Bryce Harper. Anthony Rendon. Trea Turner. Max Scherzer. Juan Soto. The Washington Nationals have a superstar problem, but why?
A year ago the Washington Nationals fanbase was dealt a massive blow — having to witness franchise icons Max Scherzer and Trea Turner being shipped out to the Dodgers at the trade deadline. Within the blink of an eye, Washington traded eight players, including 2019 World Series key contributors Yan Gomes and Daniel Hudson, for a plethora of prospects.
The trades hurt, but the franchise had backed itself into a corner due to a decade of bad contracts, lackluster drafting, and a lack of player development. Mix that with an aging roster and a rebuild was the only way for the team to eventually return to relevance. Instead of fighting the inevitable, President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo and company finally realized their window was slammed shut and relented.
Washington’s plan moving forward was to rebuild around superstar Juan Soto, with 2024 as the year the team wanted to return to contention. But as sports fans know all too well, not everything goes as planned. Soto rejected two contract extensions, with the most recent being a 15-year deal worth $440 million. The low AAV as well as the Lerner’s ongoing sale of the team were the main reasons Soto turned down the offer. Understandable.
With two and a half years left for the Nationals to lock up their star, it was assumed they would focus on selling the team and allow for new ownership to engage in contract talks with the 23-year-old. Instead, ownership believed Soto was unlikely to sign long-term and decided to sell high — eventually shipping out Soto and Josh Bell to San Diego.
In return, the Nationals received C.J. Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, Robert Hassell iii, James Wood, Jarlin Susana, and Luke Voit. Two former top prospects and the Padres’ current first, third, and 14th ranked prospects. A massive haul, but why did it come to this?
Just four years ago, the Nationals boasted arguably the best lineup in the majors — led by Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, and Soto. Throw in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg atop the rotation, with Sean Doolittle closing out games, and Washington was built to compete for years to come. Fast forward to now and every member from that lineup is gone — either retired, traded away, or left in free agency.
All the Nationals have to show for it is a revamped farm system and one World Series title. Yes, flags fly forever, but with that type of star power, Washington should still be competing with the Braves and Mets for NL East supremacy. Sadly, they sit at 35-69, good for the worst record in the majors.
Despite only being three years removed from winning a World Series title, the only thing Nats fans think about is how ownership has been unable to lock up any of their hometown stars. Harper was the first domino, leaving for the Phillies after the 2018 season. Number 34 was hellbent on staying in D.C. for his entire career, but wasn’t given the opportunity. Washington lowballed him — offering a 10-year extension worth $300 million that included $100 million in deferrals that he would be receiving till he was 60.
Obviously, Harper was hurt by the offer and left for greener pastures. To make matters worse, he signed with a division rival for 13 years, $330 million (with NO deferrals). His contract is one of the biggest steals in the sport — receiving $26 million a year for the majority of the deal.
After losing Harper, the Nationals unfortunately didn’t learn their lesson and were unable to lock up Rendon, with the righty eventually leaving in free agency and signing with the Los Angeles Angels. Washington then focused their attention on Turner, but never came close to meeting his asking price.
“I ended up betting on myself every step of the way,” Turner told reporters last week. “I got offered multiple contract extensions while with the Nationals, and with both of them I thought I still had better baseball to play. I thought I proved that. I don’t know if I played too well or something. I don’t know what happened. But I wanted to play for them the rest of my career. If they offered something even close to what I thought was my worth, I probably would have took it and I’d still be there. But they obviously didn’t do that.”
Faced with a roster that was quickly falling out of playoff contention and Max Scherzer’s pending free-agency, Washington shocked the world — trading both their ace and Turner to the Dodgers. The fan base was hit with an unsettling reality check that ownership was unwilling to pay what it cost to keep their roster intact.
But how come Washington has been unable to get deals done while NL East foe Atlanta Braves have their core locked up for the foreseeable future on fair deals? While the Nationals were witnessing a mass exodus of talent the Braves were busy — locking up Ronald Acuña Jr. (8 years, $100 million) Ozzie Albies (7 years, $35 million), Matt Olson (8 years, $165 million), and Austin Riley (10 years, $212 million).
It can be pointed out that none of the Braves core players are represented by Scott Boras, who is known for nudging his clients to free agency in order to test the market. On the other hand, Scherzer, Strasburg, Harper, Rendon, and Soto are all Boras’s clients.
But Boras isn’t to blame for the Lerner’s being unable to lock up their core. Strasburg proved in 2016 that if told, Boras will make sure a deal is reached. Rendon had similar comments entering the 2019 season.
“The thing is, what everyone has the misconception of is, they think that we work for Scott,” Rendon told reporters during the 2018 off-season. “. . . That’s not the way it works. I’m telling him how it’s going and you can ask him. We’ve gotten into some jibber-jabbers before, too, so like, I’m paying him. Nah, that don’t fly with me.”
New York and San Diego have both shown what new leadership can bring — fixing an organization that was mired in controversy (Mets) or changing the narrative surrounding a small market. For now, the hope of ending this vicious cycle of the fans having to witness star after star leave town hinges on the Lerner’s upcoming sale of the franchise.