You’ve heard of virtuous circles. There are vicious vortexes, too. The Washington Nationals have been in one for the past year.
Hard as it is to fathom now, amid the Nats’ second straight roster purge at the trade deadline, as recently as June 30 of last year, the future of this organization was still completely up in the air.
That night, the Nats won their 14th game out of 17, clubbing the Rays, 15-6, to reach 40-38 and second place in the NL East, just 2½ games out of first.
They were a contender, certainly in their own minds.
As unbelievable as it seems on this bleak farewell day, the Nats were, just 13 months ago, a veteran team built to try to reach the postseason. That night, which was coincidentally also the day I retired, Trea Turner and Soto combined for seven hits and seven runs.
Kyle Schwarber, Josh Bell, Yan Gomes and Starlin Castro started. And the kind of vets that you keep for a pennant race — Ryan Zimmerman, Jordy Mercer and, yes, Gerardo (Baby Shark) Parra — all played.
The bullpen had free agent Brad Hand and a solid Daniel Hudson. The rotation, if everybody somehow got healthy and effective, would have been Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — the Big Three from the Nats’ World Series triumph in 2019 — plus Joe Ross, Jon Lester and others.
Then, 27 days later, one event changed everything. All that has followed was the almost inexorable outgrowth of that baseball disaster. Strasburg, on the injured list (again), announced he would undergo the desperate measure of surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. That operation is often a career killer. The list of pitchers who have truly come back from it is about five.
“Strasburg’s probably finished. He may not win 20 games the rest of his career,” I told my family. “Corbin has been disappearing for two years. They’re stuck with two of the worst contracts a team could carry at once. With Strasburg out, Max is going to leave as a free agent after this year — for sure. The Big Three is now the Big Zero. They have to blow up the team and start over. They have no choice. It’s sad, but everyone must go.”
“Why?” my family asked.
“Because everyone — as their turn arrives to become a free agent — is going to leave anyway. No great player in his right mind will sign a long-term contract to be part of a total down-to-the-rubble rebuild. I would leave. They will.”
“Will you write that?” my wife asked a year ago.
“No,” I said. “Don’t kick the fans when they’re in pain. Besides, what if I’m wrong?”
Three days later, Scherzer and Turner were traded to the Dodgers. What a gruesome domino effect. By pairing Turner, a free agent after the 2022 season, with Scherzer, the Nats got maximum trade value. Good business, bad for the heart.
More (logical) deals removed Schwarber, Hand, Hudson, Gomes and others. The blow-it-up Nats were suddenly “in for a hand grenade, in for a nuke.”
This year has played out like a script that was already close to written. For appearance’s sake, and to be decent to a great player, the Nats recently offered Soto a 15-year, $440 million deal — enough to ensure he would not take it, unless Juan wanted to climb over agent Scott Boras’s dead body.
In his final Nats game Monday, Soto had three walks and a home run (off Scherzer), threw out a runner at the plate and scored from first base with hustle and a headfirst slide.
As someone who has followed D.C. baseball all his life and who will never forget Washington’s first championship parade in 95 years, I did my digestion of this End of an Era last year as the Nats’ identity left town, one player after another.
This season, I’ve just felt wrung out. Soto seemed like a phantom every time he stepped to the plate, getting more ghostlike every passing day. Would the tangle of the Lerner family trying to sell the team create a situation where Soto could stay? Not likely. New owners want the old owners to do the dirty work.
Now, it’s done. Get the new players in. Hope for the best. And wait. Probably for years.
With GM Mike Rizzo doing the deals, you have as good of a talent evaluator as the game provides. Just a year ago, he acquired Schwarber and Bell, at the time 27 and 28, on the cheap. Schwarber now leads the National League in homers for the Phillies, and Bell is fifth in the NL in batting (.301).
Rebuilds are fascinating, they’re unpredictable, and they bring some of the game’s greatest highs and lows, even when World Series wins are not involved. I covered the Orioles when they went from 54-107 in 1988 to 87-75 with playoff hopes alive on the final weekend of the 1989 season. Plus-33 wins! Baseball doesn’t get more shockingly exciting. But I also covered the O’s when they went from back-to-back trips to the AL Championship Series directly to 14 straight losing seasons, thanks to Peter Angelos’s toxicity.
Few things are more distressing to fans than watching an excellent team, built piece by piece over years, as it ages, gets injured, leaves for money, disintegrates or is finally traded away in what feels like a brutal blink.
As a beat writer, and a national baseball writer for decades, there is no more familiar story than watching the end arrive for champions. It always hurts. Only the details of the final miseries change.
But two truths remain. The year you won it all never loses an iota of its shine. If anything, it grows in warmth with time. When retired players meet, they relive The Run while other years blend, almost evaporate.
Next best is the climb toward the top, especially when it starts at the absolute bottom. In a way, Washington fans, despite “only” having a new team for 18 years, have already had both experiences.
Remember when, in 2007, lefty Matt Chico (7-9) was the staff ace? Yet those were the only wins of his career. Then, within a handful of seasons, the Nats led Major League Baseball in wins and started an eight-year saga, with teams filled with household names that rose to the top.
Such a thing will almost certainly happen again. We don’t know when. But deconstruction of the old usually begins the creation of the new. It doesn’t seem that way today, with Soto — who may end up as one of the all-time greats — leaving after (only) five years.
This is the bottom. And it feels like it. You may not want to learn the new Nats’ names — and their stories — quite yet. But the evidence of the past 146 major league seasons says you probably will become curious again — about C.J. Abrams, MacKenzie Gore and a whole bunch more — far sooner than you think.