The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why do the Nats let stars leave? Juan Soto’s exit would revive the question.

Juan Soto and Trea Turner shared Nationals Park in April 2021, months before Turner was traded to the Dodgers. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

On the second-to-last day of the 2018 season, Trea Turner hit second for the Washington Nationals in Colorado and rapped three hits, including a homer. Bryce Harper was in the three hole, and he singled twice and scored a pair of runs. Anthony Rendon was the cleanup man, and his lone hit was a triple. Juan Soto was the 19-year-old left fielder, hitting fifth, belting a double and a homer and driving in four runs.

Oh, and on the hill was Stephen Strasburg, finishing a frustrating, injury-interrupted season with six innings of two-run ball — some momentum for the winter. That’s quite a core to build a team around.

There are reasons why, when the Nationals took the field Monday night at Dodger Stadium, Turner was the starting shortstop for opposing Los Angeles; why Harper won the second of his two MVP awards with the Philadelphia Phillies; why Rendon is riding out the season on the injured list of the Los Angeles Angels; and why Soto’s uncertain future is the only storyline that matters for the shell-of-their-former-selves Nationals.

‘This is all just nuts’: As Juan Soto uncertainty lingers, the show must go on

A trade of Soto by next Tuesday’s deadline remains a distinct possibility. As jarring as it would be, there are undeniable, justifiable reasons for the Nationals to move him. The specifics of why — failure to reach agreement on a long-term contract extension, an attempt to maximize the return of prospects who could help rebuild the franchise — have been broken down and analyzed even before we know whether a deal can be pulled off.

But Soto’s potential departure — be it over the next week, in the offseason or via free agency in 2½ years — gives oxygen to an inconvenient narrative: The Nationals cannot hold on to their own players.

“It’s the business that’s the part of baseball that’s — well, not unavoidable, because maybe you can avoid it a little bit,” Turner said last week at the All-Star Game, where he started for the National League with “Dodgers” emblazoned across his chest. “But it happens.”

It has happened, and is happening, to the Nationals. Each of these situations is unique and has its own dynamics, which we’ll get to. But the wide-angle view offers not-so-flattering concerns: The Nationals must be cheap. The Nationals lowball their own. What’s wrong with Washington?

Forget the accuracy of each and any of those conclusions, often made from afar. It is a fact that the Nationals developed and raised those players from kids to stars — and didn’t lock up any of them.

Well, they did lock up one. And that contract is strangling the franchise.

Part of me thinks there’s no point in re-litigating each of the other circumstances — except that the totality of them defines where the franchise once was and where it is now. So start with the star who stayed: Strasburg. He first signed a seven-year, $175 million extension in May 2016, when he was less than six months from free agency — a stunning development. After winning the World Series MVP award in 2019, he exercised an opt-out clause in that deal to become a free agent — only to sign a seven-year, $245 million deal with the team that drafted him first in 2009.

I’m not going to hide. At the time of that contract, I wrote: “This feels right. This is how it should have ended.”

Why Patrick Corbin’s name comes up in Juan Soto trade speculation

There’s some “expert” analysis for you. In the three seasons since, Strasburg has made only eight starts. Following an aborted comeback from surgery to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome, there’s no telling if he’ll pitch again. Related: Since 2020, only Arizona and Pittsburgh have lost more games than the Nationals — who are charging fast from behind, trailing 198-196 heading into Monday night. Their play over that stretch translates to a 100-loss pace in a season. It’s quite a fall.

Strasburg didn’t come first in all of this, but his status — making $35 million per year to not pitch — has the most impact on the organization. There was drama and angst over Harper’s departure in free agency, but in the end he got the $330 million he wanted — with no deferrals, as the Nationals had offered — from the Phillies. The Nationals won the World Series the next year without him. I’ll never believe the Nats were better because he left, but they certainly could survive — and even thrive.

Rendon’s departure was almost telegraphed even as the Nationals came back from a 19-31 start in 2019 to reach the playoffs and blitz to the title. The third baseman — the Nats’ last real draft-and-develop success, the Game 7 hero who homered off Zack Greinke to set up Howie Kendrick — never seemed entirely enamored with Washington or the organization. He cared about his teammates, and he cared about winning. But while Harper always seemed to have one foot in the door, Rendon always seemed to have one out.

There are people in the organization who would have preferred to sign Rendon for the seven years and $245 million that went to Strasburg — and those were exactly the terms of Rendon’s deal with the Angels. But Rendon’s tenure in Orange County has been bumpy — his on-base-plus-slugging percentage in his last three seasons with the Nats was .953, and in his three seasons with the Angels it’s .780 — and he is out for the year with a wrist injury. Bullet dodged? In hindsight, maybe. But only in hindsight.

Turner is still the toughest one to take — so far. So much went into the Nationals’ decision to trade away everything that wasn’t nailed down last summer: their record at the time, Strasburg’s inability to pitch, the thin farm system, their prospects for 2023. It all contributed, and if there’s a day when Keibert Ruiz is the catcher for Josiah Gray in a postseason game — well, it’ll be some version of worth it, because those are the key pieces that came in return from the Dodgers for Turner and Max Scherzer.

But will that future, hard-to-see-from-here October game also feature Soto in right field?

“I’d love to see him play his whole career in Washington because he’s a franchise player and I don’t think guys like him should be let go or leave,” Turner said. “They should do whatever they can to keep them, in my opinion.”

He was speaking about Soto, whose future is in flux because he turned down a 15-year, $440 million extension — and the Nats don’t seem inclined to raise it. But Turner could have been speaking about any of those all-star Nationals who went before him — himself included. There are reasons Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner aren’t in Washington anymore. There are rationalizations for exploring a trade of Juan Soto now. Stephen Strasburg’s contract and Stephen Strasburg’s injuries are woven into it all.

The snapshots are separate from one another, each with its own explanation. But the book, as a whole, is depressing. And it may well be adding another chapter — all while the losses mount.

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