August 5, 2021 [LINK / comment]

Fire sale from the smoldering ruins:
Nats trade away Max, Trea, Kyle, and many more!

As expected, after their season effectively went crashing down in flames last month, the Washington Nationals officially parted ways with three of their biggest stars: Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, and Kyle Schwarber. As the trade deadline (Friday July 30) approached last week, there was a rumor that Scherzer was about to be traded to the San Diego Padres, but then the L.A. Dodgers zoomed in and closed a deal that seemed more attractive to the Nationals. The key condition was that Trea Turner (who was under contractual obligation for another year) be included in the bargain. Scherzer becomes a free agent at the end of this year, and as a "rental" player is of less value to the Dodgers. Those two superstars were exchanged for four young prospects, most notably pitcher Josiah Gray and catcher Keibert Ruiz. The transaction was contingent upon medical exams of all players concerned, and became a formality on Friday. By that time, Kyle Schwarber had already been traded to the Boston Red Sox, but he is still recovering from the hamstring injury he suffered a month ago.

But wait, there's more! In addition to the trades of Scherzer, Turner, and Schwarber, the Nationals also announced on Thursday that Yan Gomes (catcher) and Josh Harrison (infielder) were being traded to the Oakland Athletics, while Daniel Hudson went to the San Diego Padres. Actually, the first National to be traded last was closing pitcher Brad Hand, who was acquired by the Toronto Blue Jays. No surprise there. The benefit to the Nationals side will come primarily from the savings in salaries owed, enabling the franchise to rebuild its minor league system.

Although few knowledgeable baseball observers would question the need for the Nationals to unload some of their priciest stars, some might question whether General Manager Mike Rizzo went too far. Obviously, major league baseball is a business, but financial success is derived to a large extent from maintaining the goodwill of the team's fan base. When the Florida/Miami Marlins had "fire sales" immediately after their World Series victories in 1997 and 2003, it did great damage to the Marlins' popularity in south Florida. To the credit of the Nationals' owners, the Lerner family, they did invest a substantial amount of money after the 2019 World Series championship in retaining old talent (e.g. Stephen Strasburg) and acquiring new talent (e.g. Kyle Schwarber). It just didn't work out, and there was no point in pretending otherwise.

The Nationals' diaspora

Name Position New team With Nats since
Max Scherzer P L.A. Dodgers 2015
Trea Turner SS L.A. Dodgers 2016
Kyle Schwarber LF Boston Red Sox 2021
Daniel Hudson P San Diego Padres 2019
Josh Harrison 2B Oakland Athletics 2020
Yan Gomes C Oakland Athletics 2019
Brad Hand P Toronto Blue Jays 2021

The acquisition of free agent Max Scherzer in January 2015 was probably the biggest coup of Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo's career. The seven-year $210 million contract turned out to be a spectacular bargain for the Nationals, as Scherzer played a key role in winning the NL East Division three times and winning the World Series in 2019. (I wrote back then "Is he really worth that much?" Ha! smile) Scherzer threw two no-hitters during his very first year with the Nationals: June 20, 2015 (at home vs. the Pirates) and October 3, 2015 (while visiting the New York Mets). He won the National League Cy Young Award in both 2016 and 2017, after having won the AL Cy Young in 2013 when he was with the Detroit Tigers. During his four months playing with the Nationals this year, Max Scherzer had eight wins and four losses, with 147 strikeouts (seventh best in the major leagues), and a 2.76 ERA. In his first start with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday, he gave up a home run to the second batter he faced but then struck out ten batters over seven innings, getting the win. Typical Max! The near-capacity crowd at Dodger Stadium roared its approval, and Max relishes the opportunity to pitch deep into October as his new team tries to repeat its World Series title. It's all very difficult for me to absorb... frown

Max Scherzer

Max Scherzer pitched against the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 30, 2017, when the visitors won the game, 4-1. Max finished with a 16-6 record for the year.

