This is shaping up be a big news week for the Washington Nationals, maybe the biggest in years, and fans are gearing up for much of that news to be bad, at least in the short term.
After being swept out of Baltimore by the Orioles, the Nationals are 45-53, eight games out of first place in the National League East, even further out of a wild-card spot, and long past time for soul searching.
“I can tell you, everyone is worried about getting traded, everybody is hearing rumors,” Martinez told reporters after Sunday’s 5-4, walk-off loss to Baltimore.
It’s time to carry out a plan. Not just any plan, but a plan that will actually keep the team contending beyond this season, in a division where the only team currently better than .500 is in first place.
But it might not be the all-out fire sale some might want or expect. In fact, the Nats assembled a World Series champion from the wreckage of 2018, the last time they were in this situation.
We can look for clues in the deals the Nats did — and didn’t — make in that difficult time.
General Manager Mike Rizzo kept the team largely intact at the trade deadline, then saw his team implode in the next two weeks, and in August traded away stars Daniel Murphy and Ryan Madson, and reliable first baseman Matt Adams.
The team also traded away pitcher Brandon Kintzler in July and Shawn Kelley in August, although Kintzler’s deal was reported to be punitive, and Kelley’s certainly was.
Rizzo also said at the time that the team was prepared to deal Bryce Harper, who would leave a few months later in free agency, but ownership vetoed a potential deal.
The Nationals were not necessarily stockpiling prospects as much as shedding salary.
Here are some of the the players the team received in July and August 2018 trades: RHP Jacob Condra-Boga, RHP Andrew Istler, 1B KJ Harrison, 3B Gilbert Lara, 2B Andruw Monasterio, and RHP Jhon Romero. Of those still in the Nationals’ system, none is playing higher than Class AA Harrisburg.
The real value in those deals was the financial position it put the team in just a few months later to trade for Yan Gomes and Tanner Rainey and sign free agents, Patrick Corbin, Brian Dozier, and Anìbal Sànchez — all key players in the World Series championship.
So here we are in 2021, with only the COVID-shortened season removed from that championship, and the Nationals are again barely in contention in a division no one is running away with.
First off, don’t get your hopes too high for a prospect haul for Max Scherzer, Juan Soto, or Trea Turner. If the Lerner family nixed trading Harper, they would be at least as antsy about trading Scherzer.
Although he was scratched from his last start Saturday night and said he’s prepared to make his next start on July 29, a trade it not out of the question, but Rizzo would certainly need to get some serious value in return for the three-time Cy Young award winner.
As a 10-year veteran with five years on his current team, Scherzer also has full rights to reject any deal.
Turner and Soto aren’t going anywhere.
Both are still arbitration eligible and playing at bargain salaries for players of their skill level, through 2022 and 2024 respectively. It would be foolish to trade either for anything less than high-priced, major league-ready talent and cash. Even multiple, low-level prospects would not return anything close to Turner’s or Soto’s current value, let alone what they’ll be worth when they hit their peak in four or five years.
A blockbuster deal like that does not make sense for a rebuilding team.
With the MLB collective bargaining agreement expiring after this season, look for the Nats to be more willing to move players who will likely be free agents, and there are plenty of them.
Kyle Schwarber is the top candidate here. Although he is on the injured list with a hamstring strain, his power and impact on a lineup are undeniable. At $7 million for this season with a mutual option next year, Schwarber is the most attractive player on the Nats and will certainly draw offers from teams looking for a big bat in their lineup in September.
Yan Gomes, Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson, and Joe Ross all fit into that category and all have trade value. Ross, coming off the injured list and starting Monday against Philadelphia, could be on showcase there.
Hand could also fetch the Nats some good value. Although he has converted two of only four save opportunities this month, he’s been a victim of inactivity. Earning $10.5 million this season and due for free agency next year, Hand will be enticing for any contending team with bullpen questions.
Gomes, meanwhile, is on the IL with an oblique injury that could prove troublesome, but Martinez said Sunday that Gomes is hitting in the cage again. He’s coming off his second-best season in the majors, and at the time of his injury, Gomes was one of the most consistent bats in the Nats’ lineup at .266/.320/.439.
It’s difficult to write these names as potential trade targets rather than for their game achievements, and it will be even harder for fans to take the news that a favorite player has been dealt. But that’s the business that takes place in every big league city this time of year.
The last time we went through this, the situation looked bleak as some beloved heroes were sent packing. But little did anyone know that the Nats were just a season away from achieving every player and fan’s ultimate dream.
Rizzo put the team in position to make a World Series run by dealing for immediate financial flexibility. Now he has plenty of payroll coming off the books after this season, a new CBA in the offing, and willing customers for some players who probably won’t be around next year, anyway.
So, yes, Nats fans should brace for some uncomfortable news this week, and a couple more months of frustrating baseball in a bad division. But Rizzo and the Nats have enough leverage and opportunity on their side now that this week could also be what sets them off on their next championship run.