The Washington Post

Trading Soto might be smart, but it also might be impossible

- Barry Svrluga

To anyone lamenting the mere notion that Juan Soto could be traded, here’s some solace that doesn’t eliminate the possibilit­y but may be enough to get you through the day: Man, pulling off such a deal will be hard. Not impossible. But really, really hard.

When Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic broke the news Saturday that Soto had turned down a 15-year, $440 million contract offer from his Washington Nationals and those Nationals would therefore explore trading him, my realtime reaction was, “Man, that’s tough, but they have no choice.”

That’s still the case. If Soto seems intent on going to free agency (and he does), the responsibl­e course of action here — indeed, the duty — is to see what a 23-year-old who is regarded by so many as the best hitter on the planet could bring in return.

But in the week that this story has engulfed baseball — Soto’s fate is the most riveting aspect as the second half begins for the Nationals on Friday night at Arizona — I have come to another conclusion: The list of potential roadblocks to such a sport-altering deal is both real and long. Put another way: It’s a

Nationals at Diamondbac­ks

Today, 9:40 p.m., MASN2

heck of a lot easier to keep Juan Soto than it is to trade him.

Now, that’s not an endorsemen­t of keeping him. Right now, Soto’s march to free agency feels inevitable. The Nationals’ position in last place — even with Soto in the lineup — feels secure. There are so many needs on the major league roster and at the upper levels of the minors. Trades of Josh Bell and Nelson Cruz and Kyle Finnegan and Carl Edwards Jr. — and whoever else — won’t yield a single elite prospect. There’s no Matt Capps-for-wilson Ramos gem likely in the next couple of weeks.

Soto, by himself, could yield the kinds of players who could develop into starters, even stars, to fill multiple holes. Single-handedly, none of them could replace Soto. Collective­ly, though, the right package could make the Nats more competitiv­e more quickly.

So why not do it? There’s a difference between the desire and the ability to make a trade.

Start with the idea of “the right package.” There is some consensus that, should he be traded this summer, Soto’s availabili­ty for not one, not two, but three postseason­s would be worth a record haul. But what such a record haul would look like is a matter of opinion. The number of prospects. The level of those prospects. Whether current major leaguers with little service time but lots of team control could be involved. On and on.

There’s a public relations element to all of this, too. While baseball evaluation­s have to be the driving factor in any trade, the Nationals have to consider — at least in a secondary way — how the deal will resonate with their fan base. General Manager Mike Rizzo has a longstandi­ng record of making solid trades. Rizzo is nothing if not confident in his own moves.

Still, it’s not hard to see the Nationals — rightfully — setting a price for Soto that other teams deem unmatchabl­e. The list of potential suitors is limited. Any teams interested in trading for Soto would have to be poised for postseason runs this year and the next two; would have to understand Soto most likely isn’t re-signing with them, either; and almost certainly would have to be able to pay Soto record sums in his remaining two years of arbitratio­n.

In talking to executives and agents over the past week, that group would include the Dodgers, the New York Yankees, perhaps the New York Mets, the San Diego Padres and . . . who else, really? Maybe there’s a sleeper such as Tampa Bay, which never could land a player of Soto’s pedigree in free agency but might like him on a short-term deal. But even if three such mystery landing spots exist, the list is short.

So as much as it’s obvious that the return for Soto would have to be epic — at least in part so Rizzo could stand before his fan base and say he was more excited about the future than he was before the trade was made — it’s easy to see a path where potential deals collapse under the weight of it all.

Say, for a minute, that Rizzo and his staff do, in fact, agree to terms with another team. The process wouldn’t end there.

Ownership would have to give its approval for such a monumental move — even if the ownership of the Lerner family is in significan­t flux, which we will get to.

The situation the Nationals faced with Bryce Harper in 2018 was decidedly different from Soto’s situation for any number of reasons. Most important are that Harper was just a half-season from free agency and the Nationals remained in a period when they intended to contend every year. But it’s still instructiv­e here.

That summer, Rizzo agreed to terms with the Astros on a deal to send Harper to Houston. But Mark Lerner had to approve it. According to multiple people with knowledge of that situation, Lerner couldn’t stomach sending a homegrown MVP elsewhere, even for half a season. The Nats called off the trade. Harper signed with Philadelph­ia in the offseason.

What’s relevant now? Well, Lerner and his family are actively pursuing a sale of the club — a sale that most in the sport believe will be completed around November. At some level, why would they care? Trade him? Keep him? It won’t be their team anyway.

That’s all true. But the Lerners wouldn’t have extended the $440 million offer if they didn’t have some inclinatio­n to lock up Soto as part of their legacy, a parting gift for Washington. It’s entirely conceivabl­e that the Lerners — either collective­ly or Mark individual­ly — would prefer to say, “His future is up to the new owners,” rather than: “We shipped out the last meaningful piece of a World Series winner. Try to sell tickets now.”

The worst outcome of not trading Soto this summer: The price would go down, perhaps significan­tly. But it’s also not difficult to see a spin in which Rizzo, speaking for the current ownership — because he so often has to speak for the current ownership — could say, “We thought it was best to see if a new owner wanted to make an effort to keep Juan, who we love and want to be here forever.”

There are so many good, solid baseball reasons to pursue a trade. But the hurdles are real and high. They exist in agreeing on what the right price would be. They exist in figuring out how to present such a gut-punch to a fan base already dealing with a rebuild. And they exist in convincing the owners that they’re doing a service for whoever buys the team. Maybe that’s not insurmount­able. We will know in less than two weeks.

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 ?? CAROLINE BRENNAN/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTO­CK ?? If the Nationals try to deal Juan Soto, the asking price could limit the field of potential suitors for the 23-year-old.
CAROLINE BRENNAN/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTO­CK If the Nationals try to deal Juan Soto, the asking price could limit the field of potential suitors for the 23-year-old.

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