Sports

Hear Me Out: Do Not Trade One of the Best Young Players Ever

The Washington Nationals seem to think it might be a good idea to get rid of their 23-year-old megastar. Uhh …

Soto smiles and looks upward, holding his bad down by his hips in his left hand
Juan Soto during the Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium on Monday, in Los Angeles. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Major League Baseball only has so many bona fide franchise players. It has even fewer who have already demonstrated that they can be a cornerstone of a World Series–winning team. And of that select few, even fewer are still in their early 20s, much closer to the start of a career than the end. Really, the list of such players is not a lot longer than one name: Juan Soto. The Washington Nationals right fielder is one of the elite of baseball’s elite. And while he is just 23, he has been in that rarified air for a while. He debuted in 2018, was the second-most valuable position player on the Nationals’ World Series team in 2019, led the majors in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in 2020, and has continued raking on lousy teams in both 2021 and 2022. On Monday night in Los Angeles, he won the Home Run Derby, another notch in his belt as one of MLB’s titanic sluggers. Almost nobody hits more consistently, and Soto should have many more years of mashing baseballs into gaps and over fences.

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Those years may not be in D.C. Soto is in his fifth big league season but only his fourth full year of service time. It takes six of those to become eligible for free agency, so Soto cannot pick his suitor until after 2024. The Nationals seem intent to neither offer him a deal he’ll accept nor let him walk at that point. Last week, Soto said no to a 15-year, $440 million offer, which would’ve been the biggest in league history by total value but just 20th in average annual value. On value terms, it looks like an attempt by the Nationals to get Soto at a mild discount. The reason we know the Nationals are exploring moving on from Soto is that they have been aggressive in leaking details of the process to the press, to Soto’s apparent chagrin. The Nats want their fans to know they tried, and if Soto does not meet them where they want, that will be that.

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The Nationals should probably give Soto his money. He is a superstar, he is hilariously young for a player with his resume, he is a beloved figure among the team’s fanbase, and the Lerners (who own the Nationals) are reportedly worth multiple billions of dollars. They may soon be worth more, as they’re exploring selling the team for what would be a windfall. The margins of the Soto negotiation are pocket change no matter how much money the franchise is bringing in—and MLB teams have never opened their books voluntarily, so we’ll never know. It seems like an easy call to make sure that Soto never dawns another uniform. The Nationals have money. Soto is the perfect standard-bearer: charismatic, popular, and prone to destroying baseballs on a regular basis. The team knows it better than anyone:

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But the biggest reason the Nationals should hold onto Soto is not even that high-minded. It’s not about giving talent what it deserves or staving off baseball’s long descent into a spreadsheet-driven hellscape where the most exciting thing a team can do with a young star is figure out ways to get rid of him. The Nationals should keep Soto because they do not have to trade him, especially not now, and doing so will make them worse for the foreseeable future. They’ll be punting on giving their fans a watchable team for two entire years at a time when they do not have to punt on anything. They’ll also be making the longest of long-shot bets that they can somehow turn him into something even shinier.

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Part of the problem with trading Soto is that he is so valuable that he turns other teams away from him. A huge chunk of the league—maybe half, if not more—will never sniff the Soto sweepstakes either in the 2022 trade market or 2025 free agency. Soto is already expensive as he works through MLB’s arbitration process for pre–free agency players: He makes $17.1 million this year, and he will make a good bit more (though still less than the league’s best-paid players) in 2023 and ’24. Some teams won’t want to pick up those tabs, and others (with some overlap) will skip out because they’re so bad that they don’t think Soto can get them where they want to go in just two seasons of team control.

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You can see the challenge. The Nationals have one of the most valuable players in baseball up for trade bidding, and they can’t trade him for less than a massive ransom. But they cannot exactly go on a shopping spree of the best trade packages in the league, because a bunch of teams will simply not participate. Soto will bring back a huge haul, but it will not include a future Juan Soto, and it is an open question if it will even include enough potential fractional Juan Sotos to justify losing two full seasons of the original.

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There is little recent precedent for a team trading a player like Soto—not quite at his 24th birthday, but with an exceptional, years-long track record of dynamite hitting. Soto is a star among stars. He is eighth in the majors in FanGraphs’ wins above replacement since 2018, when he arrived in the big leagues in May. Since 2020, he is fourth and within 1.1 WAR of all players except the Cleveland Guardians’ third baseman, Jose Ramirez. He is 31st in the league this year, because the numbers have not liked his defense, but nobody believes Soto is in decline.

