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.