WASHINGTON (AP)Juan Soto had already left Nationals Park after he was traded along with Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres in the biggest deal of deadline day. His face was still everywhere.
Boxes of ”Juan Solo” Star Wars-style bobbleheads of Soto remained in the lockers of several now former teammates, and his larger-than-life poster was visible in center field Tuesday. They served as sobering reminders of the latest star Washington got rid of, with Soto following Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Max Scherzer and Trea Turner out of town.
”I feel terrible for them,” injured reliever Sean Doolittle said of Nationals fans forced to watch one franchise cornerstone after another depart. ”I can empathize with how they’re feeling after the guys that we’ve had here that are wearing other uniforms. … What can you say? I don’t know. I’m still here, if that helps.”
Doolittle is among a few players still around from Washington’s 2019 World Series-winning team, and even he left and returned. Moving on from Soto further severs ties with that championship and the near-decade of contention that preceded it.
A year after trading Scherzer, Turner and several others plunged the organization into a full-scale, long-term rebuild, digging even deeper into that by trading a generational talent short of his 24th birthday signals many dark days ahead for the Nationals amid uncertainty surrounding the Lerner family that is looking to sell and who will next own them.
”Moving forward, try to pick up the pieces and still try to go out and win games I think is important,” outfielder Lane Thomas said.
Rather than calling the Soto trade another crushing blow in the name of dismantling the roster, general manager Mike Rizzo deemed it a step toward contending sooner than later thanks to the package of five young players Washington got in return: rookie left-hander MacKenzie Gore and prospects James Wood, C.J. Abrams, Robert Hassell III and Jarlin Susana.
Rizzo wore his World Series ring and a shirt bearing the trophy intentionally to show what the team has done and hopes to do again.
”In 2019, we had a slogan, `Bumpy roads lead to beautiful places,”’ Rizzo said. ”We’re in a bumpy road right now, and we believe that coming out of this thing, it’ll be a beautiful place.”
It won’t be beautiful for a some time, possibly after Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez – and almost everyone currently in the clubhouse – are long gone. That humbling realization seemed to hit Doolittle, who at 35 is rehabbing and still found it surreal to watch a report of the trade on a TV screen in front of him.
”Even though there was a chance of this, it seemed like for the last month or so, it still feels a little bit shocking and disorienting,” Doolittle said. ”When somebody like Soto gets moved, it does kind of remind you that if he can get moved, anybody can get moved. It sounds surreal saying it out loud.”
It’s especially surreal given it has been less than three years since Soto, Rendon, Turner and Scherzer were key pieces of the first championship team in franchise history. The next big question is what the next ownership group will inherit in terms of an on-field product.
Rizzo and Martinez attempted to paint a rosy picture of what’s to come … eventually … after making the brutally difficult decision to trade Soto.
”As an organization, we felt like we had to do what we had to do,” Martinez said. ”We’re in a position now to move on, and we feel like with the players we got, the future’s bright and I’m looking forward to that.”
It takes a telescope to see that far into a bright future for Washington. Doolittle described the organization as ”starting on the ground floor” working toward another title, but even the 2019 World Series champions pennant was little consolation in the Nationals’ post-Soto world.
”You’ve got to start somewhere and I guess they felt like this is where they needed to start,” he said. ”Today’s another tough day, for sure. That flag’s going to fly forever, for sure, but this stinks.”
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