The Nationals shifted the trajectory of their franchise in dramatic fashion at the 2021 trade deadline, orchestrating six separate deals that sent eight veteran players to playoff contenders in exchange for 12 young pieces.
No trade was more significant than the one that sent a pair of All-Stars in Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Washington acquired four players with the move, highlighted by two of the Dodgers’ top prospects at the time -- Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray. The trade stood out not only because of the caliber of players moved, but also because Turner still had a year-and-a-half of team control on his contract.
“There’s no shame in having to take a step back, refocus, reboot and start the process again and that’s what we’re preparing to do,” Nationals President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo said just over an hour after the deadline. “The players that we acquired today at the trade deadline and the last couple of drafts that we had and trade deadline acquisitions we had will be the core of this next championship-caliber club.”
Saturday marked one year since Washington made that trade. From the Dodgers’ perspective, the returns have been great. Scherzer was lights out during his time in Los Angeles, going 7-0 with a 1.98 ERA in 11 starts down the stretch — though it ended on a sour note when a “dead arm” prevented him from starting the game that knocked the Dodgers out of the playoffs.
Turner, meanwhile, has been one of the best hitters in baseball. He entered play Friday leading the majors in hits, a feat he also completed in 2021 (and 2020). While the Dodgers have reportedly not made the free-agent-to-be an extension offer, there’s no counting out Los Angeles in any bidding war until the ink has dried.
For the Nationals, the product on the field has been much less glamorous. Washington is 52-109 since the 2021 trade deadline, worst record in the majors. Yet losing was part of the plan, even if the Nationals didn’t intend for it to happen this frequently. Their focus has been on youth development, and that’s an area where Ruiz and Gray have stood out.
“As we all know, this game a lot of times is about results,” manager Davey Martinez said in his pregame press conference Friday. “When you’re talking about young kids that we feel like have a bright future, sometimes you gotta forget what the results are and let them continue to do what they do and that’s part of the growth process.”
Ruiz, 24, has emerged as a potential franchise catcher thanks to his defensive prowess, ability to throw out baserunners and strong contact rate in the batter’s box. His .311 on-base percentage this season and lack of power (three home runs in 77 games) aren’t putting him atop any leaderboards, but the young backstop has shown plenty of flashes of his potential.
The same could be said for the fellow 24-year-old Gray. Through 18 starts this season, the right-hander has a 4.45 ERA and 1.278 WHIP. He’s also allowed the most home runs in the major leagues with 23 on the year. However, Gray has also boasted strong strikeout numbers, his slider has played at an elite level and he’s put together stretches of dominance.
Neither Ruiz’s caught stealing percentage (30.8%, fourth among catchers with at least 400 innings) nor Gray’s strikeout total (112, seventh among pitchers 25 or younger) have translated into many wins thus for the Nationals. But had they not made the deal that shipped Scherzer and Turner to the West Coast, the organization might be in even worse shape.
If the Nationals held onto Turner, they could have made more moves over the offseason to improve the ballclub. Yet if the 2022 season has illustrated anything, it’s that the Nationals have a lot of work to do all over the diamond. They would likely still be in the position they’re in right now with Josh Bell, trying to maximize the return for a player with only two months’ control.
Remove Ruiz and Gray from the picture, and the Nationals have very few players on the roster that stand out as potential pieces for their next playoff-contending team. One of them, Juan Soto, has been the subject of trade rumors for the last two weeks. A weak farm system that both lost prospects to win-now moves and struggled to produce everyday players has forced the Nationals to consider trading a generational player three years out from free agency.
Washington made the difficult decision to blow up the roster, but it’s proven to be the right one. Had the team waited any longer, there wouldn’t be many pieces left to build around.
“Sky is the limit for [Ruiz] and Josiah both,” Martinez said. “They’re a bright part of our future and looking forward to watching them grow and mature and help us win games.”