The last time “Esa Muchacha” blared as Juan Soto stepped to the plate occurred on Monday night when he turned a 95 MPH pitch from New York Mets ace Max Scherzer into a deep centerfield moonshot. Soto later earned a standing ovation in what would be his home finale as a National, but Scherzer being the pitcher on the other side of that duel was an added kick in the groin.
Since Howie Kendrick slapped a go-ahead home run off the right field foul pole in the top of the 7th inning of the 2019 World Series, the front office has overseen a controlled demolition. Jay Gatsby’s downfall was a slow broil compared to the Natsby era’s torpedoing into destitution. In the three years since that 2019 crescendo, the clubhouse has been decimated.
From Ryan Zimmerman to Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and finally Soto, the Washington Nationals’ reservoir of phenoms felt like the good times would last forever. At Tuesday’s trade deadline, the Nationals traded Soto and first baseman Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres for a bushel of prospects. As one of the last Nationals from the team’s opulent 2019 lineup, Soto was the connective tissue of a continuity that dates back to their first season in D.C. Since the franchise’s genesis, they’ve seemingly had a future star on tap. There’s only one degree of separation between Soto and the First National, Ryan Zimmerman, who was promoted to the majors 86 days after becoming the squad’s first draft pick.
The 2019 season began with Scott Boras securing Harper to the Phillies. After winning the World Series, Rendon hopped on a seven-year, $245 million contract offer from the Angels. Zimmerman retired in 2021 after 17 years with the club. One year ago, the Nats packaged their baserunning Road Runner Trea Turner and Max Scherzer to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the trade, they gave up Scherzer who went 92-47 with a 2.80 ERA, won a trio of Cy Youngs, and pitched a multitude of no-hitters in seven seasons. The trade of Turner was a prelude to what was to come for Soto. Turner was coming off a season in which he won the NL batting title, smacked 28 dingers, led the NL in stolen bases for the second time, and was still under team control for a year and a half. Likewise, Soto will be under team control with the Padres for possibly the next three postseasons.
Meanwhile, the Nats’ abundant minor league pipeline has gone bone dry. Their top prospect in the minors prior to the Padres trade was a right-handed pitcher ranked outside the top 40 by MLB.com. Trading Soto to the Padres has turned the faucet on, but prospects stuffed into megadeals are a mixed bag. Left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore has the stuff to be the most promising gem acquired in the Soto sell-off and Robert Hassell III is ranked the 21st best prospect.
Unfortunately, the Lerner family’s impending sale amplifies the amorphous future facing the Nationals. Maybe they’ll bounce back with a billion-dollar owner who’s ready to actually competitively bid on their homegrown superstars. Anthony Rendon asked for far too much after the 2019 season, but one wonders if the Nats abandoned the Soto-Turner-Scherzer era too soon. Recalibrating for another run would have been worth the risk.
Stephen Strasburg is technically an active ace on the staff, but he’s been a resident on the IR long enough to buy a property there instead of leasing, pitching just eight starts since 2019. Washington squeezed a decade more out of Strasburg than we thought his mechanics would allow, so it hasn’t been a seismic letdown. That he lasted through 2019 was a medical miracle.
Harper got the Freddy Adu treatment when the team made him the no-duh first overall pick in 2010, but with a more satisfying ending. Even after Harper bounced to the Phillies prior to the 2019 season, the Nationals simply leaned more on their new teenage phenom.
Soto ascended into a franchise cornerstone much more subtly than Harper or Strasburg. His promotion to the majors was a footnote due to him being the youngest neophyte in MLB. Robles, two revolutions of the Earth older than Soto, was considered the farm system’s top prospect.
Harper nabbed six All-Star appearances, Rookie of the Year, and an NL MVP award at the age of 23. Soto could wind up better in the long run. At 23, his final home run, in addition to his Home Run Derby title affirmed that he’s just getting started.
Soto was the last phenom and the Nats might be lost in the depths of the NL East for a while.
They could bounce back next spring like D.C.’s iconic cherry blossoms, but for now, the roots in D.C. need to be replanted. The era of prosperity is over.