The breaking up of a champion, and the task of building another

Breaking up is hard to do.

How do you cut ties with your first true love, say goodbye to someone who brought you so much joy, explain to them you’re finally ready to move on?

How do you do it? First, you come to the realization yourself that it’s time. Then you suck it up, tell it to their face in simple, honest terms, tell them how they’ll always hold a special place in your heart and then turn around and walk away, confident you made the right decision, resisting the urge to look back over your shoulder and risk succumbing to temptation.

For Mike Rizzo and Mark Lerner, the time came Thursday. The self-reflection and realization of what needed to be done happened a few days earlier, after the Nationals were swept in Baltimore and then blew another ninth-inning lead in Philadelphia, after Stephen Strasburg was told he needed career-altering thoracic outlet surgery. But on Thursday, it was time to tell their first true love it was over.

The calls came in rapid fashion over the course of a momentous, gut-wrenching day and night. First it was Brad Hand, dealt to the Blue Jays for catcher Riley Adams. Then it was the blockbuster: Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers for catcher Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray, Gerardo Carrillo and Donovan Casey (a trade that still needs to be finalized sometime today). Then it was on to Kyle Schwarber, who went to the Red Sox for right-hander Aldo Ramirez. And finally, to Daniel Hudson, shipped to the Padres for right-hander Mason Thompson and infielder Jordy Barley in a transaction that was formally announced at 1:11 a.m.

And there are almost certain to be a few more breakups today, before the 4 p.m. trade deadline arrives at last. Yan Gomes is probably headed elsewhere, as is Josh Harrison. Maybe there’s another surprise move or two up Rizzo’s sleeve, as well.

Thumbnail image for Turner-Dives-into-3B-Triple-Cycle-Sidebar.jpgAll of this will leave you, the loyal Nationals fan, feeling all sorts of emotions you don’t want to feel right now. You probably feel sad. You may feel betrayed. You may feel like you don’t want to devote another dime or minute to this team for a long time, if ever. You’ve been dumped, and it’s the worst feeling in the world.

But when the shock wears off and the raw emotions calm down, you’ll begin to think clearly again and you may come to a few realizations.

First, you’ll think about all the great times you had with these Nationals over the last decade, from the first glimpses of a bright future when Strasburg struck out 14 in his 2010 debut, to the first run at a division title in 2012, to the heartbreak of four National League Division Series lost in six years, to the no-hitters by Scherzer and Jordan Zimmermann, the walk-off homers by Ryan Zimmerman, the thrills of Bryce Harper, the consistent excellence of Anthony Rendon, the athletic gifts of Turner, the emergence of Juan Soto and of course the thrill ride of October 2019.

You’ll think about how you felt late that Halloween Eve when you watched Howie Kendrick clang the foul pole and Hudson strike out Michael Brantley and Davey Martinez hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy on the stage in Houston. And how you felt joining them all in the celebration along Constitution Avenue three days later and thinking to yourself: Let’s just keep doing this every year!

And then after all that, you’ll come to the harsher realization that it just wasn’t going to be possible to keep doing it every year, not with this roster and farm system constructed the way it was.

Rizzo tried it in 2020, and it didn’t work. And because that was such an unusual, unprecedented season, marred by a pandemic and a 60-game schedule, he decided to try it again in 2021. And it still didn’t work.

Oh, there were moments when we all thought something magical might happen again. For three glorious weeks in June, the Nationals could do no wrong, carried in so many ways by Schwarber’s historic home run binge. The Nats were two games over .500 as the calendar shifted to July, and the Mets were feeling the heat creeping up on them from behind.

And then the bottom fell out. Pick your calamity. You name it, it happened this month. Schwarber suffered a significant hamstring strain. Turner hurt his finger sliding into third base while completing the third cycle of his career. Alex Avila strained both of his calf muscles trying to play second base in an emergency. Scherzer blew an 8-0 lead and gave up a grand slam to a relief pitcher. Gomes strained an oblique muscle. Starlin Castro was accused of domestic violence and placed on administrative leave. Strasburg suffered a setback in his recovery from his neck injury. Shots rang out on South Capitol Street during the sixth inning of a ballgame, inciting panic inside Nationals Park. Hand suffered three blown saves and three losses. Turner was removed from a game in the first inning after learning he tested positive for COVID-19. Three other teammates and nine staff members learned they had, too, the following day.

