Perched atop the Shake Shack stand beyond the right field fence, a picture of Max Scherzer still watches over all that happens at Nationals Park. His eyes — one brown, one blue — still stare out with the intensity he displayed every day since his arrival in Washington in 2015.
So on a sleepy, soggy Sunday morning at Nationals Park, two days after the trade deadline closed and eight Washington veterans — including Scherzer — departed for other teams, Scherzer’s visage stared out at the Nationals’ future. He saw right-hander Josiah Gray, one of the prospects received in a trade with the Dodgers, warming up in shallow right field.
Gray makes his Nationals debut Monday night, starting what Washington hopes is a long and successful tenure in D.C. He’ll do so with the reminders of what the Nationals lost hanging around the park — most poignantly with Scherzer’s two-toned eyes watching with interest at what Washington reaped in return for a trade-deadline fire sale.
When fans filter into Nationals Park for the final two months of the season, their eyes will also be locked on the young players suddenly catapulted into the starting lineup of a team planning for the future. This wasn’t how Washington envisioned the season playing out. But for those benefiting from the sell-off, these final two months could go a long way in solidifying their place on the team in the years to come.
“At this level of competition, you have to take advantage of these opportunities,” elder statesman Ryan Zimmerman said of an increasingly younger clubhouse. “They don’t come very often.”
Since 2012, general manager Mike Rizzo has built a win-now roster built around veterans aiming for postseason success. But as Friday’s trade deadline approached, the reality of the Nationals’ 2021 predicament became clear — they weren’t in a position to make a playoff push, even in a poor NL East.
So Rizzo opted to sell, shipping out Scherzer, shortstop Trea Turner and others for 12 prospects. Gray and catcher Keibert Ruiz are the two biggest returns, both coming from the Dodgers in exchange for Scherzer and Turner. While Gray will receive an immediate call-up and start Monday, Ruiz will begin at Triple-A Rochester.
But Ruiz could soon follow Gray to the big leagues, and right-hander Mason Thompson — part of the return for sending reliever Daniel Hudson to the Padres — is already in Washington. Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia have become everyday players, and reliever Gabe Klobosits made his MLB debut Friday — then followed with a scoreless inning during Sunday’s 6-5 win.
Catcher Tres Barrera said he, Kieboom and Garcia would talk about one day playing in the big leagues together. Their time has come, and Barrera said, “it’s an opportunity, an opportunity to show that we belong.” Others will have that opportunity, too, with more prospects likely on the way once September’s expanded rosters arrive.
“We’re excited to have these guys,” Martinez said. “We got some really good young players, guys that we feel like are going to help us in the future — some in the near future.”
The present might be bumpy, even as Martinez emphasizes his distaste for losing. As the dust settled Friday night, Washington ran out 4-3 winners against the Cubs — another trade-deadline seller. But a defeat Saturday before a walk-off homer Sunday showed that no amount of distaste for losses can rule them out entirely, especially after trading away eight players.
This is where Washington finds itself, though, a team two years out from a World Series now looking to retool quickly for another run.
“When you’re a buyer or you’re not a seller at the trade deadline for basically the last 10 years, I mean, your minor league system is very depleted,” Zimmerman said. “It won us a World Series, so I don’t know why anyone is complaining. … But we needed to restock, and we needed to get some young talent in. Some of that young talent is going to come up now, and I’m excited to watch them play and see them get a chance.”
That young talent will be on display at Nationals Park the rest of the summer, setting the stage for future summers with their likenesses hanging on banners around the park. But for now, as they begin a new era for Washington, they’ll do so with Scherzer’s mismatched eyes watching on from beyond the right-field fence.