It’s only mid-May, but given how the Washington Nationals have started the 2019 season, there’s already talk of their potential activity at the trade deadline.
Last year, the Nats held firm at the July trade deadline as they continued to hover around .500, before a mini sell-off in August via waivers. But in that sell-off, they only traded away players on expiring contracts in the hopes they could compete again this season.
Well, things don’t look good on the competing front this season given the team’s 19-28 record and the fact they haven’t been able to string more than two wins in a row. If things continue this way, a bigger sell-off could be looming this July.
Joel Sherman of the New York Post recently wrote about the Nationals potentially facing the reality of being sellers at this year’s singular trade deadline.
“The Nationals can learn much from what occurred just three seasons ago as they cope with being the majors’ most disappointing team for a second straight year,” Sherman said, comparing the Nats possible deadline activity to the New York Yankees of 2016.
“For if they continue on this path as the trade deadline approaches, they must be more decisive than 2016, recognize that selling does not mean rebuilding.”
It might be a tough pill for the front office and fans to swallow, but it’s the cruel reality of a second straight year of underachievement. And there are plenty of players who could find themselves on the trade block.
The most notable is Anthony Rendon, who is headed for free agency this winter. In All-Star form this season, you would think that if the Nats are out of contention and can’t get an extension done, they may get a similar return to the one Manny Machado netted last year.
Sherman mentions Rendon in his article. After the Nats botched not trading Bryce Harper, it would make sense should extension talks stall. Other players on expiring contracts, like Howie Kendrick and Brian Dozier, could also be dealt to avoid losing them for nothing.
But the other main name that Sherman thinks the Nats should trade is Max Scherzer, which would be a peculiar trade to make.
“Scherzer is everything the Nats hoped,” Sherman said. “The Yankees, Astros, Padres, Twins, Brewers and Dodgers — every contender with a deep system — would be bidding against each other to get a Hall of Famer for three pennant races.”
However, trading Scherzer makes very little sense for the Nationals, no matter their record at the deadline. By trading one of the best pitchers in the game, you’re sending a message that you don’t plan to compete for the last two and a half years of his contract.
If the Nats are way out of the pennant race in July, they have no reason to completely blow it up.
They still have an incredibly solid core with Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Trea Turner, Carter Kieboom, Patrick Corbin, and Stephen Strasburg all signed through 2022.
With that potential core, which may be boosted if you bring back Rendon in free agency, you have the chance to win a lot of games. You just need to right complementary pieces and perhaps a new management team to take the team forward from this dismal spell.
The argument that Sherman and others have made for trading Scherzer is that the Nats may be looking at a haul of top prospects for their prized right-hander.
“If you ever took him to market, you would get an unholy haul for him,” one NL executive told Sherman about Scherzer’s trade value.
“For a win-now team, he is a franchise changer. All your best prospects have to be available despite his age,” a second NL executive told Sherman.
That’s all well and good in theory, but when we factor in the money that Scherzer is due over the next two and a half seasons, teams may not be quite as willing.
Including deferred money, Scherzer is owed over $105 million between 2019 and 2021.
The closest recent trade comparison that factors in significant money is the deal that sent Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros.
Yes, at the time, Verlander wasn’t quite at the peak of his powers like Scherzer is right now, but considering the best prospect they got back was someone in the middle of Top 100 prospect rankings, it helps gauge what the return for Scherzer might be.
For the Nats to even consider dealing their ace, assuming they want to compete again soon, they would need a haul close to the one the Chicago White Sox got for Chris Sale.
The lefty had three years of team control worth $39.5 million left on his deal. The White Sox received the top prospect in all of baseball Yoan Moncada, a top five pitching prospect in Michael Kopech, outfield prospect Luis Alexander Basabe, and a low-level prospect to boot.
So perhaps the eventual haul the Nats could get for Scherzer lies somewhere in the middle of the Sale and Verlander packages. Teams such as the Twins, Astros, and Padres have the prospect collateral, to offer a pair of top 30-40 overall prospects to base the deal on.
Neither of those packages is close to fully paying off yet, nor do they appear to be heavily weighted to the selling team so far. The Sale trade was three years ago and the Verlander trade will be two-years-old this summer. Not exactly the quick turnaround the Nats need.
It’s also unlikely a team would go high enough prospect-wise given the money owed to the three-time Cy Young award winner. The teams suggested are hardly big spenders after all.
Maybe if the Nats ate a large chunk of money in the deal, it could work it. But that would then limit their ability to build a team in the next few years.
That would be fine for a team like the Tigers or White Sox who had to sell and go deep into a rebuild given the lack of talent on both teams. The Nats don’t have to blow it up.
The final factor the Nats would have to consider is the PR perspective. This team went through one PR disaster with the whole Harper saga, and another is looming if they let Rendon walk without much of an effort to retain him. Could they handle a third?
Attendance is already significantly down at Nats Park this season due to the poor performance, but Scherzer always draws a crowd and has the aura about him the fanbase loves. That’s not easy to let go without a surefire win in a trade.
As things stand, Scherzer is almost a slam dunk to be the Nationals’ first Hall of Famer when he eventually retires. But a trade and possible World Series win could change that. It’s among the smaller concerns of a potential trade, but one that needs to be weighed up too.
Yes, selling at the trade deadline looms as a very real possibility for the Nationals.
Expiring contracts such as Rendon and Kendrick may need to be moved. More replaceable cost-controlled players like Adam Eaton and Kyle Barraclough could also be traded with good reason.
But Scherzer should remain untouchable unless a true king’s ransom is coming the Nationals way for him. That seems unlikely, so hopefully, the Nats don’t feel pressured to do something they could easily regret.