The Nats' true talent hole (and what it means for Soto extension strategy)

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest challenge for Nats management right now is understanding, accepting and acting on a real appreciation of just how deep a talent hole the current Nationals squad is in. Overall the 2021 team was 65-97...but that doesn't tell the true tale of the current roster since the Nats nose-dived after the big selloff. While the kids had their moments, the post-selloff Nationals were clearly a Very Bad, Not Good Baseball Team. How bad? They ended on an 18-42 pace, which projects out (rounding UP) to a 49-113 record. Three games *behind* the 2021 Orioles.

It's possible if one puts on some serious rose-colored glasses to call the 2022 Nats a 75 win team. Astonishingly, that's what Fangraphs is currently projecting.

But Fangraphs has to make multiple happy projections *to get the Nats to 75 wins in 2022.* Corbin and Strasburg are effect 2.5+ WAR pitchers with over 150 innings each. Ross holds up for 91 innings. Cade Cavalli comes up for 55 innings of big league work. Robles bounces back to be a +0.8 WAR player while Kieboom turns in a +1.4 WAR effort at 3B (and occasional SS!). For comparison. Robles was -0.5 WAR in 2021 and CK -0.7 CK turns in a +2 WAR improvement as part of the effort to push the Nats up to 75 wins.

Bottom line: it takes a LOT of happy projections to get the Nats to around a 75 win team in 2022. A 70-win team in 2022 seems a more logical projection barring a major (and very unexpected) free-agent splash after the CBA shenanigans are resolved. If one takes +10 wins/season as a steep but achievable improvement curve for the Nats, a 70-win 2022 squad can be the foundation of an 80-win team in 2023 and (if all goes well) a 90-win projected contender in 2024 (right before Soto hits free agency).

This matters because if the team feels they have to build a competitive team by 2024 to convince Soto to sign...well, the team should understand and accept it will take 2-3 high priced free agents plus a lot of positive player development without major setbacks to get to 90 wins by 2024. Making a +20 win jump (50 to 70 in 2022) followed by +10/year for two years assumes some major talent infu$ion to the existing base even with the kids largely panning out. It's a high risk approach because it puts a very short timeline to climb out of a very deep talent hole.

Which is why I really hope the Nats offer Soto a 17-year/$500M contract right after the CBA is resolved. Few if any deferements. This would take Soto through his age 39 season--hey, Soto's comps are Ted Williams, and Teddy Ballgame hit .388 at age 39. Just saying. That's just under a $30M AAV, though if Soto wants to make it a 15/500 for $33.3M AAV the Nats say yes. At least in the vastly unlikely event they ask me, anyway. :)

If Soto accepts, the 2022 team may be a 65-70 win team (the extra +$10-15M offered Soto above his likely 2022 arbitration value of ~$17M would take away resources from signing other 2022 free agents). But the team will have bought a lot of fan patience with that investment and can be very much focussed on building long term a team that is rising in 2024 and very very good in Soto's prime years (2024-2029 are his age 25-29 seasons). In the meantime, we can enjoy buyihg tickets to watch Juan and cheer on the kids (most of whom, like Ruiz, Gray, Thomas, Robles and CK, are all OLDER than Soto!).

And if Soto declines a $500M offer...well, that puts the Nats facing tough decisions. One of which is that the Nats should (once it's clear the answer is "no") let Soto/Boras know the Nats will publicly put that offer on the table and make it clear it's Soto that is choosing not to sign. The Nats (like most teams and for that matter players) do not generally negotiate in public. But I think for the sake of their relationship with the fan base the Nats would need to go public in this case.

Another big decision is deciding what team building approach to use given effective confirmation Soto is opting to test the market in 2025 as a free agent. Two "back of the envelope" options are

1) Try to dig out of the very, very deep talent hole by 2023-2024 in a bid to "win while we've got him"/convince Soto to stay (with absolutely no guarantees he'll do so even if the Nats ARE a 90-win squad with an open window ahead of them for 2025-2029. Indeed, signing 2-3 high priced free agents to make the team competitive enough for Soto to "want to stay" would by definition make it that much more challenging to win the 2025 bidding war for Soto's long term services.

