So. You want to trade Juan Soto. (Are we still doing the Captain America meme? Let’s do the Captain America meme.)
Soto is 23 years old. He’s already made two All-Star teams, won a batting title and a World Series, and has a higher career on-base percentage than Mickey Mantle. His career wRC+ (154) is the same as Willie Mays’s and higher than Hank Aaron’s (153). He’s having arguably the worst season of his career, and yet he’s walking almost 20 percent of the time and ranks 14th in the league in wRC+. Soto has posted an OBP of .400 each of the past four seasons, a feat only four other hitters have achieved twice in that time. (Soto also did it in 2018 but came up eight plate appearances short of qualifying for the leaderboard.)
I won’t bore you with more evidence of how good Soto is, since there’s so much of it. He is, without exception, the most talented young hitter I’ve ever seen. He’s not only effective, he’s relatively durable, and he has the desire and charisma to be a true face-of-the-franchise figure, if not a face-of-the-sport figure. And he’s not some 34-year-old whose production is about to fall off a cliff: He’s 23 and has two and a half years of team control left, and presumably another decade of star-level bat in him beyond that. If I were running the Nats, I’d simply sign Juan Soto to an extension.
They tried that, to be fair. Two weeks ago, Washington offered Soto a 15-year, $440 million deal, which would have been the largest contract in MLB history. Soto reportedly rejected the deal and has said he’d like to test free agency, which, of course he would. Not only is he on course to command the most lucrative contract in the history of sports, but he’s a Scott Boras client. MLB owners and their functionaries talk about Boras with the kind of semi-comprehending fear and rage you’ll usually only see when your uncle watches too much cable news.
As incomprehensible a sum as $440 million may be to you and me, it’s still less than what Soto is worth. The current ceiling for the market is Mike Trout’s 12-year, $426.5 million contract extension. That deal pays Trout $5 million more per year than Soto’s would, and Trout signed it three and a half years ago in his age-27 season (a lot has happened in the past three years, in case you haven’t read the news). Like the Giancarlo Stanton deal or the Bryce Harper deal, Washington’s last reported offer was designed to have an overwhelming total value, when in fact it would’ve paid Soto less per year than Miguel Cabrera makes, on a deal that went into effect in 2016. Come on, now.
We don’t know what, if anything, it would take to get Soto to re-sign in Washington. The current MLB record for AAV is Max Scherzer’s $43.3 million-a-year contract with the Mets. And if Soto said no to something in the $40 million per year range—12 years and $480 million or 15 years and $600 million—then fair enough, there’s nothing Washington could realistically do to keep him from testing the open market. But the Nats wouldn’t know for sure how Soto would react to such an offer, because they haven’t made one. And absent that knowledge, they’re now entertaining trade offers.
Why Are the Nationals Doing This?
At last year’s trade deadline, the Nationals had a fourth-place team that had been headed in the wrong direction since winning the World Series in 2019. A championship hangover turned into Stephen Strasburg needing thoracic outlet surgery and Patrick Corbin putting up numbers so bad he might as well have tried throwing with his opposite hand. Scherzer and Kyle Schwarber were months from free agency, and Trea Turner was a year and change away. Top prospect Carter Kieboom had all but busted and Víctor Robles’s bat was regressing.
It made total sense to tear it all down then, and despite holding a personal philosophical aversion to the kind of down-to-the-studs rebuild Washington looked on the verge of undertaking, I praised GM Mike Rizzo for his boldness. With one caveat: The Nationals had to get good again in time to convince Soto to re-sign. And by centering MLB-ready prospects like Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray in the Scherzer deal, Washington indicated that the plan was to regroup for 18 to 24 months, rather than “rebuild” and suckle the revenue-sharing teat indefinitely. But if Soto leaves, what will all that effort have been for?
