Should the Nats have locked up more of their own stars?

It started with Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond, who departed after the 2015 season. Then came Bryce Harper following the 2018 season. And, of course, Anthony Rendon a few months after they won the 2019 World Series.

The Nationals, an organization that long prided itself on developing its own star players, has seen nearly all of them depart once they reached free agency.

There have been two notable exceptions over the years: Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg. Each was a high first-round draft pick. Each made his major league debut after lightning-quick stints in the minors. And each agreed to a contract extension before reaching free agency, then agreed to another one later, ensuring each would spend his entire career in one uniform.

But they haven’t been the norm. More often than not, the Nationals have seen their best homegrown players eventually move on elsewhere. And they haven’t received anything in return, aside from a handful of compensatory draft picks.

Thumbnail image for Trea-Turner-swing-blue-sidebar.jpgWhich explains in large part why the Nats traded Trea Turner to the Dodgers last week. Turner couldn’t have become a free agent until after the 2022 season. But sensing the odds of locking him up to stay in D.C. long-term were slim, general manager Mike Rizzo decided it made more sense to deal him away now and get the best possible compensation for him (along with ace Max Scherzer): highly rated prospects Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray.

“We didn’t move on from Trea,” Rizzo said Friday in announcing the deal once it became official. “It was one of the greatest trades I ever made in my career (to acquire him, along with Joe Ross, from the Padres in a three-team deal that sent Steven Souza Jr. to the Rays). “He was a beloved player in the clubhouse; I loved him myself. We’d maximized Trea’s value because of where we’re at as a franchise.

“Trea Turner, with two playoff runs in him and one and a half years (under contract), is way more valuable than a Trea Turner that’s got one year before free agency. That was the biggest reason that went into the decision-making process. The Dodgers specifically were very intrigued by Trea, having him for more than a rental player. ... We benefited from the prospect package because of the length of the contract that he had left.”

Was there really that little chance of signing Turner to a long-term extension? The Nationals insist they tried, making Turner their first offer in March 2020 and then leaving the door open for further talks this season.

Turner, who in 155 games over the last two seasons combined has hit .327 with 30 homers, 90 RBIs, 32 doubles, 33 stolen bases and a .924 OPS, stacks up favorably with pretty much any other shortstop in baseball right now. And the market for shortstops has exploded, with the Mets giving Francisco Lindor a 10-year, $341 million contract as a free agent and the Padres locking up young sensation Fernando Tatis Jr. to a 14-year, $330 million deal long before he ever could hit the open market.

So it stands to reason Turner didn’t necessarily want to commit to a lesser deal a year ago, before Lindor and Tatis set the market for elite shortstops.

“We had extension talks in spring training of ‘20, and we extended ideas back and forth,” Rizzo said. “We didn’t get it done that year. When the (2020) season started, we both wanted to table discussions until the offseason. And then COVID hit, so we put them on the back burner. And then Trea and his people wanted to wait for other shortstops in the market to sign. So when that happened, we decided to table the negotiations until after this season.”

There appears to be some disagreement about that timetable and the possibility of talks along the way. Sources familiar with the negotiations say Turner was open to contract talks this year, but the Nationals never made another formal offer to him after their initial one in March 2020.

It’s also possible the Nats simply didn’t feel comfortable giving out a massive deal to a shortstop who (as much as they love him) will turn 30 during the first season of his contract. The fact Strasburg’s seven-year, $245 million deal now looms as a potential albatross for the organization due to the right-hander’s multiple surgeries since signing it after the World Series may also have left ownership hesitant to commit like that again to other players.

That, however, doesn’t always appease Nationals fans who have fallen in love with several homegrown stars over the last decade-plus, only to watch nearly every one of them depart for more money elsewhere.

You can look at each individual case and make a compelling argument against re-signing that player for such a large amount, but ultimately it’s hard not to ask if this franchise should’ve found a way to retain more homegrown stars than Zimmerman and Strasburg over these many years.

“I don’t know if I could say there should be more or less,” Zimmerman said Saturday. “And I’ve always said me being here has been a two-way street. It’s great if a player wants to stay, but if ownership and the organization wants him here, they have to want him here. And it’s great if the organization wants him, but the player has to want to stay, too. That’s why those relationships are so hard to always work out.”

One potential solution, Zimmerman believes, is making a stronger push to sign a player at a younger age, long before he has a chance to be tempted by free agency.

“You have to, at some point, lock guys up earlier, because if you don’t lock them up early, then they get real expensive,” he said. “But also, locking him up early, you’re taking a risk. We could sit here and talk about this for hours. There’s so many variables to put in there. That’s why it’s so hard for these things to happen, and you don’t see it that often.”

Which ultimately brings us to the next Nationals star who is going to find himself in such a position: Juan Soto. He may be only 22, but Soto already has established himself as one of the very best players in baseball, and his price tag is only going to rise each day he gets closer to free agency. (He can’t qualify until after the 2024 season.)

Some believe the Nats, in the wake of this fire sale, now need to throw everything they have toward locking up Soto as soon as possible. The realists understand that players represented by Scott Boras almost always wait to reach free agency, unwilling to settle for a lesser deal before they have the right to negotiate with multiple clubs at once.

The Nationals understand what’s at stake with Soto, a generational talent who feels like the surest thing they’ve ever had. But the young star has all the leverage at this point. He’s under zero obligation to agree to an extension now, and in the span of a few days he has become the one remaining current and future face of this franchise.

“You’re going to have to do something, or at least try to do something with that guy,” Zimmerman said. “He’s a special player. Obviously, he’s one of the best players in the game. I couldn’t really imagine a better person to build around than somebody like that.”

It all sounds so simple. If only it was.

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