The Nationals changed the trajectory of their franchise dramatically at the 2021 trade deadline, orchestrating six separate deals that sent eight veteran players to playoff contenders in exchange for 12 young plays.
No trade was bigger 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 being moved, but also because Turner still had a year and a half of team control left on his contract.
“There’s no shame in stepping back, refocusing, restarting and starting the process all over again and that’s what we’re gearing up to do,” said President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo just over an hour past the deadline. “The players we acquired today at the trade deadline and the last two drafts we’ve had and the trade deadline acquisitions we’ve had will be at the heart of this next championship-caliber club. “
Saturday marked a year since Washington made that trade. From the Dodgers’ perspective, the feedback has been great. Scherzer was off during his time in Los Angeles, going 7-0 with a 1.98 ERA in 11 starts – although that ended on a sour note when a ‘dead arm’ prevented him from start the game that knocked out the Dodgers. playoffs.
Turner, meanwhile, was one of the best hitters in baseball. He came into play Friday leading the majors in hits, a feat he also achieved in 2021 (and 2020). Although the Dodgers have apparently not made an extension offer for the future free agent, Los Angeles does not count in a bidding war until the ink has dried.
For the Nationals, the on-field product has been far less glamorous. Washington is 52-109 since the 2021 trade deadline, the worst record in the majors. Still, losing was part of the plan, even though the Nationals didn’t intend for it to happen so frequently. They focused on youth development, and this is an area where Ruiz and Gray stood out.
“As we all know, this game is often about results,” manager Davey Martinez said in his pre-game press conference on Friday. “When you’re talking about young kids who we think have a bright future, sometimes you have to forget the results and let them just keep doing what they’re doing and that’s part of the growing process.”
Ruiz, 24, has emerged as a potential franchise catcher thanks to his defensive prowess, ability to take out baserunners and high contact rate in the batting box. His .311 on-base percentage this season and lack of power (three home runs in 77 games) doesn’t put him atop the leaderboards, but the young backstop has shown plenty of flashes of his potential.
The same could be said for 24-year-old Comrade Gray. In 18 starts this season, the right-hander has a 4.45 ERA and a 1.278 WHIP. He also allowed the most major league home runs with 23 on the year. However, Gray also posted strong batting numbers, his slider has played at elite level and he set up sprawls of dominion.
Neither Ruiz’s steal percentage (30.8 percent, fourth among catchers with at least 400 innings) nor Gray’s strikeout total (112, seventh among pitchers 25 or younger) translated to many victories for the national championships. But if they hadn’t made the deal that shipped Scherzer and Turner to the West Coast, the organization could be in even worse shape.
If the Nationals had kept Turner, they could have made more moves in the offseason to improve the ball club. Still, if the 2022 season has illustrated anything, it’s that the Nationals have a lot of work to do across the diamond. They would likely still be in the position they are in now with Josh Bell trying to maximize the return for a player with just two months in control.
Take Ruiz and Gray out of the picture, and the Nationals have very few players on the roster who stand out as potential pieces for their next playoff-seeking team. One of them, Juan Soto, has been the subject of trade rumors for two weeks. A weak farm system that has both lost winning prospects now and struggled to produce everyday players has forced the Nationals to consider trading a generational player three years after free agency.
Washington made the difficult decision to blow up the list, but it turned out to be the right one. If the team had waited any longer, there wouldn’t be many rooms left to build.
“The sky is the limit for [Ruiz] and both Josiah,” Martinez said. “They are a bright part of our future and can’t wait to see them grow and mature and help us win games.”