Whereas the departure of Scherzer (soon to be a free agent) was widely expected, Trea Turner's sudden exit was quite a shock. The Nationals were unable to come to terms with him on a long-term contract this year, but he is (or was) under team control for one more year. (I try to ignore rumors, but it seems that neither side was particularly motivated to renew the contractual relationship.) That fact that Turner was under a contractual obligation may have motivated the key demand made by the Dodgers in the Scherzer trade. Turner was originally acquired by the Nationals from the Padres in a multi-team trade in December 2014 -- just a few weeks before the Max Scherzer deal, in fact. A speedster, he spent most of 2015 in center field, after which he replaced Danny Epinosa (and Ian Desmond) as shortstop. (I saw his major league debut on August 21, 2015, when he he almost beat the throw on what would have been an infield single.) Over the years he blossomed from a solid contact hitter and defensive player into a top-caliber slugger. During his four months playing with the Nationals this year, Turner had 18 home runs, 42 RBIs, and a .322 batting average -- the fourth best in the major leagues! On July 29 he was placed on the 10-day Injured List after testing positive for covid-19. The Dodgers will benefit greatly from his presence, but there may be some rearrangement of the infield, since Corey Seager has held the shortstop position for a few years. Modest and youthful in appearance, Trea will be missed greatly by fans in Washington.

Trea Turner

Trea Turner in a game against the New York Mets on September 21, 2018, when the visitors won the game, 4-2.

In retrospect, perhaps the historic home run hitting performance by Kyle Schwarber in June (16 home runs within an 18-day period) was just too good to last. His hamstring injury in early July suddenly put a chill on the Nationals' aspirations to vie for the NL East title; it's almost as though the fortunes of the entire Nationals franchise were held together by those fragile ligaments in his legs. He heard an ugly "pop" while rounding first base, and the rest is history. Recovery from hamstring injuries is hard to predict, so it may take a few more weeks before he is able to help his new team (the Boston Red Sox) as they compete against the Tampa Bay Rays.

After two years of disappointment with the Nationals, catcher Yan Gomes (born in Brazil!) showed remarkable improvement in the batter's box this year. He and Josh Harrison were traded to the Oakland Athletics, who have been in a close race with the Houston Astros for the AL West crown. Harrison has been a very useful infielder, who can hit fairly regularly and can play a variety of positions. Relief pitcher Daniel Hudson, who replaced Sean Doolittle as the Nats' closer late in the 2019 season and got the final out in World Series Game 7, was traded to the San Diego Padres. He didn't enjoy being the closing pitcher, a very stressful and often thankless job.

Of all the trades made, the one involving closing pitcher Brad Hand (traded to the Toronto Blue Jays) was least painful for Nats fans. Despite getting a $10.5 million contract for this year, he repeatedly failed to meet expectations, and often turned victories into losses. Hand was criticized for several gut-wrenching blown saves this year, most notably the ones on July 25 (vs. the Orioles) and 26 (vs. the Phillies). After losing those two games, all hope was gone for the Nats. Hand got 21 saves out of 26 save opportunities with the Nationals this year, ranking a very respectable #13 in the major leagues. On the other hand, several of his saves were of a most precarious nature, giving up multiple hits, walks, and runs. It's an odd mixed bag of pluses and minuses. In the top of the tenth inning Monday, when the Blue Jays were hosting the Cleveland Indians, Hand gave up three runs and was tagged with the loss.

Brad Hand

Brad Hand pitched against the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 16, getting his 13th save of the year.

Farewell and best wishes, Max, Trea, Kyle, Josh, Yan, Daniel, & Brad!

Hellish month comes to an end

There was a fleeting moment of wistful glory in the early afternoon of July 29 when Max Scherzer pitched his final game with the Nationals, at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. He struck out five batters over six innings, and when Yan Gomes hit a go-ahead homer in the top of the seventh inning, that put Max in line to get his eighth win of the season. Nats 3, Phillies 1. But the second game that day turned out to be an eerie repeat of the 9-8 loss to the Padres on July 8. The Nats jumped to a 7-0 lead by the middle of the third inning, but starting pitcher Patrick Corbin and the relief pitchers that followed him began hemmorhaging runs. The Phillies scored three in the eighth inning, and four in the ninth inning on a grand slam by Brad Miller, winning it 11-8. Sam Clay took the loss for the Nats. It was yet another one of the worst collapses in Nationals' history, ruining what could have been an uplifting series win against a good team. Instead, the Nats and Phillies split the series two games apiece.

Back in Washington for the weekend, the radically revamped Nationals did fairly well against the Chicago Cubs, who also traded away some of their key players in a fire sale of their own. The Nats' Paolo Espino pitched well enough for a victory on Friday (4-3) and Erick Fedde did likewise on Sunday (6-5). But the Saturday game (July 31) was plagued by a mediocre performance by Joe Ross, who was replaced in the fifth inning. The Cubs won that one, 6-3. Still, getting a series win was at least something to be proud of for the New Nationals.

