Juan gone?

Juan Soto

Juan Soto stole the show in Game One of the 2019 World Series and helped his Nats reach the Promised Land that fall. That was then, this is now, and the still-top-flight Soto spurned a glandular contract offer, prompting trade speculation almost all around.

Almost three years ago, the Nationals sat atop baseball’s pyramid. They’d won a World Series entirely on the road. And a kid who wasn’t old enough to drink legally until the Series began had a big enough hand in the triumph.

Juan Soto stole the show in Game One with a mammoth fourth-inning home run and a long two-run double an inning later. He had Astros catcher Martin Maldonado dazed. I feel like, in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve seen Soto more than my wife,” Maldonado cracked post-game.

Then, in Game Seven, Soto helped push Astros starter Zack Greinke out of the game in the seventh, after Anthony Rendon crashed one into the Crawford Boxes to cut the Astros’ 2-0 lead in half, when he hung in on 3-1 and wrung out the walk.

Exit Greinke, enter Will Harris, and home came Soto when Howie Kendrick somehow got hold of Harris’s cutter coming in off the middle and to the lower outside corner and rang it off the right field foul pole—an inning before Soto drove Adam Eaton home for an insurance run and two before Eaton sent two more home with a bases-loaded single.

From there Soto simply got better. Just the way those watching him make his bones in the first place suspected he would. In the pan-damn-ic shortened 2020 he led the entire Show in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS; in 2021 he led with 145 walks, a .465 OBP, and with almost twice as many intentional walks (23) as he led in 2020 (12).

Soto’s also going to his second All-Star Game and leading the Show with his 79 walks thus far. He took awhile to round himself up this season but he got heated up in earnest this month. Under Nationals team control through the end of the 2025 season, Soto turned down a fifteen-year, $440 million offer this week.

He wasn’t exactly thrilled that it got into the press. “It feels really bad to see stuff going out like that because I’m a guy who keeps everything on my side,” Soto told reporters before  the Nats fell to the Braves 6-3 Saturday. “I keep everything quiet . . . I keep everything quiet and try to keep it just me. But they just [made] the decision and do whatever they need to do.”

Now, Soto is also the undisputed Show leader in trade speculation. The split second it became known he turned that offer down, the trade fantasies hit ludicrous speed. Show me a contender, show me a rebuilder right on the threshold of contention, and I’ll show you fan bases tabulating what it would take for their teams to wrap Soto in their silks.

I’ll also show you a Nationals team whose general manager Mike Rizzo said as late as the beginning of June that the Nats planned to reconstruct in their usual fashion but almost entirely around Soto himself. And, unlike an entity such as the Angels, whose deep-pocket owner can’t seem to install general managers who can think like Rizzo or operate without said owner’s meddling hands around their throats, Rizzo is one GM who can get it done without breaking a sweat.

Soto spurning fifteen years and $440 million must have given Rizzo the worst sweats of his year. It also must have given several teams dreams of not just a final piece of the proverbial puzzle but a nice, long, wide, multiple-season window of opportunity.

The Nats don’t have to trade the left fielder, but they’d be close to irresponsible if they didn’t listen to trade offers. Right now the Nats have the Show’s worst record. But they can think with pleasure about the haul Soto’s likely to return if they decide after all that turning down $440 million leaves them little choice but to unload him.

What prompted Soto to turn it down? According to Washington Post writer Jesse Dougherty (whose chronicle of the Nats’ 2019 back-from-the-dead conquest, Buzz Saw, is the best read you’ll find on that season), it was two-out-of-three-ain’t-good-enough: Soto wanted the years and got them; he wanted the total dollars and got them; but the average annual value of the deal wasn’t quite enough for him.

“While $440 million would be the biggest contract in the sport’s history by total value, the annual value of $29.3 million would rank 20th,” Dougherty writes.

Soto is looking for both double-digit years and an average annual value that is significantly higher, according to multiple people with knowledge of his camp’s thinking. When [future Hall of Famer Mike] Trout signed his extension with the Angels in March 2019, he was 27 and set records for total value ($426.5 million) and AAV (about $36 million). Trout remains baseball’s highest-paid position player.

Like Trout before the injury bug began nipping, tucking, and biting at him, Soto’s a player whom observers love to compare to Hall of Famer Ted Williams. Like Trout, Soto isn’t self-congratulatory about his talent or his performances. But there’s the issue. Soto would like to be like Trout in the bank account. So how does he compare to Trout through age 23?

My Real Batting Average metric shows them damn near the same player at the plate . . .

Mike Trout 2877 1368 361 34 31 37 .636
Juan Soto 2392 1037 452 52 11 8 .652

They’ve both played in home parks favouring pitching, but through age 23 Trout’s 167 OPS+ is seven points higher than Soto’s, while he also slugged a few points higher. (Soto through 23: .540; Trout through 23: .549.) They have about the same volume of black ink  and the same percentage of hits going for extra bases: 41.

And while Soto walks a little more than he strikes out while Trout strikes out a bit more than he walks, Soto’s more prone to being lured to hitting into double plays: seven a season for Trout through his twelfth major league season; sixteen a season for Soto through today.

Trout also won the first of his three Most Valuable Player awards at age 23. Soto has a pair of top ten finishes and one top five finish. But if Soto believes he’s as valuable overall right now as Trout through age 23, he’s got a reasonable case. Absent unforeseen circumstances beyond his control, Soto stands to continue playing at a Trout-like level for a lot of years to come.

Remember: The Lerner family is looking to sell the team. “[T]hey wanted to clarify their position with Soto for prospective buyers,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal. “Soto is an asset, but not if his contract is so big that it would make it difficult for the Nationals to build around him.”

Hark back to that fine 2001 day when the Rangers—who were at least as pitching strapped then as today’s Angels have been for nigh on a decade, but without the truly deep pockets the Angels now have—decided that the cure for their Show-worst team ERA was to spend the equivalent of a solid pitching staff on . . . one shortstop named Álex Rodríguez.

It made A-Rod mega-rich but also kept the Rangers throttled while stirring insecurities enough into baseball’s then-best all-around shortstop—pounding himself inside to live up to that deal—that he waded into the dubious waters of actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances in the first place. And the Rangers didn’t return to the postseaon until well after A-Rod moved on to the Yankees.

Soto’s agent Scott Boras is well known for preferring his clients test their open markets as soon as they’re eligible to have them. Soto isn’t averse to testing his market value when the time comes with or without Boras. Any team able to deal for him would have to part with delicious enough Show players and prospects. (The Nats now have the third-worst farm system, according to Athletic analyst Keith Law.) And, prepare to either sign him big long-term or watch him walk in a little over three years.

If the Nats really are making him available for the right price, don’t be shocked to discover the Nats’ front office phones ringing courtesy of the Mets, the Dodgers, the Giants, the Cardinals, the Braves, the Red Sox, maybe even the Astros on the pretext that if you couldn’t beat him, make him join you.

Maybe the Padres will get into the mix. “Such a move would be bold, perhaps borderline nuts,” says The Athletic, “but [GM A.J.] Preller is not one to shy away from a splash.” Maybe even the Yankees, who don’t look like they need help just by the American League East standings, might rather have a Soto who can hit all around over a Joey Gallo who can bomb but little else at the plate and isn’t really doing much bombing now.

Technically, It wasn’t that long ago that Soto had a big enough hand in the Nats reaching the Promised Land. But a spurned contract extension and trade speculation suddenly make it feel like eons past.

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