How did the citizens get here? Four reasons why the champions of 2019 will become the champions of 2022

Less than three years ago, the Washington Nationals were on top of the baseball world. They completed an improbable run to capture the 2019 World Series Championship a) 19-31 on May 23, b) down by two runs in the eighth inning of the Wild Card Game, c) down by two runs in the eighth inning of the NLDS. down game 5, and d) down three games to two in the World Series. Citizens of 2019 refuse to die.

Fast forward to today and the Nationals are in last place heading into at least 95 losses in their second straight season. Since winning the World Series less than three years ago, Washington has a .388 winning percentage, a 99-game losing streak over a 162-game schedule. Only the Pittsburgh Pirates (.372) and Arizona Diamondbacks (.378) have higher winning percentages since the start of the 2020 season.

We haven’t seen a World Series winner crash this quickly since the firesale days of the old Florida Marlins, and the Nationals themselves staged a firesale this week. He has done what was unthinkable a few months ago. and traded wunderkind Juan Soto to the San Diego Padres for a five-prospect package.. Soto declined a 15-year, $440 million extension a few weeks ago. And that apparently got the team to work.

“He’s a generational player. He’s a wonderful person and a true gentleman of the game. What can you say about Juan Soto that hasn’t already been said?” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo told after the trade. “… There was no order to trade him or not. It was business as usual. Ownership gave me the latitude to make a good baseball deal if I felt it was franchise-changing. Bargain, and it turns out we found one to our liking and it worked. Congrats on making it work, on the other hand.

Soto is one of only 44 players in MLB history to reach 2,400 at-bats before his 24th birthday, putting him in an exclusive club, joining Ted Williams. It is second in twenty percentage and fourth. Behind Williams, Ty Cobb, and Mike Trout in OPS+. It’s not just a great young player. It’s a once-in-a-generation talent doing work that rarely happens.

How do things go so wrong, so quickly, that less than three years after winning the World Series, you’re trading a generational talent and a franchise icon with two more seasons of arbitration eligibility? If Soto was coming in free agency, well, I could understand, but he’s tied to the Nationals through 2024. The organization must consider trading this guy as the best possible move.

A team doesn’t fall that far, without that much momentum going wrong. Here are four reasons why the Nationals went from World Series champion to last-place team (and traded away Soto) in a three-year span.

1. Too much elite talent out of the gate

The Nationals won the 2019 World Series by excelling not with depth, but with top talent. Soto and Anthony Rendon carried the offense (along with some timely Howie Kendrick home runs) and the trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin combined to throw nearly 60 percent of the team’s postseason innings. You have to lean on your stars in October, and no champion in recent memory has leaned on their stars as much as the 2019 Nationals.

All that elite talent — or, more accurately, elite performance — is gone. Soto, Scherzer, and Trea Turner were waived and Rendon was released as a free agent. Strasburg and Corbin are still with the Nationals but are shells for 2019. Strasburg shows it wasn’t just a “keep the player” issue. He was elite in 2019, he is not now. Same with Rendon. So, the Nationals were getting these high-level performances in 2019 that aren’t anymore, either because the player is gone or declined.

To put it another way, Washington’s championship corps quickly fell short of championship caliber. Rendon’s immediate departure as a free agent and the fall of Strasburg and Corbin removed much of the impact from the roster. Almost every year we hear that a World Series winning team has the ability to become a family — it’s rarely true, but we hear it — because they have controllable impact ability. That wasn’t the case with the Nationals’ roster in 2019.

2. Free agent contracts go south.

Corbin and Strasburg combined to post 10.6 WAR in 2019 and that’s just the regular season. In the three years since then, he has been worth minus 2.0 times. The Nationals won the World Series in Year 1 of Corbin’s six-year, $140 million contract, so from a “flags fly forever” perspective, it was worth it. He’s now the worst starting pitcher in baseball, and if he doesn’t win the World Series, Corbin will go down as one of the worst free agent signings in recent baseball history. (And he still can.)

Strasburg was named World Series MVP in 2019, opted out of four years and $100 million remaining on his contract, then re-signed with the club to a new seven-year, $245 million contract. It was the richest pitching contract in baseball history at the time. (That lasted about 24 hours because Garrett Cole signed his nine-year, $324 million contract the next day.) Injuries have limited Strasburg to eight ineffective starts since signing his new contract. has been given, and it is unclear how successful he will be. Contribute to the future. That deal is a complete disaster.

It’s not just the Corbyn and Strasbourg deals that have gone south either. The Nationals re-signed Kendrick to a one-year, $6.25 million contract after the World Series and he was a replacement-level DH in 2020. They re-signed Daniel Hudson to a two-year, $11 million contract and received 54 1/3. Middle reliever quality innings before he was traded away. Washington gave Will Harris three years and $24 million, and he pitched 23 2/3 innings over those three years, including none in 2022. Actively hurt the team.

