The reports of the Nats windows of opportunity closing have been oft-reported, and always inaccurate, be it when Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, or Bryce Harper left. This time, it feels right, the window is closed, and it’s time to open a new one.
The team that was, if not dominant, at least objectively very successful from 2012-2019 is finally gone, a shortened season and a half of another season later. The only remaining impactful players who played significant time during that stretch are Ryan Zimmerman, who is now at best a part-time player, and Stephen Strasburg, who is about to undergo a risky surgery. That time in the life of the franchise is over, and we’ve moved to a new period, win or lose.
Prior to any trades, it wasn’t clear the Nats would be contenders in 2022. With a significant amount of payroll tied to Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, it would be hard, although not impossible, to build a winner. Having Trea Turner would have helped, but they’d need much more. Strasburg’s surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome doesn’t have a great track record of full recovery, so while it’s possible he comes back as the guy he was two years ago, it isn’t anywhere near guaranteed. Corbin, meanwhile, has been ineffective as a starter since 2019, and it isn’t clear he will ever be reliable, or even average, again. This team was always top-heavy, a sort of “stars and scrubs” model, and when two of your handful of stars aren’t any good, it’s hard to win.
That is the context, well that and their 47-55 record entering the last evening before the trade deadline, which allowed Mike Rizzo to make a decision that will change the direction of the franchise: sell, and sell big. Trading Max Scherzer was, sadly, a no brainer. And most everything else in the rest of the fire sale is not only logical, it would be poor management if they didn’t do it.
Rizzo built a team with a significant amount of short-term contracts for veteran players. They were free agents at the end of the year anyway, so getting value for Kyle Schwarber, Daniel Hudson, Brad Hand… Josh Harrison, Yan Gomes… it’s not just desirable, it’s necessary. Outside of Turner, this is exactly what a team needs to do when they are out of it. Trade away guys who are leaving at the end of the year anyway, and focus on the future.
Trading Trea Turner, though, was not necessary, and the fanbase is surely divided on that one. It is however, defensible, and you can choose to buy that or not. I’m a believer, as I wrote earlier, that the next year and half is probably rebuild mode, as they can’t count on Corbin and Strasburg, but won’t be ready to move on from them. Now, maybe everything with those two will work out, but that’s still a longshot. Another year of Trea doesn’t change that, so getting good value for him makes sense.
But what about more than another year of Trea? Signing him to a long-term deal would certainly have been exciting, but it seems like the Nats have pursued that avenue and been rebuffed. Part of this issue is, they might not be willing to offer a $300M / 7 year or so contract to a 30-year-old shortstop, which is what he’ll be at the end of 2021. I’m not sure I’d be willing to do it either, although it’s not a definite no for me either. Like I said, some will think it’s a great idea, others would balk, I’m on the fence.
I’ve seen / heard some talk about this trade being a big indictment of ownership, of Rizzo, etc, and I don’t see that. This isn’t the first time one of their home-grown position players is leaving without a long-term deal, it is the first time they’ve traded one of those guys for real value. If everything else remained as is this year, but they kept Turner, would that be more satisfying? Maybe, I’m not sure. But this team has had a philosophy over the last decade, and its brought real success, including a championship. I can’t fault them too much for having the 4th most wins and 4th most playoff appearances of the last decade, plus a World Series victory as the cherry on top. In other words, if they weren’t gonna keep him then it’s important to get something good for him, and it seems they’ve done that.
The return itself for these trades seem to be quite good. Maybe not earth shattering, and I’ve seen mixed reactions – neither extreme seems to be represented, more like a mix of “they could’ve gotten more” to “this was probably as good of a haul as they could’ve expected”. I’m not great at judging trade value, but I like this assessment from Ben Clemens at Fangraphs:
From the Nats’ standpoint, this feels like a fair return. Again, it’s hard to acquire prospects these days, particularly multiple top 100 prospects in the same deal. Rentals don’t fetch as much as they used to; teams have become more and more averse to surrendering future value for short-term acquisitions. In a surplus value context, the Nationals are coming out ahead, and quite frankly, there probably aren’t other teams who have multiple top 100 prospects they’re willing to trade. The game has swung pretty far towards prospect preservation, at the expense of teams looking to trade veterans at the deadline. It hurts to trade two key cogs from your championship team, but swinging one of the biggest prospect returns in terms of top-end talent since the Chris Archer trade should soften the blow.
That is just one man’s opinion, but it seems kind of the consensus opinion I’ve seen for those on the positive side: basically, it’s about as good of a haul as they could have gotten, although hauls used to be better back in the day.
The question is, where do they go from here? They’ve replenished a depleted farm system, and have a major league roster with a mix of prospects, hopefuls, and a handful of others. They’ll need to play Luis Garcia and Carter Kieboom every day, to see what they’ve got. Tres Barerra should get considerable playing time. Perhaps the new acquisitions from the Dodgers, especially MLB-ready Kiebert Ruiz, may even be up this year.
But that stuff is all tactical, and I’m more of a strategy guy. So let’s talk strategy. The team had freed up a significant amount of payroll, and will be going in to 2022 with the cash to make a splash. And the good news is, the big prospects they got from the Dodgers are going to be ready soon. But there are so many question marks going in to 2022, I’d be wary of trying to “go for it” then. Relying on two rookies to carry a significant load before they’ve had significant playing time is tough, and without knowing what you’re getting from Stras and Corbin, it might be better to focus on going all in to contend in 2023.
That doesn’t mean they should ignore the free agent market this offseason. An anticipatory signing is fine by me, that is, signing someone who you really like, and think will help you win well beyond 2022. Heck, that’s what they did when they surprised everyone by signing Scherzer, back when they still had another year of Jordan Zimmermann in front of them.
I’m not concerned with ownership spending money, they’ve always done it. Despite any laments about not keeping homegrown position players, while the Nationals have been wary of exceeding the luxury cap, they have always been right up next to it, and have made some big free agent acquisitions over the years, from Zim to Scherzer to Stras to Corbin.
My concern now is singular. Ok, well I am concerned that the youngters won’t develop, Corbin and Stras are done, and they’ll flounder for 4 or 5 years or longer, instead of 1 or 2. But that aside, my concern is about Juan Soto. Soto is a transcendent player, there is no equivalent. They have tried to sign some of their great position players, but have failed every time, and tried might well be wrapped in quotation marks. Soto is exception, he is young, and they should be all in on signing him for a decade. Unfortunately, while I have plenty of faith that this team will contend again in a relatively short timeframe, I do not have faith that they will hold on to Soto. But if there is ever a player they should do that with, it is Juan Soto.
It is time for this team to open a new window of opportunity, with new players. A few of those players may well have been in this system a month ago, certainly a few of them were just acquired, and some will join in free agency in the next year or two. And, of course, they will all be led by Juan Soto