What did the Nationals do to deserve scrutiny at this juncture? Absolutely nothing. If someone had signed Blake Snell this week, I would not be working myself up to caring about what the Nats have or have not done this offseason. But when Ben Clemens wrote about the Orioles’ sleepy winter (would that we all had the good fortune to sleep through winter), I found myself casting my gaze southwest, to the next stop on the I-95 corridor.
Because the Orioles at least won 100 games last year. They played in the playoffs. Okay, having witnessed the front end of their ALDS loss in person, “played” is probably too strong a word. “Appeared in” is more like it. But still, there’s a thriving — if perilously under-resourced — ballclub in Baltimore. In Washington, there is but the promise of such, and little evidence thus far of life in the primordial slurry that’s taken up residence in Nationals Park.
After winning the World Series in 2019, the Nationals suffered a championship hangover worthy of The Bonfire of the Vanities in 2020. By 2021, they were already dismantling the core of the championship roster. Anthony Rendon departed for California immediately after the World Series-winning season, to be followed by Adam Eaton after 2020, then Max Scherzer and Trea Turner at the 2021 trade deadline. Ryan Zimmerman retired at the end of 2021.
Most of these departures were necessary; Washington caught lightning in a bottle with a bit of an aging cast, and Turner is the only one of the pre-2022 Nationals castoffs whom they’d want to have back now.
When the Nationals started their fire sale at the 2021 deadline, I offered qualified praise. They had no use, as I said, for most of the players they’d just jettisoned. All that mattered was whether they could restock in time to return to contention by late 2024, when Juan Soto would be a free agent.
See, the Nationals had been clever and aggressive in fielding a consistent championship contender through the 2010s, but it’d be dishonest to pretend that they had not benefited from some extraordinary bounces. They not only had back-to-back no. 1 overall picks, but they’d had those picks in drafts that featured no-doubt generational prospects: Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, respectively. The following year, picking sixth in the best draft for almost 10 years in either direction, they were lucky to land Rendon, who might have been the first player taken if he’d been healthy throughout his college career.
To their credit, they parlayed that good fortune into a decade of winning baseball, and — in contrast to today’s Orioles — supplemented their homegrown all-stars with premium free agents. It took until the very end of the 2010s, and beyond Harper’s tenure with the organization, for it to result in a title, but “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you,” the poet once said.
It was only after yet another future Hall of Famer, Soto, landed in their laps that the Nationals finally won a title. Even during the fire sale of 2021, I not only thought he could be the foundation of the next great Nationals team, I reckoned that such a team could be constructed before Soto decided whether or not to leave Washington when he had the chance.
Less than 12 months later, Washington traded Soto too. A week before the deal, I called Soto the most valuable player ever put on the trade block in baseball history, comparable to Wayne Gretzky when the Edmonton Oilers traded him to Los Angeles in 1988.
The 2021 fire sale and the Soto trade, put together, netted 19 players for Washington. One of them, Luke Voit, was in town long enough to find out that the real good stuff in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s collection is actually in the annex out by Dulles, but not long enough to actually go and visit it. Here’s what’s become of the other 18 players:
Fruits of the Fire Sale
|Status, End of 2023
|Hasn’t pitched since 2021, unranked as prospect
|151 G, .245/.300/.412, 2.1 WAR
|Released from Double-A
|11 G, .286/.375/.464, 0.2 WAR, No. 9 team prospect
|Released from Double-A
|No. 1 prospect in Nats system, No. 2 global
|Low-A, No. 11 team prospect
|30 GS, 159 IP, 3.91 ERA, 1.6 WAR
|27 GS, 136 1/3 IP 4.42 ERA, 1.3 WAR
|51 G, 54 IP, 5.50 ERA, 0.5 WAR
|Robert Hassell III
|Double-A, No. 10 team prospect
|Missed all of 2023 with Tommy John
|Finished 2023 at Triple-A, unranked as prospect
|136 G, .260/.308/.409, 0.0 WAR
|157 G, .258/.315/.468, 2.7 WAR
|17.2 IP across three levels, unranked as prospect
|44 G, .273/.331/.476, 0.4 WAR
|Terone Harris III
|67 G, .249/.323/.343 at age 27 in Double-A
Red: Currently on 40-man roster
Blue: No longer with team
Yellow: Global Top-100 Prospect
That’s two average starting position players — Thomas and Abrams — probably three, because I don’t think Ruiz will continue to be as terrible going forward as he was in 2023. Plus two decent mid-rotation starters — Gore and Gray — and an absolute tentpole hitting prospect in Wood. And then you’ve got a Quad-A pitcher, some useful catching depth, a couple fringy prospects, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
As disappointing as it is that the likes of Gore, Abrams, and Hassell seem unlikely to reach their ultimate projected upside, the Nats did get more than a few useful big league roster players out of those trades. Enough to justify trading Soto instead of just immuring Scott Boras under a comically large pile of small-denomination bills? No. But some of these guys are OK.
Maybe the 2021-22 trade class can form the supporting cast for better players who are still to come. It’d surprise me if anyone on this list (apart from Wood) made an All-Star team as something more than the pity representative from a last-place team. But Wood is coming. And the Nationals spent their first two picks in the 2023 draft on college bats: The highly hyped LSU outfielder Dylan Crews and Miami third baseman Yohandy Morales. They should move fairly quickly.
