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Looking For A Match In A Juan Soto Trade

We’re only six weeks removed from Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo publicly declaring that he had no intention of trading star outfielder Juan Soto. Rizzo’s comments seemed earnest — both at the time and even in light of recent reports — as the organization clearly had every intention of trying to extend the 23-year-old and build around him long-term. The Nationals reportedly offered Soto a guaranteed $440MM recently, which he rebuffed, presumably due to a combination of factors.

Firstly, the 15-year term of the deal left Soto’s $29.33MM annual value well shy of the rate at which the game’s brightest stars are paid. Whatever the size of the guarantee, Soto is going to be set for generations, but as we saw with Aaron Judge and the Yankees late in Spring Training, there’s a symbolic element to being paid at rates commensurate with (or in excess of) the Mike Trouts and Gerrit Coles of the game.

It also can’t help that the Nats are mired in a rebuild that leaves their near-term outlook bleak, even with Soto. The slugger recently told reporters that after getting a taste of winning in 2019 when the Nats took home a World Series title, he wants more. That looks unlikely in D.C. at any point in the near future. And with the team reportedly up for sale, Soto can’t know who’ll be signing the checks, what their long-term vision will be, and even who’ll be building the future rosters. Rizzo is under contract through the 2023 season, but new ownership groups often (albeit not always) come in and restructure the front office with their own hires.

With the Nationals now open to trade proposals for Soto, an already interesting deadline becomes one of the most fascinating in history. Soto has been so good for so long that it’s easy to forget he’s not yet celebrated his 24th birthday. Paradoxically, even while expressing how long he’s dominated opposing pitchers, it’s surprising to look up and see that he still has two full seasons of club control remaining beyond the current season. Soto was so good, so immediately, that it feels like he should be well into his 20s and/or on the very cusp of free agency. Neither is true.

A talent of this magnitude hasn’t hit the trade market this early in his career and with this much of a track record since the then-Florida Marlins sent Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers at the 2007 Winter Meetings for a six-player package headlined by Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller. Both Maybin and Miller had been top-10 selections in the two prior drafts, and both were ranked inside Baseball America’s top 10 overall prospects in all of MLB at the time.

And yet, even that comparison may fall a bit shy. Heading into his age-25 season at the time of the trade, Cabrera was legitimately amazing — a perennial .300+ hitter with easy 30-homer power who had been, by measure of wRC+, 39 percent better than league average with the bat at that point in his career. Soto, however, will be 24 for the entirety of the 2023 season. By measure of wRC+, he’s been 55 percent better than the average hitter to this point in his career.

Obviously, the two situations differ beyond that fairly rudimentary comparison. The Marlins also sent Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers, which impacted the calculus of that deal. Speculatively speaking, the Nationals could try to dump Patrick Corbin on an acquiring team, but we don’t know whether that’ll be the case. (Stephen Strasburg has a full no-trade clause, for those thinking even bigger, which makes that scenario unlikely.) More broadly, the manner in which front offices value prospects has changed over the years. We shouldn’t look to the Cabrera deal as a concrete template, but it’s a the closest general barometer of how painful it might be to acquire a talent of Soto’s caliber at this juncture of his career.

Because Soto is such an elite talent, it stands to reason that virtually every team in baseball will at least be checking in. And, because he’s controlled so far beyond the current season, fans shouldn’t expect that only clear-cut buyers will be in the market for him. Teams like the Rangers and Cubs might not be in the playoff chase this year, but you can bet they’ll still be getting a feel for what it might cost them to acquire Soto.

The best fits for Soto are going to be teams with strong farm systems — be they balanced and deep or top-heavy with a few star names up front and more scarcity in the middle tiers. There are 29 other clubs who’ll have varying degrees of interest, although not everyone is going to be a legitimate fit.

Take the Athletics, for instance. Oakland tore down the bulk of its roster over the winter, which means they technically have the payroll space and a newly bolstered minor league system, but Soto could earn $55-60MM in arbitration over the next two seasons. The A’s would have little chance of extending him, and next year isn’t likely to be competitive for them anyhow. It’s a similar story over in Cincinnati, where the Reds have been aggressively cutting payroll.

The Pirates are still in a rebuild, and it’s unlikely ownership would ever sign off on the type of money it’d take to pay Soto, even when looking only at his arbitration seasons. The Marlins spent some money this offseason and have a wealth of pitching talent to dangle, but emptying your farm to a division rival to acquire a player whom they’d have almost no shot at extending seems like a reach. The Royals feel similar to the Marlins — a small-payroll team that’s trying to win but wouldn’t make this type of fiscal splash. They’ve never given out a contract larger than Salvador Perez’s four-year, $82MM deal.