Washington’s best free agent signing after the 2019 World Series, by a mile, is Kyle Schwarber. They gave him one year and $10 million last offseason, then socked 25 homers in 72 games before getting hurt and traded away last season. Their second best free agent after the 2019 World Series is Josh Harrison, who originally signed a minor league deal with the club and gave them a .291/.363/.431 slash line in 123 games over two seasons. As far as free agent success stories go, there aren’t many.

Years ago, Ben Lindbergh did the research and found out World Series winners re-sign their free agents at a higher rate than other teams., and it makes sense. There’s an emotional component to these signings, as well as falling into the “we have the magic formula” trap and thinking you need to keep the band together. Nations were no different. They re-signed Strasburg, Kendrick, Hudson, Aníbal Sánchez, and others to contracts that didn’t work out at all. And on top of that their other signings (Harris, Lester, etc.) largely backfired. Washington’s efforts to replenish what was left of his core proved disastrous.

3. Not enough ‘stealth’ pickups.

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Who is Chris Taylor of Washington? His Clay Holmes? Is it 35-year-old Paolo Espino and his 4.10 ERA over the past three years in 182 1/3 swingman innings? The Nationals don’t have the Taylor/Holmes variety and finding hidden gems among baseball’s best teams is a common theme. The best teams build their roster in every possible way. Drafts, trades, free agency, waivers, and stealing low-value players away from other organizations. The Nationals are missing that last part.

In the grand scheme of things, these are small beans. Being in a civil strife and keeping Soto was not a stealth pickup or two. This speaks to a larger issue though. Washington’s Department of Research and Development is behind the sport’s elite teams. The proof is in the field. A lot of moves aren’t working and they occasionally dig up amazing difference makers. No stealth pickup is a sign of that. An R&D group that isn’t up to par with the league’s best is a disease.

4. Poor player development

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This is the single biggest problem facing the countrymen right now. Their farm system just hasn’t produced enough talent to sustain a postseason contender, and that’s saying something for an organization that let Soto out not too long ago. Baseball America Washington’s farm system ranked 26th in baseball this spring. They were ranked 30th last year, 28th in 2020 and 24th in 2019. Spend so many years near the bottom of the rankings and you’ll pay the price at some point.

Baseball America Washington’s system ranked 12th in baseball in 2018, a year before they won the World Series. This is the last time they have finished in the top half of the league. Check out their top five prospects this year:

  1. By Victor Robles: Starting center fielder on 2019 World Series team, but has been a .217/.300/.308 hitter since. Robles seems to have fallen out of favor with the organization.
  2. By Juan Soto: Incredible player. You can spend your entire life following prospects and still never see your favorite team produce a player this good.
  3. RHP Erick Fedde: The former first-round pick did not pitch in the 2019 postseason and has a career 5.19 ERA, including a 5.08 ERA in 276 1/3 innings since the Word Series title.
  4. IF Carter Kieboom: Another former first round pick. Kieboom had a cup of coffee in 2019 and is a career .197/.304/.285 hitter in the big leagues. Like Robles, he seems out of favor.
  5. LHP Seth Romero: Another first round pick. He has thrown 85 2/3 innings over parts of five professional seasons and has not pitched this year due to injury.

Soto is a generational success story and Robles has contributed to a World Series title. Apart from these two, the farm system has produced very little in recent years. Four players on Washington’s active roster originally signed with the team as amateurs and came up through the system: Robles, backup catcher Trace Barrera, shortstop Luis Garcia, and outfielder Yedel Hernandez. Garcia, No. 6 on this 2018 list, is the only one with a realistic chance to be on Washington’s next contending team.

This is a huge problem! And isn’t that a bit about citizens trading soto for less potential? How confident are you that they can get the most out of CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, et al? They got it right before with Soto, and Turner and Bryce Harper, so the Nationals have had success with really elite talent. Maybe the guys they got in the Soto trade will pan out and Washington will be where they want to be in 2-3 years. That said, their player development track record warrants skepticism.

So where will the Citizens go now that Soto has been traded? Well, they’re going to a new owner, that much we know. The team is for sale and we won’t know the direction of the franchise until it is sold. Does the new ownership group warrant a lengthy multi-year rebuild? They may have no choice. Do they want to try to compete for an expansion postseason spot in 2023? It may sound crazy but it’s not. Look what the Padres tried in 2015. Everything is a mystery until the new owner takes over.

This much we know: Washington will have to improve some things behind the scenes even if it buys the franchise. For baseball to be a consistent contender in this era, there are player development and R&D issues that must be addressed. The Nationals won 93-plus games five times in an eight-game stretch from 2012-19, but what worked then doesn’t necessarily work now. The Soto trade was an unfortunate — and I’d argue unnecessary move — but what’s done is done, and now the Nationals must begin the process of getting the organization back on the rails.