Road back to success is even bumpier without Soto

As he sat down in front of a bank of cameras and recorders and reporters, the likes of which hadn’t been present at Nationals Park in a long time, Mike Rizzo made a statement about his decision to trade Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres for six players, five of them highly rated prospects.

Rizzo made his statement not only through his words, but also through his attire. On this, one of the most significant days of his 13-year tenure as general manager, he wore his 2019 World Series ring on his left hand, not to mention a red polo shirt with the visage of the Commissioner’s Trophy on the chest.

“I wore this ring purposely,” he said. “It shows what we’ve done in the past, and what we’re going to do in the future. In 2019, we had a slogan: ‘Bumpy roads lead to beautiful places.’ We’re on a bumpy road right now, and we believe that coming out of this thing, it’ll be a beautiful place.”

This road may indeed lead to a beautiful place someday, but that day won’t be anytime soon. The path back to winning baseball in D.C. is going to feature all sorts of bumps and potholes and other obstacles, and while Tuesday’s blockbuster trade of Soto to San Diego may produce some nice new paving way down at the end of the journey, it didn’t do anything to smooth over the asphalt sitting right in front of the Nats right now.

To be clear, this is not – and should not – be framed as a good thing for anybody. This isn’t something anyone wanted to do. It’s not something anyone should have wanted the Nationals to do.

They just willfully traded away one of the best players in baseball, at age 23, who can’t become a free agent for another 2 1/2 years. That can’t possibly be considered a good thing.

Did Rizzo get a massive haul in return for Soto and Bell? By all accounts, yes he did. MacKenzie Gore and C.J. Abrams are already major leaguers and considered two of the most promising rookies in the sport. Robert Hassell III and James Wood are two of the highest-rated prospects in the sport right now. Jarlin Susana is an electric 18-year-old with a triple-digit fastball who may have the highest ceiling of anyone in the package. And let’s not forget Luke Voit, the one veteran player in the deal, who despite his flaws still owns a 113 OPS-plus this season (higher than any current member of the Nationals lineup).

Three players who should help the big league club now, and three others who could help the big league club down the road.

But none of them are a sure thing. Gore is currently on the injured list with elbow inflammation. Abrams is very much an unfinished product at 21. Hassell, Wood and Susana have a long way to go before proving themselves as anything more than dynamically talented prospects who have yet to play beyond Single-A.

You know who is a sure thing? Juan Soto. He’s the surest thing there is out there. Even in this season, a down year by his standards, he still owns an .894 OPS (fifth-best in the National League) while compiling 3.8 bWAR (eighth-best in the NL). He’s got the best eye in baseball, unparalleled power to all fields, charisma and a competitive edge that allows him to stare down the likes of Max Scherzer and then homer off the future Hall of Famer.

Did we mention he’s only 23 and can’t be a free agent for another 2 1/2 seasons? This is the guy Rizzo wants to be remembered for trading?

“I was the guy who signed him, too,” the ever-confident baseball executive reminded. “I’ll remember Juan as the guy who was with me when I won my first World Series as a general manager. Now I’m looking to do my next one.”

Rizzo believed his best chance to win his second World Series as GM was by trading away his best player, one he had become convinced was not going to sign an extension with the Nationals, no matter the dollar amount. And if there was no realistic path toward winning again by 2024, his decision was rather simple: Get as much as he possibly could for Soto now, when he was as valuable as he’d ever be.

But here’s a question: Would it have been wrong to wait? To wait for the season to end? To wait for a new owner to take over the organization, perhaps one willing to make an even larger offer in an effort to keep Soto here long-term? To wait for the Nationals to perhaps start showing signs of actual success on the field, maybe even enough to help convince Soto the franchise is actually back on track?

And even if at the end of all that, the Nats still didn’t win anything and Soto still left town as a free agent, would his time here have been entirely a waste?

Yes, winning championships is goal No. 1 for any professional sports organization. But only one organization can win a championship each year. It’s really hard to do it, as the Nationals found out during a decade of contention that resulted in four division titles, five postseason berths and one magical October run.

If you can’t win it all – as is the case for 29-of-30 Major League Baseball franchises each year – isn’t it worth it to still have an iconic player on your roster? Ted Williams never won a World Series. Did the Red Sox regret never trading him away in exchange for prospects who may or may not have helped give them a better chance to break their infamous curse? The Cubs with Ernie Banks?

Cal Ripken won a championship in his second big league season with the Orioles, then made the playoffs only twice more during his iconic, 21-year career with his hometown franchise. Would they have been better off trading him at some point along the way?

No, these aren’t really comparable examples, because they came from a different time when free agency was very different (or didn’t exist at all) and prospects weren’t valued the way they are today. But is it wrong to ask if, even in the 2022 version of the sport, there’s still something to be said for keeping one great player on your team, even if that team’s record stinks?

Why, by the way, does this team’s record currently stink? Because despite the success it had maintained at the big league level from 2012-19, it failed to maintain enough quality homegrown talent at the minor league level to account for the inevitable injuries, career declines and free agent departures that came over time.

From 2005-11, the Nationals saw 13 first-round draft picks collectively produce 156.1 bWAR, headlined by Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. From 2012-present, they’ve seen 10 first-round picks collectively produce 10.8 bWAR, and 10.1 of that belongs to Lucas Giolito, who finally developed into an ace after the Nats traded him to the White Sox in the Adam Eaton deal.

Sure, there’s still plenty of time for more recent picks Mason Denaburg, Jackson Rutledge, Cade Cavalli, Brady House and Elijah Green to make it to the majors and become stars for the Nationals. But Erick Fedde, Carter Kieboom and Seth Romero have had their opportunities, and only Fedde has come close to sticking in the big leagues.

That’s why Rizzo felt compelled to trade Scherzer and Trea Turner last summer, and why he felt compelled to trade Soto on Tuesday. He’s banking on enough of the nine prospects he acquired for those proven stars (Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray, Donovan Casey, Gerardo Carrillo, Gore, Abrams, Hassell, Wood, Susana) panning out and becoming part of the foundation of the next ballclub that wins in D.C.

“I think we’ve taken several steps forward,” Rizzo said. “I think it accelerates the process. I think that you lose a generational talent like that, but you put in five key elements of your future championship roster, along with last year’s trade deadline, and the last three drafts and the last three international signing periods … we’ve put into this system in the last three years 15 or 16 high-quality, high tooled-up players that have very impactful futures ahead of them.”

That may prove true, but it’s going to be a while until we know for sure.

“Be patient,” said manager Davey Martinez, who has no choice but to at this point. “This organization will be good again. I’m proud of being a part of this organization, and proud of being a part of this city. I’m looking forward to the future.”

The future is way down the road, and it’s not only bumpy. It’s also cloudy, making it impossible to see where this road ultimately goes.

We know it doesn’t include Juan Soto, though. It could have, but the Nationals decided not to try to see if it could anymore.

The Nationals had a once-in-a-generation talent to themselves, a homegrown one at that. He won a batting title, a Home Run Derby and a World Series, among other things. He’s the best offensive player they’ve ever had, with a .966 career OPS that outranks anyone else who has taken at least 100 plate appearances for this franchise since 2005. And they had the ability to keep him for seven seasons before he could choose to leave.

Instead, they chose to let him go after only 4 1/2 seasons.

Maybe they’ll be better off for it in the long run. But not today. Today cannot be framed as a good day for the Nationals.

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