The pain here is if the team "goes for it" and then realizes circa summer 2024 (or even 2023) that It Ain't Happening the team would face a much-reduced prospect haul for a Soto "rental" sell-off in 2024 (or even one full year of Juan Soto, which still would generate a much reduced prospect package as well as *seriously* angering/frustrating the fan base). OR

2) Plan on trading Soto in 2022 or during the 2022-23 offseason (two years left) for the best package of prospects they can get (and two years of Soto plus the inside track to extend him should pull in a pretty darned good package of players and prospects).

Hilariously, this approach *could* end up with the Nats being the team that wins the 2025 bidding war for Soto using all those prospects to make the case the team will be competitive long term. The team shouldn't count on that, obviously. Particularly if going public that Soto turned down a $500M offer annoys Soto, though rationally it really shouldn't. People aren't rational, after all. And Soto might well extend with the team that traded for him. So yes, trading and re-signing Soto would be a long-shot indeed. It would still be funny.

The key part of any Nationals plan for how to approach Soto is making an accurate projection of what the Nationals current talent level is. Yes, the Nats have some decent prospects. But it's not like the team has even reached an MLB average farm system. A team that loves its own prospects (which most teams/fan bases do) should still avoid kidding itself about its current talent level.

Even with Soto operating at full power, Escobar being a functional major leaguer, Thomas surprising almost everyone, Rogers coming off of the Orioles scrap heap to be a 5th-starter AND Ruiz looking good the post-selloff 2021 Nationals project out as a terrible, awful, not good at all 50-win ballclub for a full season. A 50-win ballclub with some negative regression possible as well as positive.

That brutal truth means it takes some heroic assumptions to get this squad to more than 70 wins in 2022. Which would still leave the team needing +10 win/year jumps for two more years to get to the "90 wins and see what happens" level in 2024. That's a very, very steep hill to climb to try to "win while we've got Soto" with no guarantees we'll keep Soto after 2024 as part of a longer term window. "High risk, moderate gain."

Or aim for "Moderate risk, high gain" longer term rebuild with a much better chance that the window once opened will stay that way. Preferably with Soto a lifetime National, absolutely--hence making a massive, record-setting offer that breaks every MLB salary record out there. Then build a team that is aimed to be at full power in Soto's prime of 2024-2030 (and pretty good along with Soto in 2030+).

And if Soto choose not to accept a $500M offer (which he has every right to do)? In that case, going public with the $500M offer at least puts it on the table for the fan base that it's Soto's choice not to stay rather than the Nationals. Trading Juan would still be a hit to the fan base, no question. But at least it would be defendable if the Nationals were able to get 2-3 blue chip prospects as well as 1-3 lottery tickets in the process--and they'd almost certainly have to trade Soto before the 2023 season to get something like that.

If the Nats are looking to open up a new multi-year window, they need to realize the current team and farm system is a lot closer (and possibly UNDER) its 2008-2009 nadir than its 2011 rising squad. But the Nationals do have one true gem of an asset in Juan Soto as a player to either build around for a terrific 2024-2030+ window or someone whose trade value could boost the team into competition in 2025+.

The key is Soto. Which is why now (okay, fine, as soon as the CBA is resolved) is the time to put down a record-smashing $500M offer to Soto. Either way he goes, his answer tells the team what team-building approach makes the most sense long term. The Nats just cashed in one window with a world title. Huzzah!

But the Nats (including us, the Loyal Fans) should also realize it took an eight-year competitive window to seize that title. Once they know (and only if they know) Soto's answer will they be able to decide the best way to leverage Soto's massive talents to open up another long window of championship contention for your Washington Nationals.

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