In the days leading up to the 2016 trade deadline, Yankees officials believed they were going to deal Aroldis Chapman to the Nationals and Andrew Miller to the Cubs.
A proposal that seemed acceptable to both sides to move Chapman to Washington was on the table, a phone call from completion. But the call never came, and the Yankees pivoted, sending Chapman to the Cubs and Miller to the Indians.
The Nationals can learn much from what occurred just three seasons ago as they cope with being the majors’ most disappointing team for a second straight year. For if they continue on this path as the trade deadline approaches, they must be more decisive than 2016, recognize that selling does not mean rebuilding, and swallow hard and appreciate their versions of Chapman (who was in his walk year) and Miller (who had 2 ¹/₂ seasons left on his contract) are Anthony Rendon (in his walk year) and — turn your eyes away here Nats fans — Max Scherzer, who has 2 ¹/₂ seasons left:
Remember, the Cubs and Indians played for the World Series after making those trades. The Nationals lost in the Division Series.
The 2019 Nats were 16-25 through Tuesday. In the NL, only the incompetent/not-trying Marlins were worse. Washington should see if the season can be saved by the return of catalyst Trea Turner (broken finger), who began a rehab assignment Tuesday. But this is an organization that is viewed as often moving in fits and stops with competitors sensing general manager Mike Rizzo needs the unanimous blessing of an ownership committee to make major transactions.
Last season they did not accept their reality and missed an opportunity to trade Bryce Harper to the Astros or Indians. They must be prepared to look in the mirror this time, be honest and act aggressively. As one veteran NL executive said, “You can’t let a crisis in baseball go to waste. When you have a chance to sell and don’t, it always bites you.”
2. Selling does not equal surrender
The Yankees were in the ALCS the season after moving Chapman and Miller. Washington has a strong inexpensive positional nucleus (Turner, Victor Robles, Juan Soto and Carter Kieboom). But it must recalibrate a top-heavy roster with deeper 25- and 40-man rosters.
3. So why Rendon and Scherzer?
The Nationals have to change the narrative around the team. When they took Stephen Strasburg and Harper with the first-overall picks in the 2009-10 drafts, they seemed set up for championships. Instead, they won four division titles and lost four Division Series, becoming better known for manager firings and dysfunction.
Harper is gone now. The Nats have talked seriously to Rendon about an extension. But would they be better off following the Yankees/Chapman path by trading Rendon then trying to re-sign him — having their third baseman and a bunch of prospects, too?
Assuming they stay contenders, the Twins and Pirates likely will need third-base help. Would the Cardinals do it even after extending the currently ineffective Matt Carpenter? The Yankees tried to land Manny Machado even with a healthy Miguel Andujar last year. Now, Andujar is going for season-ending shoulder surgery, and we will see if Gio Urshela maintains his Scott Brosius track.
The tougher call is Scherzer. He is one of the greatest free-agent signings ever and the Nats’ best player since the franchise moved to D.C. in 2005 — finishing fifth, first, first and second for the Cy Young in the first four seasons of his seven-year, $210 million pact. But you have to consider it because, as an NL official said, “If you ever took him to market, you would get an unholy haul for him.”
And who else could the Nats move? Perhaps Sean Doolittle, who is affordably under control through next season. But he is the one consistent piece in the ever-inconsistent bullpen, and if Washington wants to win next year, it would have to find replacements. Strasburg’s injury history/contract make him tough to bring a strong return. Patrick Corbin was just signed. That Strasburg and Corbin remain would mean still having two strong pieces to build a rotation around plus whatever comes from Rendon/Scherzer and financial flexibility.
Scherzer is everything the Nats hoped, yet they have not won with him. He turns 35 in July. He gets 10-and-5 rights and can block any trade after this season. The Yankees, Astros, Padres, Twins, Brewers and Dodgers — every contender with a deep system — would be bidding against each other to get a Hall of Famer for three pennant races. He would be far more desirable than San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner, who is in his walk year.
You don’t do this if you are Washington unless you get back at least four youngsters you love.
“For a win-now team, he is a franchise changer,” the second NL executive said. “All your best prospects have to be available despite his age.”
Perhaps Turner will get healthy, have instant impact, and the Nats will U-turn their season and not have to consider such drastic alterations. But this is not one season. This is two years as the majors’ biggest disappointment, and if this continues Washington cannot let the tough, but necessary, phone calls go unmade again.