So in the end, it’s Dusty vs. Bryce. Pick a side, Washington.
Dusty Baker, managing the juggernaut Houston Astros, against Bryce Harper, slugging the Philadelphia Phillies into the World Series. For an October without the Washington Nationals — because they finished 46 games out of the division lead, a mere 32 out of a wild-card spot — there sure were a lot of Washington Nationals.
Just five seasons ago, Baker managed Harper in the former’s final season in Washington, a season in which the team won 97 games (or 42 more than it did this year, but who’s counting?) and Harper both drove in and scored 100 runs. That followed Baker’s 95-win Nationals debut in which Harper was playing at an MVP level before he slipped on a wet base in August, curtailing his campaign.
It all seems a lifetime ago, though we’re seeing it with fresh eyes. Baker has moved on to overhaul the Astros’ image, now has his second pennant in a row — and is seeking his first World Series title. There should be no debate about whether he needs to accomplish anything else to get to Cooperstown. He’s a Hall of Famer.
Harper has become the Phillies’ engine, an MVP contender every time he reports to spring training. In early 2019, he signed a 13-year, $330 million deal that moved his home ballpark 147 miles up Interstate 95. He has owned this October. In 11 postseason games, he has 11 extra-base hits and 11 RBI. He is hitting .419 and slugging .907. His eighth-inning homer in Sunday’s fifth game of the National League Championship Series — his fifth bomb of the playoffs — sent the San Diego Padres home and lifted the Phillies to their first pennant since 2009.
Still, in certain corners, there has to be some sense that they shouldn’t be in opposite dugouts. They should be wearing the same uniform — the one with the curly “W” on the hat.
This has extended throughout the postseason. The leading characters from the Nationals 2019 World Series championship team included Max Scherzer, who started Games 1 and 7, and Soto, who homered three times. Earlier this month, those two faced each other in the first round — Scherzer wearing the blue and orange of the New York Mets, Soto the brown and yellow of the Padres.
For Washington fans, it’s hard to overstate how disconcerting it is. It would be one thing for Harper to be a Phillie or Soto to be a Padre or Scherzer to be a Met or Trea Turner to be a Dodger. But for all of them to be the case and for that not even to include the fact that Anthony Rendon is a Los Angeles Angel? That’s a lot to handle.
Free agency is part of baseball. Trades are part of baseball. Rebuilding — or, as Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo prefers to put it, “rebooting” — is part of baseball.
Even if you accept each of those things as true, it’s hard to square the entirety of it all. The only way is to go through it, case by case. So at the risk of opening old wounds, here we go.
Start with Baker because chronologically he came first. In the middle of the 2017 season, Rizzo was adamant that the club would take care of its skipper, who was in the midst of winning back-to-back division titles. Instead, Baker publicly explained his dissatisfaction to The Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes, which didn’t sit well with ownership. And when the Nats faced a postseason crisis around Stephen Strasburg’s availability for a rain-delayed Game 4 of the division series against the Chicago Cubs, Baker went rogue and said Tanner Roark would start the next day. The dust settled, and Strasburg took the ball, but it was a lot of dust — and the Nats didn’t extend Baker.
Then there was Harper, whose trudge toward free agency concluded with what was a joyless 2018 season in which both he and the Nats underperformed. At the trade deadline, Rizzo had a deal in place to send Harper to, of all teams, the Astros. Mark Lerner, by then the team’s managing principal partner, couldn’t stomach it.
Harper stayed, received a 10-year, $300 million offer with significant deferred payments, didn’t counter it, met with the Lerners in Palm Springs, Calif., on the day before Christmas Eve, got an offer for less money and more deferrals, and moved on to the Phillies for $330 million over 13 years. Who’s at fault there? That debate could outlast the existence of the franchise.
Next up is Rendon, a force in the 2019 postseason who never seemed fully settled or satisfied in Washington. Given a choice between keeping Strasburg or Rendon that offseason, Rizzo would have preferred the third baseman, if only because he plays every day. Scott Boras, the agent for both, shrewdly got Ted Lerner to pay up for Strasburg. Both received seven years and $245 million. One contract hamstrings the Nationals. The other hamstrings the Angels.
But Strasburg’s inability to pitch is more important — because it pertains to the franchise’s current state — than Rendon’s injuries and lagging performance elsewhere. If Strasburg weren’t hurt, the 2021 Nationals may not have found themselves 47-55, in fourth place and losers of six of eight games July 30. They were eight games out in the NL East and trending in the wrong direction. Scherzer, 37 years old and on an expiring contract, was an obvious choice to trade. Turner, a year-and-a-half from free agency, represented a full-on overhaul.
Turner played in two postseasons with the Dodgers. He is a free agent now. That same deadline shipped out a then-injured Kyle Schwarber to Boston and reliever Hand to Toronto. It was both an explosion and a precursor. That Schwarber and Hand joined Harper with the Phillies offers only more reminders.
Finally, Soto. To my mind, he is better than them all. To my mind, the Nationals should have offered him $500 million over 13 years. Instead, they proposed $440 million over 15. What’s clear, according to people with knowledge of the situation: the fact that the Lerner family is exploring a sale of the franchise affected this situation. Prospective ownership groups wanted Soto’s circumstances resolved one way or another — extended or ended. First baseman Josh Bell was sent out west with Soto. The Nats have six new players. It can be both logical and devastating.
There’s a road map, without revisionist history, to how an October with no Washington Nationals became an October littered with ex-Nats. The championship will go to either Baker or Harper, once leading characters in Washington, now wearing uniforms that are no longer new. And an October in which current Nationals participate seems far off.