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Composition of farm system is going to matter greatly in Soto talks, as well. The White Sox are an obvious on-paper fit for Soto, but they’re widely regarded as having the worst system in the game. That doesn’t mean their minor league ranks are devoid of talent, but it’d be hard for them to match the value offered by other teams. They could swing things by including Major League talent — I’m sure the Nats would love to get their hands on Michael Kopech — but that’s always less likely.

Other teams in similar scenarios include the PhilliesBrewers, Angels, Astros and Braves. The Halos and ’Stros landed 28th and 29th in the sport in the offseason rankings from both Baseball America and MLB.com. The Braves entered the season widely regarded in the bottom-third or bottom-quarter of the teams in this area, and they’ve since seen their top two prospects (Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider) graduate to the big leagues.

Teams Nearing the End of a Rebuild Cycle

Orioles: Were it not for the overwhelming bad blood between the Nats and Orioles stemming from the years-long dispute over rights fees from MASN, this fit would be cleaner than most might think. Baltimore’s longstanding rebuild has left their farm system flush with high-end prospects and left the long-term payroll in pristine standing. There’d be room to shell out a huge prospect haul while still building around Adley Rutschman, Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and others, and the blank-slate payroll would give the O’s a legitimate chance to test the threshold of Soto’s willingness to bet on himself in year-to-year fashion. This one isn’t happening, but it’s fun for O’s fans that the rebuild has even reached a point where it’s worth kicking around.

Tigers: It’s doubtful the team that made this work with Miguel Cabrera would recreate history, but it’s fun to think about. Outfielder Riley Greene recently ascended to the No. 1 spot on Baseball America’s list of the game’s best prospects, and the Tigers have a slew of both prospects and young Major Leaguers who could be pieced together. This would be more plausible if the current roster were playing at a level the front office hoped for heading into the season, however.

Cubs: The Cubs made some notable additions this past offseason, signing Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki to multi-year deals. Those only cost the team money, however, and parting with the overwhelming slate of young talent that would be necessary to pry Soto loose would run contrary to the team’s current efforts to restock the farm system. The Cubs are a major-market team with the capacity for $200MM+ payrolls, so we probably shouldn’t expressly rule out the idea that they could sell off this summer’s chips (Willson Contreras, David Robertson, Mychal Givens, perhaps Ian Happ) and simultaneously pivot to acquire a new cornerstone around which to build … but it certainly feels like more of a reach than the following teams.

Payroll-Conscious Long Shots

Rays: Before you laugh off the notion of the Rays gutting the farm and paying Soto upward of $60MM from 2023-24, recall that they just doled out an 11-year extension to burgeoning star Wander Franco and then made a legitimate run at Freddie Freeman in free agency, offering a reported $150MM in guaranteed money. Tampa Bay almost certainly wouldn’t spend to the necessary levels to hammer out a Soto extension, but they were willing to take on a hefty Freeman salary and only have $21MM in guaranteed contracts on next year’s payroll.

Guardians: They shocked us once by extending Jose Ramirez. It’s almost impossible to fathom Cleveland signing Soto long term, but the team that acquires him doesn’t need to sign him long term. Installing Soto into the heart of the batting order alongside Ramirez for the next 26 months would give AL Central opponents bona fide nightmares, and the Guards have just $19MM on next year’s books and $25MM on the books in 2024. They also have one of the game’s very best farm systems, meaning they could both put together a tough-to-rival package to tempt the Nats while simultaneously supplementing Soto’s ever-growing salary with league-minimum (or close to it) talent.

D-backs: Arizona has one of the game’s best farm systems, headlined by outfield prospect Corbin Carroll and last year’s No. 6 overall pick Jordan Lawlar. The D-backs also have just $59MM on the books in 2023, $38MM in 2024 and $17.6MM in 2025 (which would be the first season of a highly improbable Soto extension). The organization’s hopes of competing in the NL West in the near future are low, however, which makes emptying the tank for Soto a tough sell at present.

Twins: The Twins bumped payroll to franchise-record levels to sign Carlos Correa at $35.1MM per year over an opt-out laden three-year pact, so maybe it’s unfair to put them in the “payroll conscious” bucket. However, barring a scenario where Correa surprises and forgoes his opt-out, the $55-60MM Soto stands to make in 2023-24 would be the most Minnesota has ever paid a player over a two-year term, and an extension would have to be at or in excess of Correa’s annual price range but more than four times the length. Minnesota has a decent farm system, but this just doesn’t feel feasible.