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Dudes like him pretty much do not exist. Even the closest approximations do not get traded often. The Boston Red Sox traded Mookie Betts after 2019, ahead of his age-27 season. They were mainly shedding salary and got nobody back who breathes the same air as the MVP they traded away. The Miami Marlins traded Giancarlo Stanton after the 2017 season. But he was coming up on free agency and would be 28 the next year. They also got nothing of much note in return. The last player with something like Soto’s profile to get traded was probably Miguel Cabrera, the Marlins first baseman of the mid-2000s. Cabrera was heading into his age-25 season when the Marlins sent him to the Detroit Tigers after 2007. A few of the players Miami received in the deal (outfielder Cameron Maybin and reliever Andrew Miller) had long, quality careers for non-Marlins teams, but the package fell miles short of what the Tigers got: one of the great hitting careers in baseball history, which will see Cabrera enter the Hall of Fame with a “D” on his cap. I guess it could be worse. The Red Sox traded Babe Ruth when he was heading into his age-25 campaign.

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Maybe the Nationals will get multiple future All-Stars in exchange for Soto. Maybe they will be the team that sends out a player with Hall of Fame proof of concept at an early point in his career and somehow winds up better than they were with him. Or maybe the front office will save a few dollars, the product on the field will suffer, and Nationals fans will spend a decade watching tearfully as Soto hits bombs in different colors.

At the most charitable, it’s a gigantic risk that the Nationals do not have to take right now. Soto is under team control at an artificially depressed wage for two more years, with no long-term commitment required. He will still make a lot in those seasons, because he is exceptional. But the Nationals will be paying way less than top dollar for a player who is a stone-cold lock to give them top production if he is healthy, which he tends to be. Durability has been one of Soto’s many strengths.

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Granted, the Nationals are terrible. They have the fewest wins in baseball and could lose a hundred games this year. One outcome on the table is that the Nationals are so far gone that they cannot possibly be competitive in 2023 or ’24, the only years in which they’re guaranteed to have Soto if they want him. They have a couple of albatross contracts on the books for starting pitchers who either cannot pitch (the injured Stephen Strasburg) or cannot pitch well (the now-bad Patrick Corbin), and they may have kneecapped themselves terminally. But maybe not! The league recently expanded the playoffs to 12 teams, and it is hard to see how any team that isn’t actively tanking should not have at least a puncher’s chance at grabbing a third wild card spot in any given year. The Nationals’ northern neighbors, the Baltimore Orioles, did not even gesture toward fielding a competitive team in the offseason, but they are .500 as of this writing and only 3.5 games out of the wild card. Even assuming that Strasburg and Corbin provide little to nothing going forward, it is not an absurd stretch to envision the Nationals keeping Soto, spending a few bucks wisely in the winter, getting more out of their other young players, and making a go of it. The alternative is to behave like the Pittsburgh Pirates and issue a multi-year press release to your fans that says, in all capital letters, “WE ARE NOT TRYING.” See what that does for business.

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If the Nationals do jettison their best player, their main defense will lie in the recent past. They tried for years to win a title with Bryce Harper, another corner outfielder who had spent his early career in D.C. and was lined up for a megadeal on the open market. The Nationals didn’t trade Harper but also didn’t keep him once he hit free agency. He found his $330 million with the Philadelphia Phillies. In Harper’s last year as a National, Soto debuted. The next year, Soto starred, and the Nationals won it all. The franchise showed it could survive the loss of a great player and backfill his production right away.

But there was a reason the Nationals didn’t miss a beat when they lost Harper: They had Juan Soto. It was a fluke of historic proportions to have a Ted Williams–like prospect fully maturing right as another huge star was departing. The safety net does not exist this time, just like it did not exist when the Nationals traded pitcher Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner last year, or when they let third baseman Anthony Rendon go in free agency after the 2019 championship. Those moves all made varying degrees of sense, as did letting Harper go to the Phillies. When that happened, the franchise had a fully charged Juan Soto just sitting around. You can scan all of baseball for as long as you want. You will not find a similar replacement waiting in the wings if the Nationals decide they are better off with Soto playing elsewhere.

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