At 4:01 p.m. ET on August 2—less than two hours before the 6 ET MLB trade deadline—the Washington Nationals announced that they’d sent outfielder Juan Soto and first baseman Josh Bell to San Diego for a prospect-rich package of six Padres players. The Nationals weren’t slipping Soto’s departure past anyone. Nonetheless, they understandably led the tweet with the guys they got, not the guys they gave up.
We've acquired top prospects SS C.J. Abrams, LHP MacKenzie Gore, OF Robert Hassell III, OF James Wood and RHP Jarlin Susana as well as Major League 1B/DH Luke Voit from the San Diego Padres in exchange for OF Juan Soto and 1B Josh Bell.— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) August 2, 2022
// https://t.co/JHmQgJnXrK pic.twitter.com/GkUwTw9H6n
At 5:00 PM Eastern, the Nats made another, much-less-liked-and-retweeted announcement: They had reached down to Triple-A and called up two obscure rookies—an outfielder, Josh Palacios, and a listed first baseman, Joey Meneses—to replace Soto and Bell.
At 6:26 PM Eastern, the team announced its Soto- and Bell-less lineup for that night’s game against the Mets. That tweet was ratioed, because—well, look at these last names. How many of the first names that go with them could most baseball fans have filled in?
The overworked joke went that Mets starter Jacob deGrom, who was making his injury-postponed season debut, would find facing the newly deconstructed Nats no more daunting than the Triple-A teams he had rehabbed against. Sure enough, he allowed only one run over five frames. But the Nats scored four more after he departed, one of which came off the bat of Meneses, who homered for his first big league hit.
First hit, first homer. What a moment for Joey Meneses! pic.twitter.com/KVaYf5c4jc— MLB (@MLB) August 3, 2022
Meneses was a nice story the second Dave Martinez wrote his name into that much-mocked lineup. At 30 years and 88 days old, he’s the eighth-oldest player to become a major leaguer this year. Born in Culiacan, Mexico, he’s bounced around baseball, washing out of the Braves, Phillies, and Red Sox systems before signing with Washington in January. He’s previously played in the Mexican Pacific League, the Japan Pacific League, the Olympics, and the Caribbean Series. All told, he’d amassed almost 5,500 professional plate appearances in 12 years as a professional before breaking through with the Nats as a direct result of the Soto trade.
“I’m a person, I’m a human, and sometimes this has been really tough,” he’d said in late July. “I mean, I am far from my family and trying to make my dream come true. How can I say this? Sometimes I will think: ‘What am I doing here? I’m losing time.’ Or like, ‘Why did I choose this?’ But in a day or two, I’ll come back and keep working to get there.” When the season started, the ZiPS and Steamer systems projected Soto to be the most valuable player in baseball. Both projected Meneses to be a roughly replacement-level player if he finally made the majors. When he did, it was as an actual replacement, for the worst team in baseball, but he wasn’t picky about the circumstances. As he’d said before the trade, a call-up “would mean everything. That’s been everything to me since I was a little kid.”
And yet: That homer he hit wasn’t a career capper, but the first of a month’s worth of memorable moments. On Thursday, Meneses hit a walk-off homer to top the A’s in 10 innings. It was his seventh homer in the majors, and his fourth hit of the game. In an on-field postgame interview, an announcer recapped the situation: “It’s extra innings, you guys are down. Everyone’s thinking, ‘Whatever, this is still get-it-to-Joey time.’” Until a month ago, almost no one knew who Joey was. Now a do-or-die scenario is synonymous with “get-it-to-Joey time.” And, well, why not? He’s hitting .354/.385/.626. He’s been one of the top 20 hitters in baseball dating back to the day he debuted. He has the most hits and total bases in the first 25 games of a career since Bo Bichette in 2019. When Meneses went to play in Japan in 2019, he attributed his decision to his fondness for Dragon Ball character Goku. “When I quit baseball, I want to become a Super Saiyan,” he said. As it turns out, there was no need to quit first. He’s already done it.
Meneses is hardly the first player to come up and have a hot month (though few have had recent starts this scalding). What makes this case so special is that Meneses had the hugest shoes to fill, and when he slipped them on, his feet were too big. Soto has hit well for his new team, but not, you know, Meneses well; based solely on what he’s done since August 2, people probably wouldn’t be talking about “get-it-to-Juan time.”
That means Meneses has outplayed the centerpiece of the swap ESPN’s Jeff Passan dubbed “the biggest trade in the century-and-a-half-long history of Major League Baseball.” The Padres traded half a farm system for Soto, a superstar, and Soto’s scrub replacement, whom any team could have had, has outhit him. Meneses has, for a full month, managed to outperform a player at the same primary position—he trails only Soto among starts by Nats in right field—who regularly gets comped to Ted Williams, who finished second in NL MVP voting last year, who won this season’s Home Run Derby, and who shortly before he was traded turned down a $440 million extension offer because he was probably worth a good deal more than that. By FanGraphs WAR—which rates Meneses slightly lower than Baseball-Reference’s—Meneses has been twice as valuable as Soto and more than three times as valuable as Soto and Bell combined. (Amusingly, Luke Voit, the throw-in first baseman the Padres sent to D.C., has also outproduced Bell since the trade. At least Josh Hader’s doing … oh.)
