Why The Nats Need To Be More Aggressive At The Trade Deadline

The Nationals are in the midst of their rebuild and while they do have young, up-and-coming talent in the Minor Leagues, they have still failed to take advantage of a major way to improve your team: the trade deadline.

Washington Nationals v New York Mets
Washington Nationals v New York Mets / Adam Hunger/GettyImages

The Nats are falling behind. Anyone who has looked at the standings in 2020, '21, '22, and '23 knows this, but they're falling behind in other and arguably more important areas than the standings. Their payroll has dropped down several brackets, down into the bottom 10 among all teams. As they've been in this extended rebuild, their player development has failed to produce young talent at the same level as their competitors. The most worrying area they've regressed in is the depth of their farm system overall, where there's not much to get excited about after the first few names.

Baseball Prospectus spent their season preview of the Nationals questioning what it means about sports fans that they try to make something out of an unremarkable team like this, a team that doesn't seem interested in its own fanbase. While they don't treat winning as an urgent priority, we try to make something lovable out of the collection of ballplayers anyways. So, as always, let's find ourselves something to look for in this team, and something to aspire to. It's not hard; we're sports fans, it's what we do.

Here's the easy answer: Make More Trades! Trades are exciting, change is exciting, gaining new players to dream on is satisfying, as their potential reminds us that the future will be vastly different from the present, and we might even have a good baseball team by then. Trading, also, is basically free for front offices, in that they don't have to ask ownership to crack open their precious wallets. There's no downside, unless you're prone to getting ripped off, as every trade partner hopes you are. Fans aren't even expecting a great team with great players any time soon, so we're easily entertained.

A few things are crucial to understand about the trade market in recent years. Rule #1 is that stars are not available under any circumstances except for when their contract is running out and they're about to ask to get fairly compensated (in which case they must be jettisoned immediately). The league's best players on long-term contracts simply don't get traded anymore, and top-10 prospects who are expected to be cheap superstars especially don't get traded. When GM's head down to the flea market, they're not looking for luxury brands. The best you can get is a solid role player or a prospect near the back end of a top 100 list, and that's only if you're the highest bidder in the market.

These lessons can largely be extrapolated just from the Nationals' last major move, the Juan Soto trade. It's rare that a player of Soto's caliber gets traded at all, but he was a two and a half years away from earning fair payment for his services, so he had to go. Sarcasm aside, Soto's unique talent plus Josh Bell's more ordinary talent earned the Nats a uniquely strong return, in the form of a trio of top-end youngsters and then some. While CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, and James Wood are a decent start for the Nationals ground-up construction of a competitive team, they aren't enough. Other trade acquisitions like Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray aren't enough, nor are the additions of Elijah Green, Dylan Crews, and the 11th pick in the 2024 draft. The Nationals won't suddenly spend like the 2000s Yankees, so they need to keep trading.

The Soto trade was the team's only major move at the '22 deadline, and at the '23 deadline they made just one trade. The 1-year contract that Jeimer Candelario was signed to had a good outcome for the Nats, but the plausibly useful DJ Herz is just one arm. To actually compete in the Majors, Herz needs to be one of an entire locker room's worth of young, cheap, productive arms that make up a good staff like the ones in Milwaukee, Seattle, and Tampa Bay. Again, the Nats aren't about to spend like the big-money teams, so there's no good Nationals team without the pitching staff coming around to resemble those cheap, efficient, analytical clubs. There's no way around it.

It's still possible, even without an elite pitching development staff. DJ Herz enters the organization basically ready-made to contribute in his funky-lefty way, probably in some kind of new-age swingman/follower/bulk role. Herz won't be a superstar but he's useful, which is why he was available in trade. The Mariners and Rays put together great pitching staffs through dozens of trades, swapping handfuls of nickels for sandwich bags of dimes. The Nats' deadline strategy was defined more by who they kept than who they lost, which doesn't seem like a great strategy when all you're holding on to is a last-place team.

Uh Oh, The Mets Are Building A Better Farm System

Last year, Fangraphs evaluated every player traded at the deadline and while DJ Herz and youngster Kevin Made from the Candelario appear with solid valuations, the real prize prospects of the deadlines were acquired by better teams. The Mets made 6 (six!) trades, picked up a couple top-100 guys, and will surely get more value from Drew Gilbert, Luisangel Acuña, and all the rest than Herz, no matter how good Herz is. Obviously, the Mets spent a ton on Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander to sign them and retain money on their traded contracts, and that's something the Nats aren't going to do, but it's one of so many reasons that they're falling behind. The Mets are rebuilding expensively, but much faster than the Nats, and it's awful news when a rival is surging ahead in multiple ways. The Nationals actually lessened their return in the Max Scherzer/Trea Turner trade by asking the Dodgers to pay one year of Scherzer's deferred contract, approximately $18M in 2028. The complete opposite of what the Mets are doing.

All of the players in that Fangraphs list would be useful to have in the Nationals organization that still lacks depth at all levels. It's simple to get them - sign more Jeimer Candelarios and GMs will be calling to offer more DJ Herzes. This year, the Nationals have gone even lower in the free agent market and have replaced Jeimer Candelario with Joey Gallo and Nick Senzel. Those players and Dylan Floro have dubious trade value, and minor league signings Eddie Rosario, Jessie Winker, and Derek Law are worth even less. Patrick Corbin and Trevor Williams are almost definitely worth nothing on the trade market. While fishing for more trades would be nice, the team can barely afford a can of worms to use as bait.

Here's what can still happen: deals for Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, and Lane Thomas. Those players were speculative trade assets at last deadline, and even the deadline before that in Finnegan's case. All the aforementioned players will be evaluated as trade chips as the year goes on. While there's no Juan Soto to return any major talents, there's still a good team that needs building in Washington, and the trade market is absolutely crucial to make up for other deficiencies. Hopefully, some unforeseen veteran resurgence, waiver claim success, or post-hype breakout takes place to give the Nats more leverage in July. Someone like Joey Meneses could always perform well enough to earn the right to go play for an actually good baseball team.

It's doubtful that the Nationals going full Jerry Dipoto-mode would work in a meaningful way, but it would be fun, at least. That's all we can ask for in 2024, as Juan Soto and the rest of the actual star players ply their trade elsewhere for different bosses. The Nationals documented peskiness would be even more effective if it extended to the front office and development staff, if they were able to peskily summon forth value from players that other teams were unable to. It's wishful thinking, but the only way to make it reality is to make trades. Bring on your yard sales, and maybe we can trade our way up to a professional baseball player.