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Rockies: Perhaps “payroll-conscious” is a misnomer here, too, given that Colorado has run its payroll as high as $145MM in the past. But the Rox already have $110MM on next year’s books, and that’s before Charlie Blackmon picks up a likely $18MM player option. Between that and the team’s arbitration class, the Rockies are going to be within arm’s reach of franchise-record spending before making a single addition. They’ve seen several prospects take big steps forward this year, placing five names on BA’s latest Top 100 list, and ownership seems convinced there’s a winning core here. I wouldn’t spend too much time dwelling on this possibility, but Soto at Coors Field would be fun.

The Best Fits (in no particular order)

Padres: Nary a marquee trade candidate hits the market without president of baseball ops AJ Preller pushing to acquire said superstar. Preller’s Padres are “in” on everything, and with names like C.J. Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, Robert Hassell III and more to dangle at the Nats — plus a glaring corner outfield need — the fit is too hard to ignore. I had the Friars in the “long shots” bucket while constructing much of this draft, but it’s just too on-brand for the Padres to find a creative way to dump Eric Hosmer and/or Wil Myers in order to bring in Soto while ducking just under the luxury-tax threshold. Frankly, bailing Preller out on either Hosmer or Myers would be a nice way for Rizzo to try to squeeze even more out of the Padres’ system.

It’s also fair to wonder whether Soto might be deemed such an exception that ownership just green-lights the move and pays the luxury tax for a second straight year. San Diego has plenty of luxury room in 2023 (at least for now), so ownership could reasonably feel confident that they’d be able to duck back under the line and avoid a three-year penalty.

Dodgers: For all their spending, the Dodgers only have $85MM on the books next year and $99MM in luxury commitments. No, the outfield isn’t a true “need” — at least not relative to the bullpen — but the Dodgers have the payroll and the perennially excellent farm system to be in on every opportunity like this. It’s how they landed Mookie Betts from the Red Sox and how they came away from last year’s deadline with another pair of Nationals stars: Trea Turner and Max Scherzer.

Los Angeles placed a whopping seven prospects on Baseball America’s recently published midseason Top 100 list, so there’s no doubting they have the requisite talent to get it done. They also took on half of David Price’s deal to grease the wheels on the aforementioned Betts trade, and that commitment to Price is up at season’s end. If the Nats really want to attach Corbin to Soto, the Dodgers are positioned as well as anyone to make that work.

Yankees: The Yankees don’t know how much longer Judge will be patrolling their outfield after he, like Soto, rejected the team’s final extension offer. Acquiring Soto would almost certainly cost the Yankees top shortstop prospect Anthony Volpe and then some, but the notion of pairing Judge and Soto in the middle of the lineup — even if only for a few months — would soften that sting. Acquiring Soto would also give the Yankees something of a safety net should Judge find offers well beyond owner Hal Steinbrenner’s comfort level.

Of course, adding Soto would double as quite the sales pitch to keep Judge in the Bronx. It’s tough to imagine a team paying Cole, Giancarlo Stanton, Judge and Soto the type of annual salaries that quartet will command through 2027 — the final season of Stanton’s deal — but the Yankees are one of the few that could plausibly do so. Including Volpe in just about any scenario has understandably been a nonstarter for the Yanks, but they don’t have another prospect on his level, and it seems likely that at least one other club would offer a prospect of that caliber to pry Soto away.

Rangers: Texas didn’t sign Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Jon Gray to then sit back and hope the rest of a competitive team would bubble up from the farm system. The Rangers are going to be aggressive again this winter — but why wait until then? The outfield at Globe Life Field is bleak beyond Adolis Garcia, whose own woeful OBP issues give the Rangers all the more need to add some steady walks and hits to the lineup. Seager and Semien are going to cost $55-60MM annually on their own, and adding Soto’s final two arb years (plus any potential extension seasons) would give them $80-90MM annually in commitments to just three players. That’s not ideal, but Texas just got a new park and has run $160-165MM payrolls in the past.

Blue Jays: Soto’s prodigious bat would be the perfect cure for a Blue Jays lineup that has surprisingly underwhelmed. Toronto’s lineup skews heavily to the right side of the plate, too, which makes Soto all the more appealing for general manager Ross Atkins and his staff. If there’s a “problem” for the Jays, it’s that their clear top prospect, Gabriel Moreno, shares a position with young Keibert Ruiz, whom the Nationals hope will be their own catcher of the future. Of course, Ruiz hasn’t fully established himself yet, and having a pair of uber-talented catchers would fall squarely into the “nice problem to have” bucket for Washington.