For one thing, signing Soto might make the Nationals harder to sell. Ted Lerner, who built the team into an NL East powerhouse, is now 96 years old, and the team’s new CEO—Mark, Ted’s son—is eyeing a sale of the team, which Forbes estimates at a $2 billion value. The kind of private equity type who might be able to afford such an expensive proposition would view the Strasburg and Corbin contracts as a liability, which makes sense. By the end of this season, the Nationals will owe about $200 million to two pitchers who aren’t providing any value on the field. Adding another half billion dollars in commitments to Soto makes sense in the real world, but not on paper. And that is, after all, where business deals are made.
So if the Nationals are committed to this strategy, should they execute it now? There’s a certain logic to that idea, because a contending team that’s interested in acquiring Soto would presumably find him more valuable if he could be had for this stretch run. Not only is there no time like the present, Soto is worth more if he’s around for three Octobers instead of two before he either walks or signs an expensive extension.
From the Nationals’ perspective, that makes sense only if Soto is all but certain to go to free agency. Sure, it seems like the relationship between player and team isn’t in a great place at the moment. But the upside for signing Soto is so much higher than trading him (and the downside so much lower) that if there’s even a 15 percent chance a deal is still possible, it’d be worth foregoing the extra prospect in order to pursue that chance. Soto will still be valuable this winter.
If the Nats Do Trade Soto, What Should They Expect in Return?
It’s hard to come up with a comparable situation because, again, Soto is not a player who lends himself to easy comparison. Ted Williams and Mel Ott never got traded. Nor did Barry Bonds. Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, and Francisco Lindor all changed teams with a year or less to go before free agency. Last week, the omniscient Zach Kram compared Soto’s situation to the trades of Cabrera and Chris Sale, and that’ll have to work because no baseball player this good and this young has ever been traded so far away from free agency.
When the Nationals first revealed their willingness to trade Soto, a GM told ESPN’s Jeff Passan that any exchange would have to be likened to “A Herschel Walker deal.” In 1989, the Dallas Cowboys traded Walker to Minnesota in a three-team, 18-player deal so significant it has its own Wikipedia page. The Cowboys used the draft picks—Minnesota’s first- and second-rounders three years running, among other things—to build the core of their Super Bowl–winning teams of the 1990s: Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, Kevin Smith, and Darren Woodson.
That, no doubt, will be Washington’s ideal endgame: trading one star player for future considerations that yield many other star players. Emmitt Smith alone turned out to be a better running back than Walker. (And … I guess I’m not a football expert but Woodson isn’t in the Hall of Fame? Feels like he should be a Hall of Famer to me.)
You can’t trade draft picks in MLB, except under limited circumstances. And even if you could, they wouldn’t be worth as much as they are in football. Plus, the odds of a prospect in the Soto trade eventually eclipsing Soto are so small as to be not worth discussing. So how about another trade from the late 1980s: the infamous deal that sent Wayne Gretzky to the Kings.
The Edmonton Oilers traded Gretzky, his personal valet/enforcer Marty McSorley, and Mike Krushelnyski to Los Angeles in 1988 for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gélinas, three first-round picks, and $15 million in cash. (I know I just said you can’t trade first-round picks in MLB, but bear with me.) The Oilers, still loaded with a handful of other Hall of Famers apart from Gretzky, targeted young players who could contribute right away. Carson had just scored 55 goals in his age-19 season; at the time, the only other teenager to score 50 goals in one NHL season was Gretzky. Gélinas, the Kings’ most recent first-round pick, went on to play 19 seasons in the big leagues. And they got three high draft picks, plus cash, on top of that.
If I were running the Nationals, that’s the kind of package I’d want: A young star position player with multiple years of team control left. Even if that player won’t be as good as Soto, he could still be a franchise player. After that, there’d need to be at least one other good prospect who’s close to MLB-ready, and a handful of others. (Jarrett Seidler of Baseball Prospectus made a list of such prospects on potential trade partners, based on Washington’s proclivity to take big risks on young players with big tools.)
