The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trea Turner trade made the Nats’ future clear. So would a Juan Soto trade.

Juan Soto is in trade discussions a year after the Nationals traded Trea Turner. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — When the Washington Nationals traded Trea Turner last summer, the front office admitted it saw no path to contention in 2021 or 2022 and needed to restock a very thin farm system. So what is the same front office saying as it fields offers for Juan Soto ahead of Tuesday’s trade deadline? That it’s low on the team’s odds in 2022 — obviously — 2023 and even 2024, when Soto could in theory still play in D.C. before reaching free agency. And yes, the farm system and 40-man roster could use more talented players, plain and simple.

Teams often reveal the internal view of themselves with actions, not words. The decision to deal Turner, then, helps clarify what the decision to shop Soto means.

The Nationals’ logic has been unpacked, then unpacked some more, but should be repeated here: After Soto turned down a 15-year, $440 million offer, team officials don’t like their chances of signing the 23-year-old all-star right fielder to a pre-free agency extension. And if they don’t envision keeping him long-term, they want to try to maximize Soto’s value by dealing him when the receiving team will get three pennant races instead of two or one. The logic is that a return with this much control remaining will be notably better than if the Nationals trade Soto over the winter or thereafter. Even with the Lerner family exploring a sale of the team, multiple people in the organization believe the prospective return — maybe the biggest haul in the sport’s history — could be worth acting now instead of giving new owners a shot to negotiate with Soto in their first months running the club.

The Washington Nationals may look to trade superstar outfielder Juan Soto after he turned down a 15-year, $440 million contract extension. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

That doesn’t mean Soto will be wearing a new jersey in a week. But the Nationals considering this option, and discussing Soto with multiple teams, shows their willingness to smash a big rebuild button.

Since they shipped out eight players at last year’s deadline, General Manager Mike Rizzo has preferred calling this a “reboot.” “Rebuild” has been stigmatized in the past decade. Just the mention of one conjures thoughts of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Miami Marlins or Baltimore Orioles — though the Marlins enter Friday’s games 13½ games ahead of the Nationals in the standings, and the Orioles, if you hadn’t heard, seem positioned for a sustainable run.

No matter. Years-long rebuilding is bad, so Rizzo’s public message has been that the Nationals aren’t doing that. But if they trade Soto? Hard to sell the process as anything else.

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“Eventually you have to build around the star player you have, right?” Turner, a 29-year-old shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers, asked at Dodger Stadium this week. “I understand the business of it. But if you’re looking toward the future, then looking toward the future again, then looking toward the future again, when are you looking at the present? Of the players who have left there recently, you can make a good argument that Juan is the one to go with. You could have said Bryce [Harper] or Tony [Rendon] or me, I guess. But this is Juan Soto. He’s the guy.”

The rub, again, is that the Nationals aren’t confident about extending Soto. With Turner, they were also wary they’d reach a deal after shortstop Francisco Lindor signed a 10-year, $341 million contract with the New York Mets, setting a high bar. Eventually trading Soto for less than they could get now — or, gulp, losing him for nothing down the line — is a major worry for the team. And that’s where another parallel to Turner comes in.

If Washington had waited until last winter to shop Turner, teams could have pivoted to any number of free agent shortstops, spending money instead of parting with treasured prospects. Similarly, if the Nationals hold onto Soto through the season, other clubs could improve their offenses in free agency this offseason, thus lessening Washington’s leverage. As the weekend begins, the San Diego Padres are said to be circling for Soto; the St. Louis Cardinals, visiting Washington for a three-game series, have been considered a great fit; the Dodgers, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers have been in rumors; and the New York Yankees seem to be a long shot after trading for outfielder Andrew Benintendi on Thursday.

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

The Nationals are known to home in on certain prospects and be upfront about it. Last fall, the Athletic reported that, in negotiations with the Boston Red Sox for Kyle Schwarber, Washington targeted 20-year-old pitcher Aldo Ramirez early and received him in a straight-up deal. With the trade that eventually included Turner and Max Scherzer, they were set on landing catcher Keibert Ruiz from the Dodgers. They initially proposed Ruiz in exchange for Scherzer. The Dodgers balked. Washington also had conversations about stand-alone deals for Turner, mostly with American League teams, according to multiple people familiar with how the Nationals’ sell-off unfolded.

But Scherzer had a no-trade clause and narrowed his potential destinations to the Dodgers, Padres and San Francisco Giants, who were not interested in a Scherzer-Turner package. In the end, sending Turner and Scherzer to L.A. netted Ruiz, Josiah Gray, outfielder Donovan Casey and right-handed pitcher Gerardo Carrillo. Each of those players had reached Class AA or higher. A few months later, Rizzo said he had mostly targeted close-to-major-league-ready players to accelerate his reboot around Soto.

Juan Soto was surprised the Nats might trade him. Trea Turner knows the feeling.

Now, though, as he listens to offers for Soto, it is fair to wonder if that was the best strategy. The Nationals enter the weekend with a 34-66 record. Starter Stephen Strasburg is almost certainly done for the season again. They have a massive talent gap between the low and high levels of their minor league system. Only one of their top prospects, pitcher Cade Cavalli, seems on the verge of contributing in the majors. And on their major league roster, there’s a too-short list of promising players who aren’t liable to be traded any minute: Ruiz, Gray, infielder Luis García, perhaps oft-injured reliever Hunter Harvey.

A quick reboot would mean competing with Soto and some combination of these players in the immediate future. Trading him would signal the opposite approach.

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