The trade deadline came, and the trade deadline went. The Nationals made the one trade that everyone expected, and backed out of anything else. The team was expected to have another influx of talent after trading superstars Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, and Juan Soto at recent deadlines, but they came away with relatively little.
So, why did the Nationals choose to keep everybody except Jeimer Candelario in what seemed to be a major seller's market? There's no objective answer, but the question may reveal how the front office is operating currently, and how it views the near future in Washington.
Trade Deadline Recap
Here's a rundown of the players the Nationals may have traded but chose not to. Kyle Finnegan, age 31, Hunter Harvey, age 28, and Lane Thomas, age 27 each have two additional seasons of arbitration after 2023. After the expiring contract of Candelario, those three were frequently referenced as the most likely to be on the move, with Harvey's injury status and track record likely making him untradeable at the deadline. Carl Edwards Jr., the only Nats pitcher on an expiring contract, also was unable to be moved due to injury.
Candelario was signed to a 1-year contract with the expectation that he would be traded if he performed well enough. The same could be said for Corey Dickerson, on a 1-year deal, and Dominic Smith, eligible for his final year of arbitration in 2024. Those players clearly haven't performed well enough to be worth much of anything on the market, so the Nats had little choice to make. Those free agent signings, then, were of little value in retrospect as they haven't helped the Nats build a future contender but have just been placeholders.
Finally, a few longshot candidates to get traded include Joey Meneses, Ildemaro Vargas, Trevor Williams, Patrick Corbin, Victor Robles, and Tanner Rainey. Each player has been mentioned as a potential trade target at one time or another, but none have stood out in their performance, most have dealt with injury, and they generated no buzz around the deadline. These are the types of players that, under the right circumstances, could fetch some prospects, but the Nationals have failed to convince any buyers that their veteran core is worth it.
Right now, the Nationals are building for contention starting in 2025, but more likely in 2026. Players over 30, like Meneses, Williams, Corbin, and Vargas, are unlikely to remain valuable in three years' time, especially considering that none are especially valuable right now. The best thing to do to support the future, then, is to trade as many of these players as possible for talent that will help in 2026 and beyond, and the Nationals have completely failed to do so.
Doing The Math
There are a few problems with Lane Thomas and Kyle Finnegan, and how they exist to the Nationals front office. Right now, they're two of the best players on the team, comparing strongly to their counterparts at their position. Lane Thomas is the 7th-best qualified right fielder in MLB by WAR and by wRC+. Kyle Finnegan ranks in the middle of the pack among relievers with a strong 3.00 ERA, a good strikeout to walk ratio, and great durability. These are good players, not just for the Nationals, they would fit in well on any roster.
The problems lie with how you value Thomas and Finnegan with their current performances and salary. Both players will still be two of the best Nationals in 2024, and they'll probably still be good in 2025 as well. Even if their salary increases a fair bit in arbitration, they'll still be worth it for their solid performances. Here's the question: does that matter? How valuable is a slightly above-average regular in right field and in the bullpen to the 2024 and 2025 Nationals?
How that question is answered decides whether Thomas and Finnegan are traded. For a strong roster that plays slightly above .500, adding Thomas and Finnegan to their depth for the next two seasons is highly valuable. For a team dedicated to only playing rookies and sitting in the bottom of MLB (like the Athletics), Thomas and Finnegan aren't at all valuable until they're traded for teenagers. Two years of a good player is only useful if you need a good player in those specific two years.
It's a pretty simple equation that leads many to assume the Nats want to trade these players. The organization has a dearth of minor league depth at pretty much every position except for maybe the outfield, and could use more youngsters to try to develop. There's an opportunity cost to keeping a 30-ish regular entrenched at a position in a tanking year, too. For every Lane Thomas start in the outfield and at the top of the order in 2024 and 2025, there's one less spot for younger players with more potential to get a crack at the big leagues.
The last problem with Thomas and Finnegan is that they are extremely replaceable. Sure, their numbers are good, and they stand out as top performers in a weak Nats lineup and bullpen, but there are dozens of players like them. There will be more free agents, trade targets, breakouts and waiver claims that will get to the mid-level productivity of the two players. If the Nats had traded both, they could try to find replacements of them in free agency to trade again at the deadline. Repeat that process a few times, and you have built lots of prospect depth through trade. The Nats have certainly done that to an extent, but there was no Trea Turner or Juan Soto this year to really boost the future.
What Does Mike Rizzo Think?
Here's my theory: Mike Rizzo and the Nats decision makers think this team is ready for a surprise breakout. They've seen the Reds and Diamondbacks shock the league this year and be led by rookie stars, and they think that Dylan Crews and James Wood are going to hit the ground running. That's a crucial factor in the trading formula: if the team finds itself in a playoff race in 2025, Thomas and Finnegan would help a whole lot, even on expiring contracts.
I disagree with that assessment, if matters have been so assessed. The Nats have a noticeable lack of pitching depth compared to the Reds and D-Backs, who have trotted out a deep stable of prospect arms that the Nats simply do not have. There's winning talent already on the Nats, as has been seen in recent stretches of success, in All-Star Josiah Gray and fellow rotation stalwart MacKenzie Gore, and in the progress made by CJ Abrams. There are still gaping holes on the roster, even if both Crews and Wood are ready to be stars soon.
The good ending of the story is when Mike Rizzo convinces ownership to spend about $120 million in salary for 2025 and the team fills all their holes around Crews, Wood, Thomas, Finnegan, Abrams, Gray, Gore, Brady House, and more. The bad version is when Kyle Finnegan regresses because he's a relief pitcher, Lane Thomas holds on with a slightly worse BABIP, the team doesn't develop enough pitching, James Wood struggles as a young rookie, and we end up trading Lane for pennies at the deadline in '25. It's too late to trade them this year, and they aren't going to get any more valuable, so let's hope the good story is the one that gets told.