Meneses, Soto, and Bell Since the Trade
Now, I’m not saying that the Nats considered Soto expendable because they knew they had his generic-brand equivalent (or superior!) stashed in Triple-A. Nor am I saying that the Padres should have kept their top-prospect powder dry and set their sights on Meneses. None of what’s happened—save for Soto posting a .400-plus OBP—has been foreseeable or sustainable. What I am saying is that this is hilarious, in a “man plans and God laughs” sort of way. (And by “God,” I mean Meneses on this baseball card that says “Messiah.”) So much work went into the trade deadline, and so many teams made difficult decisions, dreaming of getting just a bit better. And unless Meneses (which rhymes with “regresses”) craters between now and October, the guy who got called up because someone had to play right field when Soto switched cities may be the most valuable addition any team made.
It makes no sense, and it makes perfect sense. Joey Meneses is the living embodiment of baseball’s unpredictability.
For those just tuning in...— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) September 2, 2022
Joey Meneses spent 10 years in MiLB.
He was called up for the 1st time on August 2nd.
He homered in his 1st @MLB game and hit 5 more in August.
Tonight, he hit his 1st career walk-off, his 7th HR of the season. pic.twitter.com/AssvQKtY8H
Soto is in his age-23 season, and he’s been a great hitter in the majors for five years. Meneses spent his age-23 season amassing a .625 OPS in High-A. It’s not as if he hasn’t hit at all: His career OPS at Triple-A is .840, and he came close to that there this year. Prior to his call-up, he was slashing .286/.341/.489 for Triple-A Rochester. According to ZiPS creator Dan Szymborski, that Triple-A performance is roughly the equivalent of a .260/.303/.430 line in the majors, which would translate to a 110 OPS+. Respectable, but far from blog-worthy.
So how has Meneses made the majors look a lot easier than Triple-A? When in doubt, defer to Voros’s Law, as laid down by sabermetrician Voros McCracken: “Anybody can hit just about anything in 60 at-bats.”
Meneses is up to 99 at-bats (and 104 plate appearances), but the small sample size song still largely applies. If we wanted to be wet blankets, we could note that Meneses has a .378 BABIP to Soto’s .273 in San Diego; that Meneses has exceeded his expected stats (based on batted-ball quality) more than almost any other hitter, while Soto has fallen far short of his; that Meneses has struck out 18 times and walked four, while Soto has struck out 13 times and walked 22 since the trade. I guess I’m saying that despite the disparity in surface stats since August 2, I have a sneaking suspicion that Juan Soto may be better at baseball than Joey Meneses. Long term, the changing of the outfield guard from Soto to Meneses may not be quite as smooth as the one from Bryce Harper to Soto.
Flap a few butterfly wings, and Meneses’s magical month wouldn’t have happened. For instance, on Thursday, his teammate César Hernández barely missed a walk-off homer of his own in the ninth, which would have ended the game before the clock struck get-it-to-Joey time.* But because the balls have bounced just right, Meneses is having the time of his professional life, and Nats fans have someone to ease the sting of the Soto separation and give them a reason to get out of their seats. And I, a non-Nats fan, have had a reason—and often only one reason—to check the team’s box score each day, in hopes of marveling at Meneses.
*Speaking of statistical wonders: Hernández has zero homers in 540 plate appearances this season, after hitting 21 last year in only 30 more trips to the plate. No qualified hitter has ever come close to getting a goose egg the year after hitting as many homers as Hernández did last year; the fewest homers hit after a season of 21 or more is five, and the most homers hit by anyone who went on to hit zero the next year while qualifying for the battle title is 12. This is the hipster home run race, in which he who doesn’t go deep wins. You want to see whether Aaron Judge can hit 62? I want to see whether César Hernández can hit zero. (OK, I also want to see whether Judge can hit 62.)
More than 250 players have become big leaguers for the first time this year, putting MLB on track to blow by last year’s record of 265 debuts. Many of this year’s arrivals were rare talents whose comings had been heralded; some flourished, while others flamed out. I’m not sure any of them made as much of an impression on me as Meneses, who reminded me what a weird, wonderful, extremely silly sport baseball can be.
Even amid Meneses’s heroics, the Nats have gone 9-17, giving them the second-fewest wins in the sport over that span. His Cinderella slash line may not last the season, let alone next year. Soto is headed for the Hall of Fame, and Meneses is most likely destined to be remembered by a subset of Nats fans who might think, from time to time, “Remember that month what’s-his-name had?” Which is why, if the baseball gods are good, Meneses mania won’t fizzle out just yet. Soto has long years to remind fans of his former team what they’re missing. Give Meneses one more month to remind them what they have.