The big dates in Washington baseball history roll off the tongues of the city’s baseball fans. Many are paved into the walkway leading up to the home plate entrance to Nationals Park, from 1859, when the city’s first professional baseball team was founded, to 2008, when the ballpark opened.
Still others are etched in our hearts, like Stephen Strasburg’s major league debut on June 8, 2010, and the World Series championship on Oct. 30, 2019.
Will July 16, 2022, when the Nationals started playing playing contract hardball with Juan Soto, or July 17, 2022, when they elected outfielder Elijah Green with the fifth selection in the amateur draft, find their way onto that honored timeline?
Soto, the team’s 23-year-old All-Star, turned down a reported $440 million over 15 years, less than he’ll likely make on the open market.
Now we’re waiting to learn whether the Nationals will make him another offer or trade him, two and a half seasons before he can become a free agent.
In a city where Ryan Zimmerman became a hometown hero and spent his entire career with the Nats after he was a No. 1 draft choice (2005), it would be nice to see a beloved superstar like Soto follow a similar career path.
But the Nationals are apparently ready to sell high on a player they signed as an amateur free agent in 2015, rather than become the first team to sign a player to a $500 million deal.
So it really isn’t much surprise that Nationals fans are preparing to endure the loss of yet another player touted as a generational talent because the the Nats offered him less than he would make on the free-agent market.
This is a team with a history of letting players it develops walk away, and It hasn’t always clearly worked out in the team’s favor.
The Nationals traded for Alfonso Soriano in 2005, then let him walk away after his 46 homer/41 steal season in 2006 for an eight-year, $136 million deal from the Chicago Cubs.
Soriano went on to hit 181 homers and steal 70 bases in seven seasons as a Cub and play in the postseason his first two years in Chicago.
The Nats selected Jordan Zimmermann in 2007 with a compensatory draft pick for losing Soriano.
The team signed Max Scherzer as a free agent for seven years and $210 million before the 2015 season.
Zimmermann walked away as a free agent afterward, signing with Detroit for five years and $110 million, following a Nationals’ career that included 70 wins, the team’s first no-hitter in 2014, and two postseason finishes.
Zimmermann wasn’t quite the same in Detroit, going 25-41 with a 4.83 ERA. and did not return to the postseason.
Ian Desmond played more than 900 games for the Nationals after the organization drafted him in 2004, and was part of the veteran core of the club’s first postseason teams in 2012 and 2014.
He walked away as a free agent following the 2015 season after rejecting a reported seven-year, $107 million contract extension.
Desmond had a hard time finding a new team and actually took a pay cut, from $11 million to $8 million. That was all he could get on a one-year deal from Texas, where he had to move to center field, yet put together a .285/.335/.446 All-Star season that ended in the Division Series.
Desmond parlayed that into a five-year, $70 million deal from Colorado that included postseason appearances in 2017 and 2018.
Desmond opted out of the COVID-shortened 2020 season and walked away from the final year of his contract.
The next, and biggest to date, home-grown talent to leave as a free agent was Bryce Harper, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010.
He walked away after the 2018 season, rejecting $300 million over 10 years before cashing in with the Phillies for $330 million over 13 seasons.
Harper has been successful with the Phillies, including his second MVP season last year, but has yet to return to the postseason.
Then there are 2019 World Series veterans Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner.
Rendon, a first-round selection in 2011, No. 6 overall out of Rice, bolted from the Nats after helping them win the Series.
After seven seasons with a cumulative .859 OPS and 136 homers, Rendon reportedly rejected a seven-year deal worth between $210 million and $215 million and accepted a seven-year, $245 million contract in Anaheim, where injuries ended 2021 and 2022 early.
Rendon was also involved in a brawl with the Seattle Mariners and faces suspension when he returns from his injury for hitting the Mariners’ Jesse Winker with his non-injured left hand while his injured right one was in a cast.
Turner, who came to the Nationals via trade, not the draft, was apparently never offered a long-term contract extension before the Nationals traded him last year in a franchise-altering deal.
After seven years in Washington that included three postseasons, the 2019 World Series and an All-Star appearance in 2021, the Nationals sent Turner to Los Angeles Dodgers with Max Scherzer for Josiah Gray, Keibert Ruiz, Donovan Casey, and Gerardo Carrillo.
So now, with the Nationals trailing all of baseball at the All-Star break and the team for sale, its value could depend on whether Soto is an asset.
So Mike Rizzo is starting out what could be his final 12 months as general manager by possibly settling that issue before the deal is drawn up, let alone closed.
Soto hit his 20th homer in his final at-bat of the first half of 2022, setting himself up as a big story in the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game.
Will he be part of an even bigger story this week?
Will we know by Aug. 2 whether Soto will be the centerpiece of the Washington Nationals?
Or will he be just another superstar who moved on from Washington because the Nationals wouldn’t pay him what he’s worth?