What sort of Juan Soto trade would be worth it?

·5-min read

Weeks after Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said 23-year-old megastar Juan Soto would not be dealt amid a rebuild, word leaked out that the trade winds had changed. The reasoning? Soto reportedly rejected a 15-year, $440 million extension offer.

The number is undoubtedly large at first glance, but it shrinks the longer you look at it.

For one, Soto is two-and-a-half years from needing to make this decision. The earliest he can become a free agent is after the 2024 season. He’s making $17.1 million through arbitration in 2022, and that number will escalate as he continues racking up stellar seasons, to the point where he could make $40 million to $50 million total in his remaining two years under team control. Think about why a 31-63 team is so eager to commit $440 million. It’s not because they need to shore up a championship run.

What they’re offering him is 13 years and $400 million, roughly, to forfeit his chance to spark a bidding war that would likely take him closer to $500 million or even over it. They’re offering him an average annual salary of less than $30 million, less than what Nolan Arenado, Francisco Lindor and Corey Seager signed for when they were both older and less productive than Soto.

They’re also asking him to forfeit the information he would gain over the next two-and-a-half years — namely, whether the Nationals’ steep decline after the 2019 World Series triumph is going to produce a similar upswing.

The news that a Soto deal was possible propelled a daydream hypothetical out into the world as real, if not realistic, conversations. Fans started ticking off the prospects they would be willing to deal for a player whose offensive prowess since he debuted at age 19 has been bested only by Mike Trout and Yordan Alvarez — and Soto has played hundreds more games than either of them over that span.

Between Tuesday’s All-Star Game and the Aug. 2 trade deadline, the question will be posted over and over: What could make trading Soto worth it?

The Nationals' apparent pivot smacks of a team that is now willing to answer that question with a dollar figure instead of the prospect packages floating around Twitter. The Lerner family, the owners of the Nationals, has said it is exploring a sale. Rizzo, the GM, is not signed long term. That this news came out right before Soto faced a horde of reporters at the Midsummer Classic is certainly suspicious, a move to try to frame him as the bad guy in all this. His agent, Scott Boras, said Monday afternoon that the uncertainty makes it harder for Soto to commit to the team two-and-a-half seasons before the decision is required.

“You have no idea of their intentions,” Boras said of the future ownership group. “Are they going to be in a rebuild for five years or are they going to immediately win? You have no way of knowing. The Lerners are a respected, winning ownership family. It was very easy to always deal with them because you knew who they were and what their intentions were. And now that they're passing that baton on to another ownership group, you really don't know until you find out and obviously that has a big impact on decision making.”

But Soto’s posture — betrayal and confusion over why this needed to happen now — would be a good one for fans to take, too.

Washington Nationals' Juan Soto takes batting practice a day before the 2022 MLB All-Star baseball game, Monday, July 18, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)
Washington Nationals' Juan Soto takes batting practice a day before the 2022 MLB All-Star baseball game, Monday, July 18, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Between 2019 and 2020, the Nationals committed $385 million to a duo of pitchers — Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — who have barely pitched and pitched poorly, respectively. In that same window, the team let Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon walk away. At last year’s trade deadline it dealt Max Scherzer and a year-and-a-half of Trea Turner for prospects — good prospects, but prospects.

When players as good as Juan Soto have been dealt in recent years, they have never changed teams alone. They have left town alongside expensive players, almost always pitchers, whose contracts no longer feel worth it to the teams. Any Soto deal would almost inevitably begin with a team’s willingness to take on Corbin or Strasburg. That’s a lot of money to commit to, which means the talks won’t be driven by finding the most talented possible group of young players to return the Nationals to prominence, but by finding a team that can handle the financials.

Really, if the Nationals envision winning any time in the next decade, Juan Soto is just about the most surefire player in baseball to help with that. Moving him now — two whole years ahead of the timeline where the Boston Red Sox pulled the trigger on a money-driven Mookie Betts deal, a year-and-a-half before Cleveland did the same on the Francisco Lindor trade — is to get a whole bunch of money off the books.

So what would make a Soto trade worth it? Well, it depends on whether you sign checks for the Washington Nationals or buy tickets from them.