In the summer of 2016, the New York Yankees faced a crossroads. The team hadn’t won more than 90 games in four years and was on a similar path July 1 when it woke up with a 39-40 record. New York had acquired closer Aroldis Chapman and second baseman Starlin Castro over the offseason to supplement an aging roster for one last playoff run, but its efforts fell flat.
General manager Brian Cashman was forced to consider the unthinkable: Could the Yankees be sellers at the trade deadline? This was a franchise that had a reputation for always being in the thick of contention. Its last 100-loss season came in 1912. Losing wasn’t in its DNA.
But the unthinkable happened. Chapman was traded to the Chicago Cubs. Set-up man Andrew Miller was shipped to the Cleveland Indians. Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova were moved in August waiver deals and the Yankees eventually finished fourth in the AL East.
The following year, New York won 91 games and made it to Game 7 of the ALCS. It secured 100 victories last season and is on pace for even more in 2019. Those moves brought back key contributors in Gleyber Torres and Adam Warren while providing trade pieces that highlighted future packages for James Paxton and J.A. Happ.
The Washington Nationals are at a similar crossroads. Following a four-game sweep at the hands of the lowly New York Mets, the team is 19-31 and 10 games back of the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East. A myriad of issues ranging from the home bullpen in right field to the manager’s office inside the clubhouse have contributed to this slow start and there appears to be no simple fix.
Now, no decision needs to be made just yet. It’s still May and the club could conceivably turn things around if a few relievers start to pitch like their former selves and the injury bug stays away from the nation’s capital. But every loss sends Washington deeper into the NL East basement and sooner or later the pit is going to be too deep to climb out of.
And yet, the decision to throw in the towel isn’t just about the 2019 season anymore. The NL East has grown into one of the more competitive divisions in baseball and that’s not going to change anytime soon considering both the Phillies and Atlanta Braves just finished full-scale rebuilds. Washington has the stars to compete with them but lacks depth and a supporting cast to keep it in the running.
Enter the 2016 Yankees, who had been playoff contenders but just weren’t able to get over the hump. The front office knew it had young talent coming up the pipeline but employed several valuable players near the end of their contracts. So rather than a full rebuild, New York took advantage of a seller’s market and retooled its roster with the future in mind.
The Nationals don’t have many players down on the farm outside Carter Kieboom who project to make much of an impact at the major-league level by next season, but they do have young stars Juan Soto and Victor Robles with whom to build around. Factor in their three-headed monster of expensive yet dominant starting pitchers as well as Kieboom and Trea Turner, and that gives Washington a pretty solid foundation. There’s no need to blow up the entire roster and start over — instead, a Yankees-esque rebuild would be the best and quickest course to returning to World Series contender status.
Several of the Nats’ quality players are nearing the ends of their contracts. Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick are free agents after this season. Sean Doolittle has a team option for 2020 and Adam Eaton is under team control through 2021. Gerardo Parra and Matt Adams are signed to cheap deals.
Washington could afford to part ways with all these names and still be a contender again within a year or two.
Rendon would net the strongest return, giving the Nats a key piece to use as leverage for a high-upside pitching prospect alongside two or three other players. Although GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 The Fan that the team is “aggressively” trying to sign its star third baseman to a long-term extension, there’s no reason to believe a midseason trade would prevent it from eventually doing so — something the Yankees did with Chapman. Being moved to another contender would be in Rendon’s best interest anyway, as it would allow him to compete for a World Series and eliminate the burden of a qualifying offer in free agency.
Doolittle and Eaton would also be valuable pieces given their team-friendly contracts. In total, the Nats could add anywhere from five to eight additional farmhands with just a few of these moves. The quick step back would allow the Nationals to reload in order to compete with the Braves and Phillies in the long term.
Both of the aforementioned clubs were named in the top 10 of ESPN’s farm system rankings entering this year, which gives them the reinforcements to add depth midseason from within their respective organizations if needed. The Nationals would gain that luxury and be able to use the deeper farm system to bolster its major-league roster via trades over the offseason. And even if the team isn’t ready next year, its next crop of prospects in Luis Garcia, Wil Crowe, Tim Cate and Yasel Antuna should be close to the majors by 2021.
The decision to “tank” for this season would also help in the long term, as the Nats would gain a top pick in next year’s amateur draft. As things stand right now, Washington would have the fourth pick in the draft. In addition, ownership already made resetting the luxury tax a priority over the offseason, so the team could spend more in free agency next winter without having to worry about the penalties.
This has been a tough season for the Nationals and their fans. It’s hard to imagine this is how ownership hoped things would go after Bryce Harper departed for Philadelphia. But while it would take swallowing a bit of pride, a retool might be the best thing to keep Washington afloat in the National League moving forward.