The Washington Post
Spotlight inevitably will remain squarely on Nationals’ young slugger
los angeles — That Juan Soto arrived Monday for the MLB All-star Game at the center of his sport’s swirl was obvious, and that was well before he won the Home Run Derby against the backdrop of the sunset off the San Gabriel Mountains. Turning down a 15-year, $440 million contract offer — and having that information become public — has a way of shifting the spotlight in your direction. That is more money than anyone has ever signed for, so he has to take it. It’s not nearly enough on a yearly basis for a 23-year-old who’s impossibly precocious. Pick a side.
The questions, though, are far more obvious than the answers. Trade Juan Soto? Well, if he said no to that, it’s your only option. But . . . trade Juan Soto?! Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ longtime general manager, would have to get in front of a mic and say, “I traded him.”
Swallow hard. It’s all so emotional, which is inconvenient and inevitable. Take the emotion
out of sports, and you’re probably making smarter business decisions. But take the emotion out of sports, and what’s left for the fans?
This is a hard one, and it’s not going away soon. If a trade happens, the pressure on the worst-in-baseball Nationals to have maximized their return will be enormous — all while a fan base already dealing with a painful rebuild evaluates the move in 20/20 hindsight. It would only be natural to cast one eye toward how Soto performs in his new landing spot while wanting to squeeze some sort of similar performance from the — pick a number — half-dozen high-level prospects the Nationals would land in return.
Whatever the outcome, it’s clear this issue will dominate baseball until the Aug. 2 trade deadline — and potentially well beyond. It provided buzz here on the day of the Home Run Derby, in which Soto beat Cleveland’s José Ramírez in the first round, then St. Louis Cardinals legend Albert Pujols, who embraced the young master afterward. In the finals, he came back against Seattle rookie Julio Rodríguez, a walk-off that involved him tossing his bat skyward. For posterity, the score of the last round: Soto 19, Rodríguez 18.
“This feels amazing,” Soto said in his on-field interview.
The Home Run Derby means nothing for Soto’s credentials. But it won’t decrease the buzz, which will follow him until the last time he pulls off a Nats uniform — be it this month, in 2024 or after that.
“Every time I see one of these articles come out,” said Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner, who won the World Series with Soto and the Nationals in 2019, “I text him to see what’s going on. It’s not easy.”
So Soto did all he could do Monday afternoon at Dodger Stadium: Control the situation as he controls an at-bat, which is with both discipline and flair.
“I’ve been a National since Day 1,” Soto said, a bank of television cameras and eager reporters hanging on his every word. “Why should I want to change? I been here my whole life and my career. I just feel great where I’m at. And whatever the decision they make, I [am] just going to get comfortable in a couple days. But at the end of the day, like I say, I don’t control any of that.
I’m just here to play baseball and play as hard as I can.”
In Washington, for how long? The contract offer could be seen as both legitimate from the Nationals’ perspective — because it’s greater in total dollars than the 12-year, $426.5 million deal the Los Angeles Angels gave Mike Trout in 2019 — and not enough for Soto and agent Scott Boras, who roll their eyes at a $29.3 million average annual value. Pick whatever side of that impasse you want, but Turner speaks the truth here: “He’s going to be just fine on money no matter what decision he makes.”
So, to the unthinkable: trading Soto, who wouldn’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season. Let’s be clear about what exploring a trade would be — and what it wouldn’t be — for the Nationals. It is not a salary dump. It is both baseball and fiscal responsibility. In surveying general managers around the majors over the weekend, it’s clear Soto’s value will never be higher than it is now.
What could he bring in return this summer? The consensus is this: more than any single player — ever. It’s not just his talent, which has been obvious since the Nationals called him up in May 2018 as a 19-year-old. It’s the stage of his career, established as a star but not yet in his prime. A record haul?
“Can’t see how it wouldn’t be,” one exec said. “Three pennant races.” Others concurred.
So, put it another way: Failing to, at least, find out what Soto could bring in return would be some form of malpractice.
But none of that means Soto absolutely will be traded. The Nationals’ situation is different than most teams’. The Lerner family are actively pursuing a sale of the club — and when we say “pursuing a sale,” we mean “will sell the team.” So their best and final offer — which, presumably, this was — might not be the best and final offer from a new owner. That’s a guessing game, because you know neither the owner-to-be nor her or his proclivities. It is complicated but also piques Soto’s curiosity.
“For the rebuild, first of all, we got to know the new owner,” Soto said. “Nobody knows the new owners, so for me I would love to get the new owner and see what is on his mind and see what we can do to help the team as much as we can with the GM and try to provide another really good team.”
It’s also easy for Soto to paint himself as the victim. There are indications that he prefers free agency, which would be his right. In February, when ESPN reported that Soto had turned down an initial offer of
$350 million, he was quoted as saying: “I think the best option is to go year by year and wait for free agency. My agent, Scott Boras, has control over the situation.”
When I asked Monday, Soto didn’t back down from that stance: Is the idea of free agency, in which 30 teams could bid on your services, appealing?
“Yeah, why not?” he said. “At the end of the day, we want to see how the market is going to be for everybody.”
The market, at least via trade, is hard to define. A team would need the capital in high-end, franchise-restoring prospects; must have the financial wherewithal to pay Soto what he’ll make in his final two years of arbitration (perhaps north of $45 million); and be in position to win. That whittles the field significantly.
There is almost no comp to a trade such as this. In December 2007, the then-florida Marlins dealt 24-year-old four-time allstar Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis to the Detroit Tigers for a package of six prospects, including two recent first-round picks (outfielder Cameron Maybin and lefty Andrew Miller). Cabrera was two seasons from free agency.
That’s close. But that third pennant race — and potential postseason appearance — means the Nationals could, and probably should, ask for more.
Could they get it? And if they did, would they be able to pull the trigger?
So many questions. No way for Soto — or anyone, really — to answer them. When his Monday media session was over, Soto turned and pulled down the cardboard nameplate that was stuck on the wall behind him — a keepsake, complete with the Nationals’ logo and his No. 22. He held it up and posed for a picture with Boras.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” Boras told him.
Juan Soto is in control in the batter’s box and behind a microphone. He is not in control of what happens to him over the next two weeks. It is unsettling to all involved, but the answers won’t come easy.