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Why the Nationals made no moves after trading Juan Soto and Josh Bell

Nelson Cruz remains on the Nationals after Tuesday's trade deadline. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Small details of the Washington Nationals’ trade deadline that could get lost in the, uh, shuffle: There were four minor leaguers on a flight from Columbus, Ohio, to Reagan National Airport on Tuesday morning. Two of them, first baseman Joey Meneses and outfielder Josh Palacios, were activated before the Nationals faced the New York Mets. But the other two, relievers Reed Garrett and Mason Thompson, only came in case the club dealt relievers before 6 p.m.

And turns out the Nationals didn’t. Garrett and Thompson were not in the bullpen for a 5-1 win. In sum, the Nationals made just a pair of trades after striking six deals a year ago, keeping a handful of controllable relievers (because the offers weren’t right) and veteran hitters (because they spent the past four months playing themselves out of the market). Washington shipped out Juan Soto and Josh Bell in a blockbuster with the San Diego Padres. They sent utility man Ehire Adrianza to the Atlanta Braves a day earlier. That netted seven players in shortstop C.J. Abrams, left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore, outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood, first baseman Luke Voit and right-handed pitcher Jarlin Susana from the Padres; and outfielder Trey Harris from the Braves.

A look at the players the Nationals are getting in the Juan Soto trade

Could that be a longer list? Certainly. As the deadline approached, the Nationals had discussions about relievers Kyle Finnegan and Carl Edwards Jr., among others, according to multiple people familiar with the process. On Tuesday night, Manager Dave Martinez told reporters there was interest in a few of their bullpen arms. But they decided the returns were not worth it for pitchers who could return in 2023 and beyond. Edwards, 30, is under control for next season. Finnegan, also 30, is for the next three and has been the club’s best reliever. But while they had at least some chance to be moved — as did righties Steve Cishek and Victor Arano — they’re not what held Washington from a bigger deadline.

Or at the least, they’re not the main reasons the last few hours were quieter than expected.

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Those would be designated hitter Nelson Cruz and second baseman César Hernández. Notice there were no hitters in the contingency plans. Cruz and Hernández were traded in July 2021 for players who have pitched in the majors this year. Both were signed by the Nationals with the idea of flipping them for prospects. But entering Tuesday, both were underperforming compared to their 2021 seasons. The differences are drastic.

Cruz in 346 plate appearances before he was dealt from the Minnesota Twins to the Tampa Bay Rays in July 2021: .294 batting average, .370 on-base percentage, .537 slugging percentage (for a .908 on-base-plus-slugging percentage) with 19 homers.

Cruz, 42, in 389 plate appearances before going o for 3 with a walk against the Mets on Tuesday: .233 average, .315 on-base percentage, .346 slugging percentage (for a .661 OPS) and eight homers.

Hernández in 420 plate appearances before he was dealt from the Cleveland Guardians to Chicago White Sox in July 2021: .231 average, .307 on-base percentage, .431 slugging percentage (for a .738 OPS) and a career-high 18 homers.

Hernández in 447 plate appearances before he went 1 for 3 with a triple against the Mets on Tuesday: .240 average, .304 on-base percentage, .304 slugging percentage (for a .608 OPS) with zero homers.

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With the first set of numbers, Cruz helped the Twins get Joe Ryan, their Opening Day starter in April. With the second, he remains on a roster that will have three or four designated hitters when Voit arrives, depending on whether the Nationals option Meneses to make room for a player who has big league experience with the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees and Padres. Cruz will finish his one-year, $15 million contract in D.C.

With his first set of numbers, Hernández helped the Guardians get Konnor Pilkington, a right-hander who has logged 45⅓ innings for Cleveland in 2022. With the second, he could soon be bumped from a starting job if the Nationals promote Abrams in the near future and slide Luis García to second. Unless the Nationals designate him for assignment, he will finish his one-year, $4 million contract here.

Nats trade Juan Soto to Padres, a seismic move for the sport and franchise

Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, spoke with reporters at around 4 p.m. Tuesday. When asked whether he had more trades in him, he joked that’s why he had to speed up the news conference and get back to the front office’s war room. Two hours later, though, the Nationals stood pat with the rest of the roster. There’s a chance Garrett or Thompson won’t have traveled for nothing; Washington could swap them onto the roster for an overworked reliever. The business is cold like that. Sometimes there is nothing more important than a fresh arm.

But in a cold business, two plane tickets should be a reminder of a deadline that brought in a lot of talent and could have landed more. That wasn’t because of decisions Washington made after parting with Soto and Bell. It was because of offseason signings that were a combination of unlucky and miscalculated — and maybe a conservative approach with a few of their better relievers. And it maybe kept them from marginal adds who might have contributed down the line.

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