On so many levels, the 2022 MLB Trade Deadline was a damning day for the Washington Nationals.
They kicked off the day by trading a franchise icon, and a 23-year-old on a Hall of Fame track in Juan Soto to the San Diego Padres, along with Josh Bell, having not come to an agreement on a long-term extension in the months building up to the trade deadline.
After some hiccups, the deal was confirmed in the afternoon. And then, to follow that up, the Nationals did... nothing else. They weren’t able to make any other trades before the deadline.
The only other trade they made in the meantime was sending Ehire Adrianza to the Atlanta Braves the day before for an outfield prospect, Trey Harris, who is unlikely to see the majors.
In different ways, the fact the front office felt compelled to trade Soto and that there was absolutely no other activity for the Nats at the trade deadline is incredibly disappointing.
Let’s start with Soto. Following the 2019 World Series, if someone had said that the Nationals were going to trade Soto less than three years later, it would’ve been inconceivable.
Even after last year’s trade deadline, where they seemed to focus on getting near-big league-ready players, a trade of Soto wasn’t even crossing many minds. The Nationals were hoping for a quick turnaround, with their talismanic outfielder the key piece to the puzzle.
And this offseason, the Nationals appeared to set about trying to sign Soto long-term.
Their efforts culminated in a 15-year, $440 million extension that Soto and his agent, Scott Boras, turned down, citing the annual average value of $29.3 million, an AVV that would have ranked as just the 15th-highest in the majors, as a major reason for turning it down. There’s also the uncertainty of the franchise’s ownership status weighing into the decision.
It was perfectly reasonable for Soto to turn down that offer with both those things in mind.
Even if Max Scherzer’s $43.3 million AAV was unrealistic because of the three-year term, Soto would have had a convincing case to exceed the likes of Francisco Lindor’s $34.1 million AAV over 10 years and approach Mike Trout’s $35.5 million AAV over 12 years.
But no, the Nationals saw Soto declining that 15-year, $440 million offer as their jumping-off point and started to consider a trade, even though the possibility existed that with the Lerners likely selling the team, a new owner may have wanted to offer more to Soto.
The trade, in isolation, was probably about the best that the Nationals could have hoped for.
They acquired five prospects who all have incredibly high ceilings. CJ Abrams could end up being a 20-40 shortstop. MacKenzie Gore has front-of-the-rotation potential if he can overcome consistency and injury issues. Robert Hassell III and James Wood are tearing it up in the lower minors and are sure to rise up prospect rankings. Jarlin Susana is lighting up box scores and radar guns in rookie ball.
If two of them turn into borderline All-Star caliber players, and another becomes an everyday major leaguer, that puts the Nats in a good spot with regards to building their future core.
None of that is a certainty though, and perhaps maybe not even likely.
What was a certainty was that they had the best hitter in the major leagues, and barring injury, was about as close to a Hall of Fame lock as a 23-year-old could get.
That’s what has to be disheartening for Nationals fans. Soto was must-see baseball and was the type of player fans would tell their kids legendary stories about for the rest of time. And it never felt like the Nationals did everything they could to possibly keep him around.
If a long-term Soto extension was actually impossible, the Nationals are in a better position to rebuild than they were before the deadline. However, the logic in the franchise coming to that conclusion is what can leave fans disillusioned.
After the heartbreak of trading away Juan Soto, and recent fan favorite Josh Bell to go with it, the Nationals were sure to trade away some of the other veteran players, right? Wrong.
The Nationals signed six veterans to one-year deals this offseason: Alcides Escobar, César Hernández, Steve Cishek, Ehire Adrianza, Sean Doolittle, and Nelson Cruz.
They also brought in a bunch of veterans on minor league deals, such as Tyler Clippard, Aaron Sanchez, Dee Strange-Gordon, Carl Edwards Jr., and Víctor Arano.
They had some controllable relievers, who the rest of the league showed there was a market for, notably Kyle Finnegan who has been a dependable late-inning arm for the Nationals.
But the Nationals made no other trades at the trade deadline to bolster a farm system that needs bolstering.
You’re trying to say that nobody offered anything for Cishek, who has actually been serviceable? Or that nobody wanted to bet even a lottery ticket prospect on Cruz or Hernández returning to form?
Maybe they didn’t, but it seems unlikely that there were none at all.
That raises another question though, as if the players they brought in specifically to be traded didn’t garner anything, the front office may need to re-think their offseason strategy.
At the time, it always felt like the Nationals only half-filled in what they needed to with one-year veterans to trade. They could’ve certainly done more, taken more shots on veteran players in the hope that a few turn into enticing trade bait at the deadline.
Now, they have nothing to show from the offseason other than what is set to be a 100-loss season, and the reality of trading away one of a dwindling number of reasons for fans to come to the ballpark.
In the coming months and years, there will undoubtedly be positive stories coming out about how the players acquired in this deadline are performing, and some feel-good moments for players fighting to be a part of the next competitive team in Washington.
Right now though, it’s hard not to reflect on how different things should have played out for the Nationals.