Which Teams Are the Most Likely Trade Partners?
The second-most important point to remember about a potential Soto trade (the most important comes at the end) is that not all prospect pools are created equal. The best player in Baltimore’s system is not the same as the best player in Houston’s system. Very few teams can put together the kind of Gretzky trade package it ought to take to pry Soto from Washington, and not all of those will want to. For instance, the aforementioned Orioles could offer Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, and a handful of other highly regarded prospects from a farm system that’s become very deep in the past few years. But the Nats won’t trade Soto to Baltimore, and the Orioles probably wouldn’t want to extend him anyway.
So who can make such an offer? Bob Nightengale of USA Today listed seven suitors: the Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Mariners, Mets, Yankees, and Cardinals. All of those teams have a need for Soto, but the cost of acquiring him will be steep. And it should be. If I were in Rizzo’s shoes, I’d ask Seattle for Julio Rodríguez, Kyle Lewis, Emerson Hancock, and a few odds and ends. Or maybe the Cardinals could get it done with a package that starts with Dylan Carlson, Jordan Walker, and Nolan Gorman. If Rizzo actually asked for either of those, he’d probably end each phone call in possession of new and creative ways to insult someone’s mother, but no Soto trade. But that’s where discussions ought to start if he wants fair value, and to Rizzo’s credit, he seems to be holding the line: Can’t afford Soto? Too bad, but Rizzo Motors does have a reliable low-mileage Josh Bell on offer.
The obvious place for Soto to end up, given the money it’ll take to extend him, is New York or Los Angeles. Both New York teams have a prospect who could headline a package; Mets catcher Francisco Álvarez is rated no. 2 by FanGraphs and MLB.com; the Yankees’ Anthony Volpe is probably a little overrated just because WFAN callers have heard of him, but both BP and MLB have him in their top 15. And both teams could offer multiple potential impact minor leaguers.
What they can’t do is give Washington the Jimmy Carson analog—the direct plug-and-play big leaguer. The youngest Mets position player the Nationals might have any interest in is Pete Alonso, who will turn 28 later this year. The Yankees have Gleyber Torres, who is somehow still only 25 despite having been in the league since the mid-’90s. But he’s two years older than Soto and will hit free agency at the same time—he wouldn’t fit any better with Washington’s timeline.
The Dodgers are in a further bind because they already sent two of their best prospects to Washington in the last blockbuster fire sale trade a year ago. But they could offer Gavin Lux, who’s only 24, is under team control until 2027, and just figured out how to hit this season after parts of three seasons in the wilderness.
If the Yankees decide they’re willing to offer Torres, Volpe, Oswald Peraza, and so on, the Dodgers probably don’t have the talent to match that package. But what they could do—so could the Mets and Yankees, to be fair—is offer to take back Corbin’s contract as the $15 million cash in the Gretzky trade. Now, I don’t give a good goddamn about the finances of Mark Lerner or whichever human cellphone holster he sells his team to, and neither should you. But that doesn’t mean money won’t play a role. After all, the Betts trade came with a salary dump of David Price. And in the unlikely event the Nationals decide to try to compete again soon, they could reinvest Corbin’s salary in a new star, just as they reinvested Bryce Harper’s salary in Corbin and immediately won a World Series.
But Seriously, Will This Happen?
This is truly the most important point of this potential Soto trade: We’re in unknown territory here. In roughly 150 years of professional baseball history, it seems like everything has happened before and will happen again. But there really is no precedent for a player like Soto getting traded at this point in his career. Whether that happens in the next week, for all the modeling and research that goes on in baseball, will be based on subjective factors. Will a team get aggressive and trade its entire farm system for one player? Will Rizzo blink and just get what he can for Soto now rather than let the situation drag on? Will an unexpected suitor throw the whole process into chaos at the last minute?
Nobody knows. So keep refreshing Twitter and MLB Trade Rumors until we get to the other side of August 2. Otherwise, you might miss history.