There will soon come a point where the Nationals will have to determine how they want to forge their next playoff contender.
After splitting their weekend series with the Giants, they’re 27-35 with 100 games left in the regular season. More importantly, just under six weeks remain until the trade deadline. The Nationals are running out of time to orchestrate a 2019-esque turnaround, making it increasingly likely that the team will more closely resemble sellers than buyers come July 30.
If the Nationals elect to retool, it remains to be seen whether the club will eye bouncing back next season or tear their roster down completely. Either way, there are few players more critical to that decision than Trea Turner. The 27-year-old shortstop has been one of the best players at his position over the last two years. With a year and a half remaining before he hits free agency, the Nationals have to decide what role he will play in their long-term plans.
There are several scenarios that can play out from here. The Nationals could keep Turner at the deadline and extend him — something both sides have expressed interest in — to ensure Juan Soto will have a fellow All-Star next to him in the lineup for the next half-decade. They could also trade him at the deadline, acquiring a package of younger players to build for the future.
“I would love to play here my entire career,” Turner said in February. “I’ve said it in the past, I’ve always liked it here and don’t think the grass is greener on the other side necessarily but it’s a business and things change…Those talks have happened in the past and hopefully they’ll happen in the future but as of right now we’re taking it day by day I guess.”
The one scenario the Nationals should do everything they can to avoid is one where Turner walks in free agency. Washington has been down that route before, watching both Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon leave for more lucrative deals elsewhere while receiving only compensation picks in return. If an extension doesn’t appear likely, the Nationals would be best served exploring trades for Turner in the next six weeks.
Turner’s extra year of control would make him an intriguing option for teams looking to upgrade at shortstop this year and beyond. The 2021-22 free agent class is loaded at the position, with stars such as Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Javier Báez, and Marcus Semien all set to hit the open market with high price tags. Even in his third year of arbitration, Turner will still cost less next year than most of the free-agents-to-be.
Of course, there have to be enough suitors to drive up the bidding and make dealing Turner worthwhile. Contenders that have struggled to get offensive production out of their shortstops this season include the Oakland A’s (.563 OPS by shortstops), Cleveland Indians (.658), St. Louis Cardinals (.672) and New York Yankees (.691). Among those four teams, only the Yankees have a long-term shortstop with high upside on offense locked into place.
Yet regardless of Turner’s market, the Nationals’ stated goal is to re-sign him. The teams’ core for 2022 and beyond is built around Soto, Victor Robles, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. There are some recent high draft picks making their way up the organizational pitching depth chart as well while young infielders Luis Garcia and Yasel Antuna are waiting for their opportunity to prove they can stick at the major-league level.
Among those players, only Soto offers more offensive upside than Turner. Without him, the Nationals’ offense lacks any stable protection for its best player. With him, the Nationals have an elite tandem of hitters that matches up with some of the best 1-2 punches in baseball.
“I view Trea as a candidate for MVP,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said of Turner in May. “He’s that kind of player. He’s doing well and he’s given us every opportunity to win a game so having him leadoff, playing shortstop the way he’s been playing, it’s been awesome.”
Whether Turner stays in D.C. or lands elsewhere, the shortstop is key to the Nationals’ future. It’s just up to them to decide how to factor him into their plans.