As the Soto Turns

The 2019 World Series was a culmination of years of fandom. I bought my first Nationals hat soon after the design was revealed and proudly worn by then DC mayor, Anthony Williams. I went to my first game shortly after graduating college and bought season tickets for the 2006 season. I would have those season tickets until I moved in the fall of 2015.

Things got a little murkier after that as it was more difficult to follow the Nationals from south eastern Virginia. There is no local radio for the Nationals and cable is way too expensive when compared to streaming. In other words I had to fight to watch the games and I did from 2016 through the World Series victory in 2019. I signed up for a streaming service with TBS just to watch the World Series and it was worth it.

I will never forget that night. I watched the World Series with my twin boys who had just been released from the NICU. I ended up having to listen to the end of the game as it was feeding and bedtime. NICU babies are on a strict schedule and nothing messes with that, not even game 7 of the World Series.

Then we had 2020. The Nationals never got their victory lap. The baseball season was cut in half, fans weren’t allowed into the stadium, and the whole thing felt like an unreal mess. I don’t even know if I tried to watch a game.

I do know I watched 2021 Opening Day. I remember that and I remember it didn’t go well. It was a precursor of things to come. The Nationals disappointed again in 2021 and ended up trading Max Scherzer (understandably) and Trea Turner (less understandably) at the deadline. I argued about the intelligence of that online. Trading Turner sent the team into full rebuild mode, but at the same time finding a good lead-off hitter is one of the hardest things to find and the Nats traded one of the best in baseball away.

Now the Nationals face another problem. They are in a race with the Oakland A’s to be the worst team in baseball. Juan Soto is an unquestioned star and one of the best players in baseball. Soto is also one of the most charismatic and likable people on the planet. He is an absolute star that can transcend the sport. The problem is he is playing for a terrible Nationals team that did not get to benefit from their World Series victory due to covid.

Trading Juan Soto makes no sense. I mean it makes none. He is two and a half years from free agency. Sans a contract extension he will be a free agent after the 2024 season. The Washington Nationals are currently for sale, have a terrible on field product, and a beleaguered farm system. In other words things look hopeless, but we all know how fast things can go from hopeless to joyful.

Think back to the 2009 Washington Nationals. A team that was in a much worse position than the 2022 Nationals. Not only did those Nationals have a terrible on field product and a bad farm system they had no stars close to Juan Soto’s ability (sorry Zim).

Think about it this way. The difference between the 2009 Nationals and the 2022 Nationals is the difference between John Lannan and Patrick Corbin. John Lannan would never have even made it to the majors for any other franchise, and yet he became the Nationals most reliable starting pitcher. Was he good? Absolutely not. But did he have his moments? Yes. John Lannan won more baseball games than he had a right to and he was the type of player you had to root for. He looked like a scared deer out their on the mound, and every victory was an unexpected delight.

Then there is Patrick Corbin. There is the argument to be made that Patrick Corbin was integral to the Nationals winning the World Series so I won’t criticize his signing. I won’t ever criticize the contract that brought a championship but there is no way to justify his 2022 salary. He is paid to be an Ace. He is paid to win baseball games. He is expected to win. Yet he is terrible. 2009 John Lannan and 2022 Patrick Corbin aren’t much different from each other. It is just that one was never expected to be in the majors and the other is one of the top paid pitchers in baseball.

Think ahead just a couple seasons from 2009. The 2011 Washington Nationals were a much different beast. They finished the season 80-81 and looked like they were going places. The place they went was 98 wins and the best record in baseball in 2012. 2011 was two years after 2009 and the perception of the Washington Nationals was much different. They were a team on the rise. A team that traded for Gio Gonzalez, called up Bryce Harper, and became a contender seemingly overnight.

Sitting here in 2022 it is impossible to say what the 2024 baseball season will be like, but looking at the 2009 Nationals a scenario can be imagined where the 2024 Nationals are pretty darn good, and they could be a lot better than 2011 because they have Juan Soto.

If having stable ownership and seeing the direction the Nationals rebuild is going is important to Soto then he has no motivation to sign now. While the Nationals have done this before and new owners typically spend more money than the previous owners there is a chance that the new owner could be a Dan Snyder type that spends money in all the wrong places and sets the team back even further. Rebuilds call for steady hands not pressured by fans and media.

By having the rejected $440 million 15 year deal leaked to the media the Nationals find themselves in a terrible place. What could have been a longer process of showing Soto the fruits of the rebuild and then offering him what he would get on the free agent market they are now in a position where they can either up the offer and keep him or follow through on their threats to trade him.

Juan Soto makes any team he is on better and I have no idea what a Nationals team without him looks like. I am certain, if they trade him, they will land a haul of top level prospects, and with or without Soto the priority needs to be rebuilding the top of the rotation. Yet having Juan Soto takes a contending team and turns them into a championship team. The Nationals can trade Juan Soto and build a winning team by 2024, but what does that do to the current fandom.

After enduring the loss of fan favorite Anthony Rendon, the disappointment of never-ending Strasburg injuries, the trading of Scherzer and Turner, and an abysmal on field product what would loosing Soto do to the fanbase? The perception is the Nationals were saving money to lock up the right players, and, make no mistake, the offer they made to Soto was a fair one, but the fan perception is that they will have blown it. I am certain if Soto is moved lots of fans are going to move from the mostly dead category of checking scores every now and then on their phones to not even bothering.

If the Nationals put out a good product in 2024 or 2025 there will be new fans. There will be excitement around the team, but a lot of the current fans won’t be a part of it. Not all lost sheep wander back. Keeping Soto sends a message that the Washington Nationals care about their fans and are willing to reward them for their loyalty by rewarding Juan Soto for his performance.

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