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Toronto’s system has been thinned out by trades for Jose Berrios and Matt Chapman (among others), which leaves them with probably the thinnest system of the teams mentioned in this “best fits” section.

Mets: Nats fans would recoil at the idea of Soto ever donning a Mets uniform, and the front office probably doesn’t feel all that differently. However, the Steve Cohen-owned Mets have shown a willingness to outspend any and all parties when the opportunity to acquire elite talent presents itself, and while their system isn’t as deep as some other top fits, they do have a handful of high-end prospects who could conceivably lead a package for Soto.

SNY’s Andy Martino recently wrote that the Nationals are intrigued by names like Francisco Alvarez, Brett Baty and Mark Vientos, though they’d likely seek even more talent beyond that trio. Acquiring Soto would put the Mets into the newly created fourth tier of luxury-tax penalization.

Mariners: President of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto never met a blockbuster trade scenario he didn’t like. The Mariners have thinned out their once-vaunted farm through graduations and trades in recent years, but the likes of Noelvi Marte, George Kirby and Matt Brash could form the compelling top end of an offer. Seattle has $67MM guaranteed to the 2023 roster, $66MM in 2024 and $49MM in 2025.

A Soto acquisition would be an incredible bow on top of a 14-game winning streak, and pairing him in the Seattle outfield alongside the burgeoning star he toppled in the Home Run Derby — Julio Rodriguez — would give the M’s one of baseball’s brightest one-two punches.

Red Sox: Would the same ownership group that balked at extending Betts turn around and give Soto over $100MM more than what Betts ultimately signed for in Los Angeles? Soto is younger, so perhaps the comfort with a mega-deal would be greater. The Sox also have plenty of high-end prospects to headline a deal (Marcelo Mayer, Brayan Bello, Triston Casas among them). They have $92MM on the 2023 books but will see that drop to $72MM once Xander Bogaerts opts out of his deal at season’s end. The contract status of Bogaerts and third baseman Rafael Devers are already major talking points in Boston, and Soto would add a third source of hand-wringing to that list. This, however, has been a risk-averse ownership group and front office for several years now.

Cardinals: Jordan Walker is the type of headline prospect you’d expect to see in a return for Soto, and the Cards could add value by including a current outfielder (e.g. Dylan Carlson) and several other pitching prospects. The notion of Walker, Carlson, Matthew Liberatore and then some might not sit well with St. Louis fans, but the Cards have a solid crop of quality prospects to pique Washington’s interest. Plus, if they were to seriously entertain a Soto extension, the first season of that theoretical contract would dovetail with the expiration of Paul Goldschmidt’s contract, which will trim an annual $26MM salary off the books.

Giants: The Giants have spent at $200MM levels in the past, but they have just $92MM on the books for the 2023 season. That’ll drop by another $22.5MM if Carlos Rodon opts out of his contact as expected, and Anthony DeSclafani is the only player with a guaranteed contract on the books for 2024. It’s a near blank slate financially, which would afford the Giants among as much opportunity as any club to offer a potential long-term deal. San Francisco has a pair of prospects — Marco Luciano and Kyle Harrison — who ranked among the top 25 in BA’s recent update, while young catcher Joey Bart could hold appeal as a secondary piece. San Francisco is likely to jockey with the Dodgers and Padres atop the NL West for the next few seasons, putting them in a firm win-now window.

It bears emphasizing that a Soto trade will be immeasurably complicated, even if the Nats are only parting with Soto in the deal. Add in an appealing reliever (e.g. Kyle Finnegan) or even more difficult, a contract like that of Corbin, and the deal is the type that requires overwhelming levels of effort to reach. The Aug. 2 trade deadline is all of two weeks away right now, and while it’s fair to imagine that Rizzo & Co. have had some preliminary talks already, the vast majority of the heavy lifting in any deal is unlikely to have been completed as of yet.

All of that is to say that while the Nats will be open to trades involving Soto, fans shouldn’t view a deal as inevitable. Waiting until the offseason wouldn’t radically reduce Soto’s value, and it’d open up the possibility of teams being able to include talent selected in this summer’s draft as part of the return, thus creating myriad new possibilities for the Nationals to ponder. By that point, there could also be further clarity regarding the potential sale of the team, and with a new owner would come the potential for a new valuation for Soto’s long-term value.

Soto will be one of the most hotly debated names in the game in the next 14 days, but a trade isn’t a given.

Note: The initial version of this post omitted the Giants in error. They’d intended to be included among the best fits; the post was updated after publishing.

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