If the Nationals trade Juan Soto, they are not a serious ballclub

July 17, 2022

With reports that the
Washington Nationals are exploring their options for trading young superstar Juan Soto, it is worth stating plainly that this is a travesty because the team will almost certainly be better off paying the man what he has asked for rather than trading him for a collection of players who, because most of the other teams in Major League Baseball are run by reasonably intelligent people, will face extremely long odds of ever producing as much on-field value as Soto, combined, let alone individually.

We could spend a lot of time relitigating an obvious precedent, the Boston Red Sox’ decision in 2020 to trade Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a move that many, including me, immediately identified as a terrible decision, but though I still think the Red Sox chose incorrectly, a better use of our time is to note that the trade did not serve Red Sox fans because it did not serve winning baseball games. Rather, it served to reduce the team’s payroll in ways that, again, were not obviously connected to investments in the baseball team. As a fan, I do not give a damn how much profit my team’s owner makes — I am in this to watch good baseball and to support a winner. If my team’s management makes moves to line their pockets at the expense of my team’s ability to win and put a good squad on the field, that pisses me off.

In 2018, the Nationals had Soto, Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, and Anthony Rendon in their lineup, with Max Scherzer leading the rotation. That team won only 82 games, but they were likely unlucky given their excellent run differential. In 2019, even after letting Harper go in free agency, the Nationals won the World Series with an offense that scored nearly 100 more runs on the season thanks to an MVP-caliber season from Rendon, improvement from Turner, and big contributions from role players like Howie Kendrick, supported by a pitching staff that dramatically improved behind Scherzer.

Let’s imagine that the Nationals were a different type of ballclub, one that committed to winning baseball games as a fundamental goal, rather than a potential route toward profitability. Together, Harper, Turner, Scherzer, and Rendon, signed to hypothetical long-term contracts, might be due a total of about $130 million. Together, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are due another $55 million, and they are still on the roster, though Strasburg has been hurt and Corbin pitching poorly.

Now, $185 million before getting to Soto is a lot of money for just six players. You might assign another $25 million for the remaining 33 players on the 40-man roster to get to a $210 million team. Add Soto’s $17 million this year, and, depending on how you do the math, that $227 million would be either the fourth- or fifth--highest paid team in MLB. But it would also be a really good team. Rendon has had two straight lost seasons and Strasburg and Corbin are a huge drag, but even then, Harper won the MVP last season, Turner is an MVP candidate, Soto is an MVP candidate, and Scherzer is still as dominant as ever. Just get league-average performance from a few other regulars — hardly a big ask — and employ starting pitchers who are there to win instead of gain experience (or act as a placeholder), and that team is a playoff contender.

I am not going to get into the weeds on whether Mark Lerner (net worth: $4 billion) can “afford” that team, but the history of American professional sports suggests that better teams draw more attention and inspire more fans to spend money on those teams. Winning, and committing to winning as a core part of the organization’s identity, are good. Winning teams also make more money.

We don’t live in that hypothetical world, but in the present reality, where the Nationals have a $135 million payroll, the 16th-highest in MLB, they probably have more reason to just pay Soto whatever it takes to keep him. The only other player even remotely available and in his talent stratosphere is Turner, who is set to test free agency after this season. Ronald Acuña, Jr. is signed with Atlanta to an exceptionally team-friendly deal through at least 2026. Shohei Ohtani can be a free agent in 2024, but as great as he has been since the start of the 2021 season, he is more than four years older than Soto, not quite the offensive force, and has a checkered injury past that has limited his pitching output going back to Japan.

With a hat tip to Bill Barnwell, who was paraphrasing Bill James on Rickey Henderson, the whole point of having a Major League Baseball team is to get players like Juan Soto and keep them. If a franchise is unwilling to do what it takes to keep this player, whose Baseball-Reference similarity scores through the same age are littered with Hall of Famers, then why are they even bothering? It will be a long time before any team, let alone the Nationals, develops a player as talented and productive as Soto at this young an age. Back up the Brinks truck, dump its contents in his yard, and build around him so that, ideally, a generational talent is the centerpiece of your next championship team, or, at worst, you don’t develop or acquire quality players around him, but you still have a generational talent on your team!

(Photo: "850_0211" by All-Pro Reels. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)