WASHINGTON — The Nationals acquired a historic haul of prospects in their deadline trade Tuesday as they shipped Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres. That doesn’t mean they intend to enter a long-term rebuild.
By parting ways with their 23-year-old superstar outfielder at the peak of his trade value, the Nationals ensured they would be netting a package of young, controllable players loaded with potential. President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo spoke during his press conference after the trade about why he believes it pushes their timeline further up.
“I think we’ve taken several steps forward,” Nationals President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo said in a press conference following the trade. “It accelerates the process. I think that you lose a generational talent like that, but you put in five key elements of your future championship roster along with last year’s trade deadline and the last three drafts and the last three international signing periods. We’ve put in this system, in the last three years, 15 or 16 high-quality, high-tooled up players that have very impactful futures ahead of them.”
His comments ring with the same tone of those from a year ago, when the Nationals traded Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers in one of six deadline deals. It was then when Rizzo first pointed to the three-year rebuild process he led from 2009-12 as the framework for the “reboot” the club is currently undergoing.
If the previous rebuild is the model for this reboot, then the Nationals should be looking to take a step forward next season before returning to contender status in 2024. They lost 103 games in 2009 (97 in 2021) and 93 in 2010 (on pace for 106 this year) before going 80-81 in 2011 and vaulting to a 98-win season in 2012.
“The prospect capital that we received, I think it accelerates the process,” Rizzo reiterated. “Because it not only gives us the players that perform on the field, it opens up other avenues of revenues and payroll and that type of thing.”
With all due respect to veteran first baseman Luke Voit, the true prizes of the trade were the other five players headed back to the nation’s capital: shortstop C.J. Abrams, left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore, outfielder Robert Hassell III, outfielder James Wood and right-handed pitcher Jarlin Susana.
Abrams and Gore made their MLB debuts this season after entering the year as consensus top-100 prospects. Hassell was the best player still in the Padres’ farm system while both Wood and Susana have flashy tools that give them exciting upside. But as far as when these players will be able to make an impact in the majors, their trajectories vary.
Both Abrams and Gore have gotten a taste of the majors, but the former struggled mightily at the plate while the latter suffered an elbow injury that’s expected to sideline him for the rest of the season. Abrams was also optioned to the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate immediately upon completion of the trade. It’s going to be some time before the pair of former first-round picks takes the field at Nationals Park together.
As for the other three prospects, none of them have played a game above High-A. Hassell is a candidate to reach Double-A before summer’s end, but the 20-year-old is still only in his second full professional season. Wood and Susana are each teenagers with a couple more years of development ahead of them.
Even before Tuesday’s trade, most of the Nationals’ best prospects resided in the lower levels of the minor leagues. Some of their highest-upside players are their last two first-round picks Brady House, currently dealing with a back injury in Single-A, and Elijah Green, who has yet to make his professional debut. Top international signees from the past two years Cristhian Vaquero and Armando Cruz are only just getting their careers started.
Of course, pitching prospects Cade Cavalli and Cole Henry should get the opportunity to test their talents out in the majors either down the stretch or early next season. Catcher Keibert Ruiz and right-handed pitcher Josiah Gray, the biggest headliners from last year’s deadline moves, have shown some encouraging signs in their first full MLB seasons. Shortstop Luis García has had a few hot stretches at the dish with the occasional highlight-reel play in the field.
The Nationals will also have to end their free-agent spending drought at some point. They haven’t signed a single multi-year deal in the last two years. Finding value in free agency was a key part of the Nationals’ success from 2012-19 and would likely have to be so again should 2024 be the target year. Perhaps that’s something a new potential owner makes a priority if a sale goes through.
In the meantime, the Nationals are building something in D.C. With a Soto-sized hole now sitting in right field, just how long that construction process takes is something fans will watch in earnest.