Rooting for laundry, yet again

The worst team in baseball traded one of the best players in baseball for the hope of better seasons to come, and Nats fans should have seen that coming. Because we saw this movie last year.

Tuesday’s trade by the Washington Nationals that sent outfielder Juan Soto as well as first baseman Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres in return for a cast of prospects (first baseman/designated hitter Luke Voit, shortstop C.J. Abrams, outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood, and pitchers MacKenzie Gore and Jarlin Susana) evoked last year’s trade of pitcher Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner to Los Angeles, although with a higher long-term potential upside. It essentially completes the sell-off of our 2019 World Series team for a cloud of baseball probability.

And yet seeing a generational talent like Soto go feels like less of a gut punch than last year’s trade-deadline move.

First, last year we could pretend that the team had been in a 2021 equivalent of 2019’s 19-31 start. Yes, the Nats were also terrible in 2020, but that season started late and didn’t feature fans in the stands at Nationals Park, so it was just weird even before all of the injuries among an aging team.

This year, however, we have been objectively bad from Opening Day onwards. Soto gave those of us in the stands exciting moments, but if he wanted to win a lot of games soon, Nats Park was not going to be his home field of choice.

Second, the team made a good-faith offer even though current ownership is now exploring selling the team. You can say that management should have worked harder to keep homegrown prospects around over the past few years, but you cannot say that $440 million over 15 years was not a legitimate deal to put on the table.

Soto turning that down only made it a question of what we’d get in a trade before the 2024 expiration of his contract–unless you were thinking that new ownership would swoop in first, back up an even larger bank truck and get a different answer. But what about the star-crossed history of baseball in D.C. would lead any Nats fan who had been in the stands for the 2012 NLDS to pin their hopes on that outcome?

So I feel less gutted about the thought of Soto in a Padres uniform than I might have expected. It helps that he won’t be wearing a Yankees, Braves or Phillies jersey; it will not help if, years from now, the cap on Soto’s likely portrait on a plaque in Cooperstown represents a team that isn’t the Washington Nationals.

Meanwhile, I live in the same place that I’ve called home for the last three decades and counting, the players who run out of the dugout on the first-base side of Nats Park at the start of a game wear jerseys with a curly W for my city, and a pennant above the scoreboard reminds me that I saw D.C. win a World Series championship and redeem all the pain of previous postseasons. And the next time I see a game in some other ballpark, of course I’m going to wear a Nats cap. I love baseball and I love having it here, even if the daily reality of this business may sometimes make me feel like a chump.

Every team is tied for first place at the start of Opening Day

Thursday gave me an excuse to leave my house that I haven’t had since 2018: a ticket to a Washington Nationals home opener. But instead of a sunny daytime game, hours of rain pushed a 4:05 p.m. start against the Mets back to 7:05 and then further to 8:20 p.m.

This Opening Night was also unlike every other one I’ve seen in D.C. because the game had a D.H. on both teams. Major League Baseball’s adoption of the designated hitter across both leagues as part of the settlement that ended the owners’ lockout of the players left me feeling a little lost every time I looked at the scoreboard and didn’t see a pitcher in the lineup column on each side.

I’m already in baseball mourning over the obsolescence of my rough understanding of double switches. I trust I have plenty of company in National League cities.

The game itself, however, fit into a familiar pattern of early-season mediocrity. The Nats lost to the Mets 5-1, with the highlights being some precision throwing by catcher Keibert Ruiz and shortstop Alcides Escobar to catch runners at first and home in the first and fourth innings, plus Juan Soto’s solo shot to right in the sixth.

The rest of this don’t-call-it-a-rebuilding season doesn’t look to be much better. But even if I’m going to see my team lose more games than it wins, I’ll still enjoy seeing less-likely moments like a crisply-turned double play that isn’t the usual 6-4-3, a double legged out into a triple, a stolen base that started at second or third instead of first, and a pitcher embarrassing the other team by hitting a home run… ugh, never mind.