But I want you to look at the team control column on that chart. I added it to highlight a problem the Nationals are going to have sooner than they realize. In both the 2021 and 2022 fire sales, they targeted quick-to-the-majors prospects, or even young big leaguers, in the hopes of a relatively rapid reload. Even if Wood and Crews turn out to be two-thirds of an elite outfield, by the time they’re big leaguers, Thomas will be gone, and Abrams, Gore, and Gray will be just a couple seasons from free agency. And the Nationals will have to start all over again.
That’ll be even harder than it sounds. The Nats built their last contender on the strength of lights-out drafting at the top of the first round. This time around, they’re struggling mightily to develop hitters. That organizational weakness has played a part in Abrams and Hassell backing up since they came over from San Diego, and has something to do with the relative paucity of breakout position player prospects.
As far as the top of the first round goes, it’s been a mixed back. Brady House, drafted 11th overall in 2021, looks fine. But Elijah Green, the no. 5 overall pick in 2022, looks like a total writeoff after just a season and a half in the pros. One risk that comes with drafting a prep power bat is the possibility that he’ll swing and miss at professional breaking stuff outside the zone. Green struggles to make contact even within the zone, necessitating a near-unprecedented turnaround if he’s going to make any sort of impact in the major leagues.
Given the Nationals’ meager talent output, both on internal development and through the trade market, it’d make sense for them to supplement their young big leaguers with established help acquired at the major league level. To say that the Rangers just won a World Series by doing this is overstating things, but there are worse role models for a rebuilding team to emulate.
Here is a list of every trade and major league free agent signing the Nationals have made since they got rid of Soto 18 months ago. Every single one:
Major Transactions Since the Soto Deal
|November 29, 2022
|November 29, 2022
|December 9, 2022
|December 20, 2022
|January 3, 2023
|January 10, 2023
|Trade for AJ Alexy
|January 10, 2023
|July 31, 2023
|DJ Herz, Kevin Made
|Trade for Jeimer Candelario
|December 7, 2023
|December 12, 2023
For those of you keeping score, that’s two trades, one of them a my-garbage-for-your-trash deal, the other a trade deadline dump of a player on an expiring one-year contract. And that’s one free agent signed to a multi-year contract: Trevor Williams, who had a 5.55 ERA in the first season of a two-year, $13 million deal.
If the Orioles are asleep, the Nationals resemble another famous motionless bird: They wouldn’t “Voom!” if you put four thousand volts through them.
I think the Nationals have escaped scrutiny because somewhere in 2021, mid-teardown, everyone realized that they were devoting huge resources to Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, two pitchers who were essential for the World Series effort but contributed nothing to the cause since. Those two pitchers are due some $70.4 million in real money in 2024, and count for $58.3 million against the competitive balance tax.
But it seems like “oh, they can’t do anything until the Strasburg and Corbin contracts run out” ossified in popular consciousness three years ago, and nobody bothered to check and see if time marches forward as inexorably in Washington as it does everywhere else. Because Corbin’s deal is up after this year, and Strasburg’s (who is retired in all but name) will be done after 2026.
And even considering how much dead money the Nats are carrying, they are spending absolutely nothing anywhere else on the major league roster. Washington’s estimated luxury tax payroll is $131.5 million, of which almost half is devoted to Corbin and Strasburg.
The Nationals are on track to spend just over $20 million on the stuff that gets marked down as “miscellaneous” in a real team’s budget (minor league salaries, the pre-arb bonus pool, and player benefits) and about $52 million on their actual non-Corbin major league roster.
Usually, writing one of these posts follows a pretty predictable pattern. I come up with a topic and spend several hours thinking about how to frame it. Then I read a little about the players involved, check some stats, run a couple queries, start writing, format a table or two, write some more, and eventually at the end of the day I stumble headlong into a conclusion and end the article.
I don’t have a conclusion here, because after having spent more time inhabiting the mental space of Washington Nationals leadership than I would ordinarily care to, I am left without any idea of what the plan is supposed to be.
The Reds developed two or three standout youngsters and backed into 80 wins with a cheapo payroll, but the Nats can’t do that. They play in a division with two of the three best teams in the NL (the Braves and Phillies), the richest team in either league (the Mets), and a fourth team that made the playoffs last year and has more young talent at or near the major league level (the Marlins).
If the Nationals want to make another run for the pennant before Crews and Wood hit free agency — let alone Gray, Abrams, and the others — they’ll have to get legitimately good, and fast. I don’t know how this organization, as currently constituted, can pull that off.
More likely, this is a pretext for a sale. After the death of owner Ted Lerner last year, we’re into second-generation ownership. Handing things over to Michael, Gob, and Lindsay Bluth has spelled disaster for basically every MLB team that’s been unfortunate enough to lose its owner in the past 20 years.
It’d take franchise-altering investment from some petrostate’s sovereign wealth fund, or some similarly well-heeled new owner, to put the Nats back on track anytime soon. Absent that… hey, maybe the plan was to just fly under the radar indefinitely, hoping nobody noticed an increasingly long string of 90-loss campaigns. In which case, I apologize for screwing with the master plan. It wouldn’t have happened if someone had signed Snell.