Retired numbers: Washington Nationals

Five jerseys have been honored, so why do the Nats keep using them?

Question: When is a retired number not actually retired?

Answer: When it belongs to the Washington Nationals.

The Nats acknowledge three numerals as retired, saluting four of the franchise’s greatest players. They’ve also set aside a numberless jersey in honor of their original owner.

Yet there’s something strange about the Nationals’ definition of “retired.” Two of the club’s three special numbers are being worn by Washington players this season, and the third was in use as recently as 2018.

What’s the explanation?

The answer lies in the split history of the team, which was born as the Montreal Expos in 1969. The Expos retired the five jerseys cited above during their 36 years in Quebec. They followed baseball’s standard practice, removing the honored numbers from circulation.

But the franchise relocated in 2005 to Washington, whose fans had never seen any of the Expos’ greats take the field. The club’s new owners determined that a two-pronged strategy was appropriate. They would acknowledge the previous retirements, though they would also begin using the numbers again.

Their decision makes for a strange situation, unmatched in any of the 15 previous stops in our team-by-team examination of retired numbers. But a return to normalcy seems probable in the next few years, when two or three of Washington’s homegrown heroes are almost certain to be honored.

And it’s a good bet that their numbers will be pulled for good.

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Nationals’ numbers already retired

All of the players honored by the Expos spent several seasons with other organizations. They enjoyed unquestioned success in Montreal, but perhaps are better remembered for their accomplishments elsewhere. Three of the four have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

One of the retired numbers was shared by two honorees. Here’s the rundown in numerical order.

No. 8 Gary Carter (1974-1984, 1992) qualified for seven All-Star teams as a catcher for the Expos. He is the franchise’s all-time leader (encompassing 52 seasons in Montreal and Washington) in wins above replacement (55.8), and he’s third in games played (1,503) and fifth in hits (1,427). Carter made his biggest mark as the sparkplug of the 1986 world-champion New York Mets.

No. 10 Rusty Staub (1969-1971, 1979) played only 518 games for the Expos. Yet the redheaded right fielder was the club’s initial fan favorite — partly because he learned to speak French — and he would be immortalized in Montreal lore as “Le Grand Orange.” Staub, the only honored player not in Cooperstown, is fifth in franchise history in batting average (.295). He played more games for three other organizations: the Astros, Mets, and Tigers.

No. 10 Andre Dawson (1976-1986) broke in with a bang, winning the Rookie of the Year Award in 1977. The center and right fielder twice finished second in voting for the Most Valuable Player Award as an Expo. He hit at least 20 homers in seven seasons in Montreal, and he ranks third in franchise history in runs (828) and fourth in hits (1,575). Dawson left the Expos as a free agent in 1987 and immediately won MVP honors by hitting 49 homers and driving in 137 runs for the Cubs.

No. 30 Tim Raines (1979-1990, 2001) made seven All-Star teams during his Montreal years, led the National League in stolen bases four times, and topped the NL with a .334 batting average in 1986. The left fielder still ranks second in franchise history in WAR (49.1) and first in runs (947) and stolen bases (635). Raines was traded by the Expos to the White Sox in 1991 and spent another 11 seasons with the Sox and four other clubs.

A numberless jersey was retired by the Expos in honor of Charles Bronfman, who owned the franchise for 22 seasons (1969-1990). He achieved greater fame outside of baseball as a member of the family that ruled the Seagram’s liquor empire.

Nationals’ candidates for retired numbers

The Expos qualified for the playoffs only once during their 36 years in Montreal, never making the World Series. But the franchise has been more fortunate in its Washington incarnation, reaching the playoffs five times and winning the world championship in 2019.

This success has raised the profiles of several players, perhaps leading to retirement ceremonies in the future.

Here, again in numerical order, are seven possibilities.

No. 11 Ryan Zimmerman (2005-2021) was the franchise’s very first draft choice after its relocation. The third and first baseman has amassed the highest WAR during the team’s Washington years (38.9), and he has played the most games since the move (1,690). Zimmerman is also the overall Montreal-Washington leader in hits (1,786), home runs (270), and runs batted in (1,015).

No. 22 Juan Soto (2018-2021) is only 22 years old, yet the left fielder has shown signs of greatness. Soto finished second in Rookie of the Year voting as a 19-year-old in 2018, and he led the National League with a .351 batting average in last year’s truncated season.

No. 27 Vladimir Guerrero (1996-2003) remains the franchise leader in batting average (.323) and slugging average (.588), and he’s second in home runs (234). The right fielder played more seasons with the Expos than the Angels (six), yet his plaque in Cooperstown features a Los Angeles cap.

No. 31 Max Scherzer (2015-2021) won a pair of Cy Young Awards in his early years in Washington (2016 and 2017). He boasts the second-lowest earned run average in franchise history (2.82), and he’s the Montreal-Washington leader in strikeouts per nine innings (11.8). Scherzer notched three postseason victories when the Nats won the 2019 world title.

No. 34 Bryce Harper (2012-2018) ranks second among Washington-era players in runs (610) and home runs (184), and he’s third in hits (922). The right fielder was honored as the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2012 and its MVP in 2015. Harper left the Nats for Philadelphia as a free agent.

No. 37 Stephen Strasburg (2010-2021) has piled up the most wins (112) and innings (1,443) of any Washington-era pitcher, and he’s the overall franchise leader in strikeouts (1,697). Strasburg scored five postseason wins for the Nats in 2019, being named the MVP of the World Series.

No. 45 Steve Rogers spent his entire career (1973-1985) with the Expos, and he is undoubtedly the franchise’s preeminent pitcher. Rogers still owns the most wins in Montreal-Washington history, 158, which is 46 more than anyone else. And his 2,838 innings are more than 1,200 ahead of his closest competitor. Rogers finished in the top five in Cy Young voting three times.

The outlook

Both Montreal stars listed above seem worthy of having their jerseys retired. Guerrero is a Hall of Famer, after all, and Rogers has the strongest career totals of any of the franchise’s pitchers.

But the Nats — with their retirement/unretirement policy — have made it clear where they stand on the Montreal phase of their history. It’s unlikely that any more legacies from the Quebec years will be honored.

That leaves the five candidates with Washington connections. All of them are still active, so no decisions are imminent.

The strongest case can be made for Zimmerman, whose big-league debut occurred during the franchise’s inaugural season in the nation’s capital. It’s almost 100% certain that his number will be retired whenever he decides to hang up his spikes.

Scherzer and Strasburg are strong contenders, too. Their pitching stats may not match those of Rogers, but their value to the franchise has been much greater, as evidenced by their postseason heroics.

Harper also enjoyed considerable success in Washington, though it could be argued that he didn’t spend enough time with the club. A complicating factor was his abrupt departure, which left a hint of ill will. Yet it should be noted that the team has not issued Harper’s No. 34 to anyone else since he left.

And Soto? It’s way too early to tell, though if he maintains his current course, he’ll undoubtedly become a strong candidate to be honored.

Let’s check back in a decade.

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