The Nationals, and selling off the future to sell the team

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The Nationals are likely to sell. That has been the feeling since at least April, when the Washington Post reported that the Lerners were exploring a potential sale, but these hypotheticals have become more real of late: Jon Heyman, in a notes column for the NY Post in mid-June, wrote that “Word is the Nats are almost sure to sell” with the Lerners hoping to pull in $3 billion for doing so. And now we’re in August, and franchise cornerstone Juan Soto is now with the San Diego Padres, while the Nats are left with some new prospects and not much else.

It’s not that the return for Soto was terrible, it’s that there was a return for Soto at all. The Nationals have kind of slowly broken down their team for a few years now, following their World Series championship in 2019 — we’ll get back to the sale thing in a moment. The Nats were very obviously a team trying to win, until they did, and then things kind of slipped from there. Washington let Bryce Harper leave via free agency for the Phillies even though he was literally Bryce Harper and entering his age-26 season, but at least there they did so because they had Soto, who had more than acquitted himself in his rookie 2018 campaign.

It was fair to ask “why not both?” about them, but the Nats actually increased their payroll after Harper left, so at least they didn’t simply replace him with league-minimum players and pocket what they didn’t spend. Harper’s $21 million in his final year with Washington came off the books, just in time for Stephen Strasburg’s salary to jump from $18 million to $38 million, for Anthony Rendon to enter his final year of arbitration which would net him a raise of $6.5 million, for Patrick Corbin to sign a six-year, $140 million deal to leave the Diamondbacks and help shore up the Nats’ rotation behind Max Scherzer and Strasburg. It might be hard to remember at this point, given his last two seasons, but Corbin was every bit as good as the 2019 edition of Strasburg, and is a significant part of why the Nats did end up winning post-Harper.

The money didn’t go to Harper himself, no, but it did go to players who were supposed to help the Nationals win, and that’s about all you can ask for if a franchise is letting their star walk.

In the years since that win, things have been just a little bit different. Anthony Rendon left for the Angels, and while Strasburg’s deal was reworked to extend his stay even further, it is worth pointing out that, in reality, a significant chunk of that is deferred: over $11 million annually, and even with interest, the Players Association calculates the deal’s actual value as $228 million, not the $245 million it encompasses. Keeping Strasburg around longer isn’t the same thing as reloading, like bringing in Corbin was post-Harper, either: the most significant new deal for a new player in 2020 was for reliever Will Harris, at $8 million annually. The payroll drop from 2019 to 2022 was minimal — the pandemic-shortened season cut the actual payout significantly, sure, but for luxury tax purposes, the drop was calculated from $201 million to $195 million. For 2021, though, the Opening Day roster came in at a $183 million price tag, compared to 2019’s $197 million, and the end-of-year 40-man roster salary for 2021 sat at $168 million. Sending Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers was much of the reason for that dip.

Opening Day 2022 came out to $135 million, and while we obviously don’t have end-of-year calculations for an ongoing season, it will be less than that: the Nats sent Soto, Josh Bell, and what remained of the $27 million owed to them this season to the Padres at the trade deadline. It’s pretty likely that the Nats do very little this offseason that will add payroll back to the roster. They’re on the hook for all of $62 million next year, as they aren’t responsible for Soto’s next arbitration salary, Nelson Cruz is only, at minimum, owed $3 million if they buy out his mutual option, César Hernandez, Sean Doolittle, Maikel Franco, and Alcides Escobar will all be free agents — that’s $7.75 million all told off the books — and even though these players will raise the salary somewhat, the remaining arb-eligibles aren’t going to be making serious bank.

The Nats have basically stripped themselves down and got some prospects back, though, as Jarrett Seidler pointed out in the previously linked piece, they’ll all have to hit their top-end projections for the Soto deal to be a win for them. The return for the Scherzer/Turner swap has a lower ceiling (and this was the case at the time of the deal, too), and the trade came as something of a shock: Turner still had a year left on his deal, and Scherzer, while an impending free agent, was still Scherzer. He could have been re-signed, if the Nationals wanted to be serious about 2022, but as they were dealing Turner — who was still all of 28 at the time — it was pretty clear they were not.

The options at that time were to lock up Soto long-term and attempt to build around him, or trade him. When the Nats couldn’t get Soto on a deal with a laughably low average annual value for someone of his current talent and still-existing promise of being even better, they opted for the latter. It’s just all such an odd turn of events, to go from caring about winning so much that you’d bring in a top free agent who would not have been a third starter for a number of organizations in Corbin, to dealing Soto away because the young phenom expected to be compensated appropriately. Now there is basically nothing left of the old: Strasburg is still around, for whatever that will end up being worth, and the downside of Corbin’s career is very much here, though, the spoils were certainly worth it, and it’s not as if this total collapse of his was a guarantee, either. And then… nothing. And the Nats’ ownership seems fine with this, did not attempt to recruit new free agents or make trades to fill holes and remain competitive, but instead, seemed content to slide back into their pre-relevance state while they explored a sale to make rebuilding the team someone else’s problem.

It’s all just so strange, that things work this way. That the Lerners might pull in $3 billion for gutting what was left of the roster since winning a title, for bringing in some prospects instead of letting new owners determine what was to be done with literally Juan Soto, and how much to pay him if keeping him around was the choice made. Of course, motivators are in place to encourage such a trade prior to opening a team up for bids, because Soto, for all of his talent and promise, is the kind of player who could set records in arbitration. A new ownership group is more concerned about the debt and the bills they’re inheriting than the players: the players can come later, and that makes sense in a world where the Nats are hoping $3 billion is a possibility for a moribund franchise with so little to offer in the present, and maybe in the future, too. But it’s pretty depressing that it makes sense, yeah? That teams like the Marlins and Nationals are desirable precisely because there is little to them outside of their being one of just 30 Major League Baseball teams that you can call yourself the owner of? It’s a real so it goes situation, and there’s nothing to be done about it, since few owners see a team as anything other than a profit-maximizing opportunity. You can still wish things were different, though, like Nats fans probably are as they fully enter the limbo they will exist in for who knows how long.

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