But then the Philadelphia Phillies came to town on the second day of August, and nothing went right for the Nationals. On Monday they had a 3-2 lead going into the top of the ninth inning, and Davey Martinez decided to send Gabe Klobosits back out to the mound after he got three quick outs in the eighth inning. Well, the first two batters singled, so the extraordinarily unreliable Wander Suero was sent in to finish the game. It was a complete, unmitigated catastrophe. Before you knew it, five Phillies had crossed the plate, taking a 7-3 lead. To their credit, the Nats came back with two runs in the bottom of the ninth, but they still lost, 7-5. Suero was promptly traded away, and quite frankly will not be missed in D.C. On Tuesday Patrick Corbin pitched very well until the seventh inning, when the Phillies scored three runs. Comeback rallies by the Nats fell short in the 5-4 defeat. On Wednesday Paolo Espino could not contain the Phillies, and the Nats lost 9-5 even though they hit four home runs -- two by the young second baseman, Luis Garcia. Thursday afternoon looked like the Nats would finally catch a break, as they headed into the ninth inning with a 5-3 lead. But Kyle Finnegan, who is the closest thing the Nationals currently have to a reliable relief pitcher, flinched when the heat was on. The Phillies tied it 5-5 on an RBI double by J.T. Realmuto, and then took a 7-5 lead on an RBI double by Rhys Hoskins. The one run scored by the Nats in the bottom of the ninth was not quite enough.

Two observations about that series: Nats' third baseman Carter Kieboom, who had been heralded as a future star until repeated disappointments, may finally have turned the corner and started to live up to his potential. He has hit two home runs recently, and is hitting regularly as well. Also, the Phillies' Bryce Harper has been on a hot streak lately, and may be a contender for the NL title in the home run and batting average categories. He may even be a candidate for NL MVP, which he won in 2015 -- way back when he was with the Nationals.

For the month of July, the Nats went 8-18, after going 19-9 in June; it was an apocalyptic downturn of truly epic proportions. The Washington Nationals page has been updated accordingly. Now that the Nationals are out of the postseason picture for this year, and probably for at least the next year or two, I plan to spend less time in this blog recounting their games. For a team in rebuilding mode, wins and losses are of secondary importance.

American League wins All-Star Game again

For the eighth consecutive year (not counting last year when the event was canceled), the American League won the All-Star Game. The Nationals' ace (at the time) Max Scherzer started the game for the National League, and got three quick outs. Why didn't they keep him in for one more inning? The pitcher who replaced him, Corbin Burnes (of the Milwaukee Brewers), gave up a run in both the second and third innings. Not surprisingly, the Blue Jays' young phenom Vlad Guerrero Jr. hit a solo homer and later batted in a second run, thus becoming the youngest (age 22) player ever to be named All-Star Game MVP. The final score was 5-2. For the first time ever, the starting pitcher for one league (Shohei Ohtani) was the leadoff batter for that side. (Somehow they let him have a second at-bat as a designated hitter after he had been replaced as pitcher; very strange.) The game was moved from Atlanta's Truist Park to Denver's Coors Field, in response to protests against restrictive voting laws passed by the Georgia state legislature. See the Annual baseball chronology page.

Alonso wins Home Run Derby again

Do you like repeats? If so, you'll love the fact that Pete Alonso (New York Mets) won this year's Home Run Derby, just like the last time the event was held, two years ago. He beat the Orioles' Trey Mancini 23-22 in the final round after beating the Nationals' Juan Soto 16-15 in the second round.

But perhaps the biggest news from that Monday night spectacle was that the top-seeded Shohei Ohtani, who then led the majors with 33 home runs, was eliminated by the Nationals' Juan Soto in the first round. It was a memorable double-tiebreaker situation, with Soto ending up with 31 home runs to Ohtani's 28.

Baseball returns to Canada

On Friday July 30, the Toronto Blue Jays returned home to the Rogers Centre (ex-Skydome) for the first time since the end of the 2019 season. Because of travel restrictions made necessary by the covid-19 pandemic, the Blue Jays played all of the abbreviated last season at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, New York. They played the first two months this year at their spring training ballpark in Dunedin, Florida -- TD Park -- and then went back to Buffalo for the mid-summer. (Text updates to both those pages are pending; I will have to create a diagram for TD Park in the coming months.)

Superdome is renamed

As expected, the "Mercedes-Benz" Superdome was renamed in mid-July; it is now officially called "Caesar's Superdome," after the resort hotel / casino enterprise. The connection with gambling interests is troubling to some people, just as is the case with the Las Vegas (formerly Oakland) Raiders. The Superdome page has been updated to reflect that.