I love Juan Soto. He is one of the best hitters in baseball history through his current age (just 23!), and he is one of the few players in baseball right now where you could even try to make a straight-face argument that he’s on Mike Trout’s level of value.
Soto is so good and so singular that, yes, I often think all the way ahead to the offseason after 2024 when Soto will finally be available in free agency, and I can convince myself that the Chicago Cubs have been squirreling away nickels to try to make a run at him. Players like Soto hit free agency in their mid-20s just about never, so it’s worth looking ahead and fantasizing. Don’t judge me.
But what if Soto will “finally be available” sooner than after 2024? What if it’s much sooner?
You’ll understand why this bit from Buster Olney’s column at ESPN caught my eye today:
Will the Washington Nationals trade Juan Soto?
At 23 years old, Soto is already a superstar, and there aren’t any comparable examples of hitters of his stature being dealt at such a young age. But rival execs say the Nationals might well be compelled — and motivated — to move Soto this summer.
They have already tried and failed to sign him to a whopper contract extension. He is represented by agent Scott Boras, who almost always takes his clients into free agency, which begins for Soto after the 2024 season. And the Nationals are going through significant transitions: the team is reportedly for sale, general manager Mike Rizzo is in the last year of his current contract and the franchise that won the 2019 World Series is terrible so far in 2022.
Soto is making $17.1 million this season, in his first year of arbitration eligibility, and he’s likely to earn a record salary through arbitration next season.
“If they’re not going to sign him [to a long-term deal], then they’ll need to trade him,” one evaluator said. “The question is: When?”
Rizzo has demonstrated a willingness to be an aggressive dealer in the past. In the summer before Bryce Harper reached free agency, Rizzo had a trade arranged with the Houston Astros that was eventually squelched by ownership. Given Soto’s rising salary, the sooner he is traded, the more the Nationals will get in return — and if the Lerner family is serious about selling the team, incoming ownership would likely prefer that any Soto trade occur before the transfer of power takes place.
A few big reactions to this:
1.) I think it is extraordinarily unlikely that the Nationals will actually trade Soto this year. While I think it is possible, and I think an offseason trade is also possible (the looming ownership change is a wrinkle), I think they know what they have in Soto, and are going to want to take every last chance to extend him before considering a trade. To me, that means trying again this coming offseason – at a minimum – to hammer out a huge deal. Then they might try again the next year. It’s just so hard to really get “good trade value” for a generational superstar like Soto in his early to mid-20s.
2.) If the Nationals *DO* wind up shopping Soto, the Cubs need to be involved. I know, that sounds a little crazy for a team that is infinitely more likely to be a seller than a buyer this year, but there are only a handful of players like Soto in baseball history. At 23 and with two more years of team control after this season, it would be criminal negligence for any major market club not to try to land Soto if he’s made available REGARDLESS of the day it happens. If the Cubs are way out of it come July, does that mean other big market clubs who are in the race should theoretically be willing to pay more at the deadline? Well, that’s usually the point I make in these situations, but Soto is SO UNIQUELY INCREDIBLE that I’m not sure it matters. Any team should be willing to pay whatever it takes. The Cubs have to come to the table.
3.) Any team trading for Soto this year – again, it’s so unlikely to happen, but we’re proceeding in a world where it does – has to do so with the very clear intention to aggressively pursue a monster extension. Again, Soto is just 23. Yes, you’d have him under control for 2023 and 2024, and the Cubs might be competitive in those years – especially with Soto! – but you want him for so much longer! Never let this guy get away! He’s that level of player! Half a billy? Yes! Do it! MAKE THAT OFFER!
4.) Can the Cubs even put together an offer that would entice the Nationals? It’d be really tough. Very few systems are going to have the kinds of MEGA-IMPACT prospects that it would take to get Soto. The Cubs might not be there yet. Other organizations – all of whom would be just as excited and aggressive as the Cubs – may simply have better pieces. But again, you’d have to try.
Should this become a more realistic and prominent conversation in the months ahead, I’ll definitely dig into it more. For now, I’m trying not to let my brain go too far down an unlikely rabbit hole.