The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nats need to be a destination, not a way station, for their own players

Trea Turner acknowledged the Nationals Park crowd when he returned in May with the Dodgers. Many more visits are in store now that he’s joining the Phillies. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

At some point, it’s too much. Any sort of fun and promising future for the Washington Nationals seems too far off to endure constant reminders that what once was theirs now belongs to the very teams in their division that they’re supposed to despise. In two years, when Juan Soto signs with — inevitably, it seems now — the New York Mets or the Atlanta Braves or the Miami Marlins, maybe the cleanse will be complete.

But for Nats fans, that’s a long way off. The evidence of what once was and what’s left is scattered everywhere — and the Nats are at the bottom of the National League East, sadly holding their hats.

That Trea Turner agreed to an 11-year, $300 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday isn’t particularly surprising, nor is it the direct result of any planning for this (underwhelming) Nationals offseason. But it’s another slap in the face to a fan base that has been bruised for what’s about to be a fourth straight year.

There has to be blame, and it has to be spread around, because the tally is this: Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Turner, Soto and Max Scherzer combined to win an MVP award, two Cy Youngs and two Home Run Derby titles and make 16 all-star appearances wearing Nats uniforms — not to mention the 2019 World Series, which included all but Harper. Other teams have deemed them worth an aggregate of $1.005 billion over 34 seasons — and that’s before Soto becomes a free agent who could make half a billion on his own following the 2024 season.

The commonality: They were once Nats, but they are no longer. In a case-by-case basis, it’s defensible. In totality, it’s unconscionable.

“They’re our guys,” Mike Rizzo, the general manager who oversaw the acquisition and departure of those players, told reporters, including The Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty and Andrew Golden, on Monday at the winter meetings in San Diego. “They’ll always be our guys.”

Then why are they wearing other uniforms? They were your guys. They’re not anymore.

Trea Turner picks the Phillies, foisting more pain on Nationals fans

Is it too much to expect to retain — oh, I don’t know — one of them? Oh, right. They did. That was Strasburg, the 2019 World Series MVP who has thrown 31⅓ innings since he took home that hardware and then signed a seven-year, $245 million contract to remain with Washington. That can be chalked up as misspending and misfortune, but Monday it was nothing short of a twist of the knife to realize Turner will earn $27.27 million per year to play shortstop for the rival Phillies — which is $7.73 million less than Strasburg makes to (currently not) pitch for the Nationals.

“To move on and to get paid that amount of money, for all those guys, couldn’t be happier for them,” Rizzo said in San Diego. “I think it’s a credit to this organization that you’ve had so many impactful players that have been drafted, signed, developed and come through Washington. I think it’s a credit to the guys in the other room — the scouts, the player development guys — that have done it. You look at everything around baseball, you’d be hard-pressed to find an organization that’s had as many impactful … players as us.”

Where, then, are the replacements? “We’re on the verge of turning it over and doing it again,” Rizzo said, and maybe the haul the Nats received for trading, in back-to-back years, Turner and Scherzer to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Soto to the San Diego Padres will prove to be a new core. It had better be, because right now the Nats’ offseason has consisted of signing third baseman Jeimer Candelario and outfielder Stone Garrett.

Excuse me, but … who? Moves such as those might be smart from a baseball perspective, low-risk and cost-effective. But this is a franchise that lost 107 games last season, and that is not just because all of those stars departed. It’s because the hits in scouting and player development have been way too few and far between. Since Rendon was drafted in the first round in 2011, it has been Soto and … Erick Fedde? Victor Robles? Luis García? It’s a desert.

Look, the Nats didn’t enter this offseason as players for Turner — whose acquisition still goes down as perhaps Rizzo’s shrewdest move, a three-team trade of outfielder Steven Souza Jr. in 2014 that landed Turner and pitcher Joe Ross, minor leaguers at the time. But when Turner becomes the third significant former Nat to sign with the team two hours up the road — following Harper and Washington short-timer Kyle Schwarber — and that team is coming off a run to the World Series, the contrast is stark.

That team has committed more than $700 million to free agents since the offseason of 2019-20 — pitcher Zack Wheeler, catcher J.T. Realmuto, outfielders Nick Castellanos and Schwarber and now Turner — and it looks like one team is cheap and one spends, as Phillies owner John Middleton once said, “stupid money.”

The Nationals once spent that kind of money because they were at the right point in their development to do so. Their deal with Jayson Werth heading into the 2011 season could have been called “stupid money” at the time because it seemed like an overpay for a team that wasn’t quite ready. It worked. It’s hard to label the Lerner family, which has owned the team since 2006 but is now trying to sell it, as “cheap” writ large.

But there’s something in the DNA here that hasn’t worked, and it can’t be dismissed by being happy for your former guys who deservedly made their money — elsewhere. Maybe it’s dealing with too many clients of uber-agent Scott Boras, who loves taking his players to free agency and maxing out their value. Turner, though, is represented by CAA, which has a more established history of working out extensions with clubs before its players, including Ryan Zimmerman, reach free agency.

Justin Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young winner, agrees to sign with the Mets

Whatever. At some point, breaking down the reasons each of these guys got away ignores the sum of it all. And the sum is that the Nats have a worst-in-baseball roster with a minor league system that has some promising players but not a flotilla that can survive individual injuries or underperformance.

Sure, if the next core of Nationals is indeed on its way — if CJ Abrams is the shortstop and MacKenzie Gore and Cade Cavalli are anchors to a rotation and Keibert Ruiz is the long-term catcher and on and on — then the plan to rebuild has been correctly evaluated and executed. Fingers crossed.

Mark it all down as not just one big if but as a series of them. More than that, though, is this: The messaging can’t be that it’s great to have talented players come through Washington. Aim higher than that. Get them to stay. Washington should be a destination, not a way station. That’s not what it is and not what it has been — and as the chill of winter approaches, it feels like it could be a long time before it is that again.