That all happened in the last four weeks. And it all resulted in a 7-17 record in July, guaranteeing this will be the Nationals’ worst month since June 2010. (At least we had Strasburg’s debut in that one.)

Rizzo took all of that into consideration, saw his team’s place in the standings, and more importantly, saw how little chance there was of winning in 2021, and made the decision. It was time to sell at the trade deadline.

And not just in an attempt to reload for next season. No, all of those developments, combined with the state of the roster and farm system, convinced Rizzo there was little chance of this group winning in 2022, as well.

The Nationals have now played exactly 162 games since winning the World Series. Their record in those games is 73-89. Why? Because they suffered too many injuries to their stars, because the veteran members of their rotation not named Scherzer were ineffective, injured, too expensive or some combination of all of the above. And because they simply did not have the organizational depth to be able to overcome any of that.

Sure, maybe it was too much to ask any organization to make up for as many injuries to prominent players as the Nationals have had this summer. But how many in-house replacements managed to adequately fill in? How many drafted-and-developed prospects are knocking on the door, ready to help out at the big league level?

The truth is, the Nats have tried to get by with a top-heavy roster for a while now. It all came together beautifully in 2019, with the stars leading the way and a few key role players chipping in to win a championship. But the organization’s lack of quality depth has been exposed in a major way ever since.

That’s why Rizzo had to do what he did Thursday. That’s why he had to trade not only the soon-to-be free agents, but the one other star player he had who could fetch big-time prospects in a deal: Turner. It stinks that one of the most exciting all-around players in baseball is suddenly gone, but more and more it felt like he was going to be gone in a year and a half anyway. Or that it would’ve cost a fortune to keep him in D.C.

Sure, the Nationals could’ve locked Turner up with a $250 million or even $300 million extension. But then what? Between that and the $245 million committed to Strasburg and $140 million committed to Corbin, how much would Rizzo have left to address all the club’s other glaring needs? Take a trip around the diamond and ask yourself how many positions were locked up for 2022, even before this week’s moves.

There are so many holes to fill, and so few viable options waiting to be summoned from Rochester and Harrisburg. And unless Lerner was willing to put up a $300 million payroll next year, there simply was no way to build a roster truly capable of contending for another championship.

So the only reasonable answer was to punt. Not only on the rest of 2021, but probably for 2022 as well. Trade away every veteran nearing the end of his contract, restock the farm system with as many high-upside players as possible, then position yourself to try to produce the franchise’s next winning roster in 2023-24, while Soto is still guaranteed to be here.

Yes, that has to be in Rizzo’s and Lerner’s minds as well right now. Soto can’t become a free agent until after the 2024 season. By that point, they need either to have surrounded him with enough talent to make another postseason run, or to offer up enough hope for future success that he’s convinced he should re-sign beyond that.

It won’t be easy, and there’s no guarantee Soto (and his agent, Scott Boras) will agree to any deal before he actually becomes a free agent, no matter how large the number. But it’s now incumbent upon the organization to do everything it can to convince him to commit to them for the long haul. He’s worth it, in a way that Turner probably wasn’t.

In the meantime, we’ll all shed some tears, mope around for a little while, vow not to let ourselves fall in love with any new ballplayers who burst onto the scene in the coming months and years. They could never compare to our first loves, right?

In time, though, those feelings will wear off. The emotions will be stirred up every once in a while, when we see Scherzer and Turner this October wearing Dodger blue, when someone comes back to play in D.C. as a visitor for the first time, most definitely when the entire gang gathers in 2029 for the 10-year reunion.

But we’ll have moved on by then. We’ll have found new love, whether in the form of one or more of the prospects they just acquired this week, or a free agent who chooses to come to Washington or a draft pick or international acquisition who climbs up the ladder and makes a memorable big league debut in front of an adoring crowd.

It’s hard, but it has to happen to everyone eventually. The Nationals gave us a decade of success, culminating with a pennant that will fly high above the ballpark forever.

Now, we wait for the next one, hoping it arrives sooner than later, but fully recognizing from our past experiences that it often takes longer than expected. And that it’s almost sure to be presaged by heartache.

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