Calling it merely the biggest deal of baseball’s trade deadline falls short. With Soto not set to hit free agency until after the 2024 season, the Padres should have the slugging outfielder through three playoff races, giving them a dazzling lineup packed with young stars.
Nationals supporters, meanwhile, have to stomach watching another homegrown cornerstone leave Washington. Bryce Harper, who won an MVP award with the Nationals, left for Philadelphia after the 2018 season. Anthony Rendon, one of the World Series heroes, joined the Los Angeles Angels in late 2019. Last summer, the team traded Trea Turner and Max Scherzer to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
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This latest deal, which included Washington first baseman Josh Bell, yielded some of the top talent in San Diego’s farm system. But the Nationals, already saddled with baseball’s worst record, will become even less competitive as the summer drags on.
Yes, Washington landed a major haul: first baseman/designated hitter Luke Voit, shortstop C.J. Abrams, left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore, outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood, and right-handed pitcher Jarlin Susana. But there is no replacing Soto and what he’s meant to the organization since debuting at 19 years old in 2018. As the Nationals stumble toward another last-place finish, they had been selling a quick reboot around Soto, a once-in-a-generation hitter and one of the few reasons to follow the team this summer.
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In recent days, San Diego was in the mix for Soto along with the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals. But by Tuesday morning, the Padres were a clear front-runner with Soto and Bell in play as a package deal.
Bell leaves Washington after less than two seasons, a stretch highlighted by his career numbers in 2022. But Soto’s pending departure is the true gut punch for the franchise and its fans, coming a year and three days after the Nationals sent Turner and Scherzer to the Dodgers. The Padres will soon visit Nationals Park for a three-game series that starts on Aug. 12.
Svrluga: The Juan Soto deal is heartbreaking. Now the hope can begin.
This ends Soto’s four-year run with the Nationals, the team that signed him as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic in 2015. Soto, still only 23, has packed that tenure with a World Series ring, a National League batting title, two Silver Slugger awards, two top-five finishes in MVP voting and a pair of all-star appearances. In July, he won the Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium, adding to a résumé that should belong to a midcareer star, not someone who can’t rent a car without underage fees.
Soto is just so decorated and so young, and he’s following the statistical tracks of all-time players such as Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Trout. Soto pairs power and contact ability with otherworldly plate discipline. That’s why he demanded such a large return from the Padres. Baseball writers once spent an offseason comparing him to Ted Williams, one of the best hitters ever.
But his steady dominance is what complicated his future in Washington. For a long while now, Soto has been set on reaching free agency after the 2024 season, the only way to see how the open market values him. Still, though, the Nationals made efforts to sign him to a long-term extension — a goal that became even more pressing after the club began its rebuild last summer, shipping out eight veterans for 12 unproven players.
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First there was a 13-year, $350 million contract offer to Soto in November. After that, Washington upped the figures in May, then even more with 15 years and $440 million a month ago. Soto didn’t accept, feeling he is worth more than an average annual value of $29.3 million. On July 16, that offer — the largest in MLB history by total contract value — became public, was publicized along with the Nationals’ intentions to listen to trade offers for Soto before the deadline.
Without an extension, and with Soto more valuable that he would be in trade talks over the winter, the front office was resigned to do what once seemed unthinkable. Deal Juan Soto? Deal the player with some of biggest hits in club history — the go-ahead single off Josh Hader in the NL wild-card game; the score-knotting homer off Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 of the NL Division Series; towering shots against Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in the World Series — while his best years could be in front of him, not behind?
On July 1, in an interview on 106.7 the Fan, General Manager Mike Rizzo was asked about the possibility of trading Soto. He was defiant, saying the Nationals would not shop their best player, who was one of the few reasons to come to the ballpark. Then everything changed when 15 years and $440 million fell flat. Money often has that effect.
Soto’s journey didn’t start when he debuted at Nationals Park at 19. It didn’t start at the club’s academy in the Dominican Republic, where he would spend extra hours on Rosetta Stone to perfect his English. It didn’t start when the team first scouted him as a left-handed pitcher who could hit a bit.
For Soto, all of this began in a living room in Santo Domingo, his dad tossing him bottle caps that the small boy smacked against the walls. He wanted to be Manny Ramirez or Robinson Canó. In long days at the playground, he mimicked Canó’s uppercut swing, the other kids calling him “Little Robbie.” Baseball is tradition in their shared country. So, too, is dreaming of major league stardom.
Those dreams have taken Soto to Washington; to around America in a Nationals uniform; to the highs of the World Series and the depths of a rebuild. Next, they will take him to San Diego, where a new fan base will hang on every one of his at-bats. Soto has always been a blink-and-you-might-miss-it sort of player. Trading him, then, means D.C. will miss a lot.
Barry Svrluga contributed to this report, which has been updated.
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