a smooth midseason transition. He wanted to play in warm weather. And he wanted to win.

“I wasn’t necessarily going to dictate which team I was going to go to but rather which team I would accept a trade to,” said Scherzer, whose shortlist favored the Giants, Padres and Dodgers, all in contention, according to people familiar with the situation. But in the hours before the Nationals agreed to trade him to Los Angeles, that group had effectively shrunk to two, leaving the Nationals to work out a deal with the Dodgers or Padres.

On July 28, less than 48 hours before the deadline, Rizzo told Scherzer he was pitching Thursday, when the Nationals were scheduled for a doubleheader against the Phillies. Scherzer had missed his previous start with triceps soreness that he and the team agreed was not a major concern yet lingered in the minds of at least one suitor’s evaluators.

Scherzer told Rizzo he wanted to pitch the first game, knowing it would be his last start with Washington. He admitted later he felt some trepidation about taking the mound as the league’s hottest trade chip. An injury could have changed everything, for him and the Nationals.

Max Scherzer’s catchers have a story to tell

But Scherzer wasn’t injured. The triceps gave him no trouble. He allowed one run on three hits in six solid innings and walked off the mound with his usual swagger. Within minutes, though, an unfamiliar look spread across Scherzer’s face. He paced around the dugout, looking a little uncertain about where he belonged.

As the rest of the game unfolded, rumors swirled, amplified by many of the more trusted reporters in the game, that the Nationals were close to dealing Scherzer to the Padres.

“I was kind of aware it was going on, but I had not gotten that phone call from Rizzo to say that was a done deal,” Scherzer said. “… But the fact that Twitter was going off and I hadn’t gotten a phone call, I knew something else was probably still in the weeds.”

And that something was the Dodgers, who were deep in talks for not only Scherzer but Turner, too. Rizzo and the front office were free to agree to any deals they wanted with the veterans on expiring contracts. But any trade involving Turner required one last sign-off from the Lerner family.

How Max Scherzer, bold and brilliant on the mound, learned years ago to bet on himself

While Scherzer was likely to command a solid prospect return, he was unlikely to bring back players who could alter the trajectory of the Nationals’ farm system, according to multiple people familiar with the talks. Those people said Scherzer alone, for example, would not have pulled one prospect of the same caliber as Josiah Gray or Keibert Ruiz from the Padres or Giants, let alone two. Or to put another way, it was Turner who made the final deal transformational — without him, it’s possible neither Gray nor Ruiz would have been included.

As his future shifted, Turner was at home, left to wonder in isolation after a positive coronavirus test. He said he went back and forth, reading and hearing rumors, asking himself if the Nationals would really trade him, or if there was any scenario in which they wouldn’t. When the deal was coming together, he called Scherzer.

“I didn’t necessarily want to get traded and just start all over and move. I felt comfortable as a Nat,” Turner said. “So to hear how excited he was made me feel a little bit better.”

‘The opportunity is theirs’

Martinez was in the dugout at Citi Field in New York on Tuesday, preparing for another game in the infant stages of a rebuild, when his eyes teared up again. The thought of his last talks with Scherzer, of calling a confused Turner to explain the trade, of everything they accomplished and what they didn’t, was more than enough. Martinez kept glancing at the players who jogged up the steps to the field, some in their first full month in the major leagues. He pointed to them all, his fresh-faced group, and laughed.

“Look, I keep saying it, and I’m not going to stop,” Martinez began. “Max Scherzer made his name. Trea Turner made his name. Yan Gomes, Daniel Hudson, Josh Harrison, they made their names at some point. So now it’s these guys’ turn. The opportunity is theirs.”

That’s the world through Martinez’s unshakable outlook. Publicly, opportunity is the Nationals’ operative word, a not-so-subtle spin on stripping down a roster and filling it with unproven parts. Opportunity is now a chance at extending Soto with a long-term deal, the one Turner never signed, to stack another decade of contention on the 22-year-old outfielder’s broad shoulders. Opportunity is seeing if Ruiz, a top catching prospect, and Gray, a budding starter, can reward the decision to pound the eject button and ship Turner to the reigning champs.

Opportunity is what remains, colored with the lessons of how to maximize it.

“We’re not going to be down for as long as people think,” Martinez said, pushing himself off the bench. “I can promise you: We’re not.”