- The Washington Times
Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Juan Soto is no longer a National. 

Tuesday’s trade — Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres for a handful of prospects — isn’t a surprise, yet it’s somehow still astonishing. 

On one hand, it makes sense. Soto declined a would-be record-breaking $440 million contract in July, forcing general manager Mike Rizzo’s hand to try and obtain for the team as much value as possible in return for a player who isn’t locked in for the long term. 

On the other hand, the Nationals just gave up a 23-year-old superstar, arguably the most feared hitter in baseball and one of the best young players in the sport’s history. And the chances that they got a Soto-esque player in return is infinitesimal.

“We’re on a bumpy road right now, but coming out of it we think it will lead to a beautiful place,” Rizzo told reporters Tuesday.

What the San Diego Padres were willing to give up for Soto is virtually unprecedented in baseball, the Nationals hauled in even more prospects and players than the Detroit Tigers sent to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera in 2007.

The best comparison isn’t even in the MLB. It’s the NFL trade from 1989 that sent Herschel Walker from the Dallas Cowboys to the Minnesota Vikings for eight draft picks and four players — a deal that famously laid the foundation for Jerry Jones’ team to win three titles in the 1990s. 

That’s the kind of outcome the Nationals have to hope for. Because players with Soto’s talent — career .966 on-base plus slugging percentage in five seasons — are so rare and so coveted that teams aren’t normally willing to give them up, especially when they have multiple years of team control.

The Nationals got six players in exchange for Soto, who isn’t a free agent until after the 2024 season, and Bell, who was expected to be traded this summer as a player on an expiring contract. The new Nationals are: shortstop C.J. Abrams, outfielder Robert Hassell III, right-handed pitcher Jarlin Susana, outfielder James Wood, left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore and first baseman Luke Voit. 

Abrams, Hassell, Wood and Gore are all current or former top prospects. Abrams and Gore are both major-leaguers, having made their debuts with San Diego this season. Gore was the top pitching prospect in baseball in 2019, while Abrams was the No. 9 prospect on MLB.com earlier this year before matriculating to the big leagues. 

Hassell and Wood, the Padres’ Nos. 1 and 3 prospects, respectively, as well as top 100 prospects on MLB.com, are still in the minors. Hassell is now the Nationals’ top prospect, while Wood is fourth and Susana is eighth. 

Rizzo said the trade a “prudent baseball move.” 

“I call this a good deal for the Padres and the Nationals, at this point in time for both franchises,” Rizzo told reporters.

The talent coming back to the Nationals is inarguably potent. The organization now has nine players who have been on MLB.com’s top 100 prospect list within the last two years. According to FanGraphs, Washington’s farm system has bumped up from 24th to eighth in MLB. Include Gore, who recently graduated from prospect rankings, and the Nationals’ system would be the fifth best in baseball. 

Rizzo believes the trade will “accelerate” the rebuild process. However, whether the sum of the six players will ever add up or exceed the value of Soto (21.4 wins above replacement since debuting in 2018) won’t be known for years. 

Several MLB insiders broke the trade around noon Tuesday, six hours before MLB’s deadline. The deal was made official four hours later. 

The top names — Abrams, Hassell, Wood and Gore — have been rumored as pieces the Nationals required if Padres general manager A.J. Preller pulled the trigger on Soto

Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer was originally included in the deal, but the veteran rejected the move to Washington via his no-trade clause, according to multiple reports. The snag wasn’t a deal-breaker, though, as first baseman Luke Voit was later thrown into the trade in place of Hosmer. 

Voit, an above-average slugger in his brief time with the Cardinals, Yankees and Padres, will replace part of Bell’s production in the lineup. But no one, obviously, will be replacing Soto

This year’s deadline is the second straight involving a blockbuster trade from the Nationals. Last summer, Rizzo initiated the organization’s “reboot” by trading Trea Turner and Max Scherzer to the Los Angeles Dodgers. With Soto now gone, the current roster is unrecognizable from the one that won the 2019 World Series. 

The road to trading Soto went from unthinkable to inevitable in a matter of days earlier this month. Before the season, Rizzo said signing Soto to an extension was his “No. 1 priority,” calling the right fielder the “face of the franchise.” Then, in early June, he emphatically shot down rumors that the Nationals were shopping Soto. 

But once Soto and his agent, Scott Boras, turned down the 15-year, $440 million contract — one that would have been the largest in MLB history — Rizzo felt compelled to put Soto on the trading block. The details of the contract offer leaked, and it created a wild two and a half weeks of rumors and prognostication about Soto’s future. He was named to the All-Star Game for the second time in his career, and he won the Home Run Derby — his last marquee moment as a National. 

“We did feel that we were not going to be able to extend him,” Rizzo told reporters. 

Soto will now join superstars Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. in San Diego, forming an NBA-esque Big Three that is rarely seen in baseball, especially by teams not named the Yankees or Dodgers. The Padres entered Tuesday in second place in the NL West with a 58-46 record, owners of the second wild-card spot. Their odds to win the World Series shot up after the trade was reported. 

Like Soto, Tatis is a 23-year-old phenom, finishing top five in National League MVP voting in 2020 and 2021. He’s yet to appear in a game this season due to a wrist injury, but he’s expected to begin his rehab stint soon.

Machado, meanwhile, is an established star after bursting onto the scene as one of the game’s best third basemen with Baltimore a decade ago. Machado is having one of the best seasons of his career with a .293 average and 18 home runs.

Nationals fans won’t have to wait long to see Soto again. The Padres visit D.C. in 10 days for a three-game series. 

“What he meant to us as a Nationals family, for this city, for the fans — we should cherish that,” manager Dave Martinez told reporters. 

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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