- The Washington Times - Friday, July 30, 2021

After the trade deadline passed Friday afternoon, and after the Washington Nationals turned their roster upside down over the course of 28 hours, manager Dave Martinez’s voice wavered as he tried to sum it all up.

He’ll miss all eight veteran players the Nationals traded away to contenders — the moves that signaled a full rebuild two years after a World Series title. He understands why the organization made such moves, with a postseason run this season a pipedream and the need to restock a depleted farm system in the forefront of general manager Mike Rizzo’s mind.

The understanding didn’t outweigh the emotion attached to such a day, though. Washington has been competitive for the better part of the last decade, reaching the pinnacle in 2019 with a championship. The path of the franchise changed with a fire sale at the deadline as the Nationals turn their eyes to the future rather than the present.

But that didn’t prevent Martinez from turning his eyes to the past, sitting with Max Scherzer for 45 minutes Thursday and Friday each, reminiscing on the right-hander’s six-and-a-half seasons in Washington.

“We laughed,” Martinez said. “We were sad.”

That’s baseball, where laughter and tears can intertwine — where a championship-winning team can be torn apart at the trade deadline in the hopes of building a future championship-winning team.

Rizzo knows it better than anyone. He wore his World Series ring Friday — not to gloat or rest on his laurels or to remind those listening to his explanations of what he’s achieved in the past. Instead, he wore that ring to remind himself of what’s possible to achieve. Washington did it with many of the players the team just traded away. Rizzo hopes to do it again with the players he just traded for.

“We got everything out of this group that we could’ve got out, and we reached the highest level,” Rizzo said. “There’s no shame in having to take a step back, refocus, reboot, and start the process again. And that’s what we’re preparing to do.”

The most eye-popping trade the Nationals made was sending Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers. But that was far from the only deal. Closer Brad Hand went to the Toronto Blue Jays and reliever Daniel Hudson headed to the San Diego Padres. Utilityman Josh Harrison and catcher Yan Gomes departed for the Oakland Athletics, left-hander Jon Lester was sent to the St. Louis Cardinals and left fielder Kyle Schwarber joined the Boston Red Sox.

In return, Washington revamped its farm system — a system that MLB.com ranked last earlier this year. The Nationals received 12 prospects for their proven big leaguers, a group headlined by catcher Keibert Ruiz and right-hander Josiah Gray from the Dodgers, who could find themselves playing at the major-league level by September, if not earlier.

That’s the balance a general manager must strike, juggling win-now with the reality of a situation. For Washington, Rizzo saw the window close. So he swapped those who had expiring contracts — barring Turner — for the next generation of talent.

“The last couple of drafts that we had, and the trade deadline acquisitions that we had, will be the core of this next championship-caliber club,” Rizzo said. “And that’s our goal.”

In the buildup to the deadline, Rizzo said there were no untradeable players. He backed that up by trading Turner, a 28-year-old star who’s hitting .322 this season. Turner had one more year of team control, meaning Washington didn’t need to move him for fear of losing him this offseason. But Rizzo said Turner’s value was highest right now, when Los Angeles could use him for two postseasons.

The Nationals had held long-term extension talks with Turner during spring training in 2020, but they tabled those discussions when the season began. Turner and his representation then wanted to wait to see what sort of deals other shortstops across the league signed before pursuing his own. And while Washington and Turner planned to start contract talks this offseason, he was traded before that could occur.

“We’d maximized Trea’s value because of where we’re at as a franchise,” Rizzo said. “Trea Turner with two playoff runs in him and one-and-a-half years is way more valuable than a Trea Turner that’s got one year before free agency. … We benefited from the prospect package because of the length of the contract that he had left.”

Washington has been in this position before. When Rizzo became general manager in 2009, the Nationals lost 103 games that season. They lost 93 the next year and finished one game under .500 in 2011. Over the next eight seasons, Washington finished above .500 in each of them — capping the run with a World Series in 2019.

Rizzo knows what it’ll take to rebuild, although he expects this rendition to be smoother and faster than the one a decade ago. There’s still Juan Soto in right field, a 22-year-old with three more years of team control before he’s due for what Rizzo called “a benchmark type of player” in terms of what contract he’ll receive.

“We would be remiss if we didn’t try to aggressively try to sign him long-term,” Rizzo said.

Martinez said he sat down with Soto in Philadelphia, as the sell-off was just starting, to tell the star he needs to keep his head up, even if the team around him was stripped for parts.

“He’s the guy now that this organization is going to follow,” Martinez said.

Soto will lead the group that Rizzo and Co. view as the next championship-caliber core, assembled through the pieces brought in at the deadline and through the draft the past few years. Rizzo called Soto the “linchpin” to the team’s plans — and he’s one of the last remaining connections to the 2019 World Series still in Washington, along with an injured Stephen Strasburg and a 36-year-old Ryan Zimmerman.

Martinez and Rizzo know to create a sustainable franchise — one capable of competing most years — there are hard decisions to be made, such as selling Scherzer and Turner, two franchise cornerstones.

But that doesn’t mean Martinez couldn’t be emotional after the dust had settled, with tears filling his eyes, his voice wavering, his thoughts as much on the past as they were on the future.

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