Beltway bombshells—Soto, Mancini go west

Juan Soto

Juan Soto stole the show in Game One of the 2019 World Series and helped his Nats reach the Promised Land. That was then, this is now, and the still-top-flight Soto is a young man going west to San Diego . . .

The Big One dropped, in both directions on opposite coasts. The Nationals, who’ve gone from surrealistic World Series champion and National League East powerhouse to hell in a little over two and a half years, traded what should have stayed a franchise foundation to the Padres, the National League West contenders who often enough mistake splash for sustenance.

Juan Soto goes West the day after it turned out he’d end his Nats tenure with a bang, throwing Tomas Nido out at the plate to keep the Mets to a mere three-run top of the second, and crunching his former teammate Max Scherzer’s 1-1 fastball for a leadoff home run in the bottom of the fourth en route a 7-3 loss to the Mets. It won’t make it easier for Nats fans to swallow this.

Soto became expendable when he turned down a $440 million extension that looked stupid-fat on paper while packaged to deny him the thing he wanted most. He wanted ten years and got them. He wanted the total dollars and got them. He didn’t get the highest annual average value the way the packaged was packed.

Maybe Soto was foolish taking the all-or-nothing stance. But maybe the Nats were just as foolish, with or without a pending potential ownership change, to decline making even that small enough adjustment. Standing just as all-or-nothing, with Soto not due to hit free agency for the first time until 2025, the Nats decided even the next Ted Williams was expendable.

Stop laughing at the Ted Williams comparisons. Only five hitters through age 23 have higher OPSes than Soto does: Williams, fellow Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Stan Musial, and Hall of Famers to be Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. The order from the top is Williams, Cobb, Trout, Musial, and Pujols. His June slump leaves his season so far not quite as good as his priors, but rehorsing himself last month restored Soto on the way back where he belongs.

But if he had a fat enough hand in the Nats’ 2019 in-season resurrection from the outhouse to the Promised Land, will it be fat enough to push the Padres to the Promised Land at last? Baseball’s worst kept secret is that Padres general manager A.J. Preller has a genius for trades equal to Soto’s big swings and nothing much to show for them.

Oh, he’s managed to land some of the bigger fish on the trade market in exchange for high-rated prospects who haven’t yet returned to take a big bite out of his hind quarters for the most part—if you don’t count Trea Turner. (Nat turned Dodger.) But there’s always a real first time. Isn’t there?

He’s run the Padres eight seasons, delivered such blockbuster trade acquisitions, at the in-season deadline or the offseason, as Mike Clevinger, Jake Cronenworth, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Blake Snell, and Fernando Tatis, Jr., the Padres haven’t yet gone to any full-season postseason. (They reached the National League division series during pan-damn-ic short 2020.)

And he may be lucky that his incumbent first baseman Eric Hosmer declining to waive his no-trade clause to move to Washington didn’t kill the Soto deal. Hosmer has declined so precipitously since becoming a Padre as a free agent that, if Preller wants to get the rest of his due salary off the San Diego books, he’ll have to move yet another good prospect to do it if he finds a team willing to take Hosmer on.

Then, again, as USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale notes, Soto locked in through 2025 has another upside: in the unlikely event the Padres still can’t cross the threshold, Preller can still find a way to flip him on behalf of bringing other delicious-looking prospects back for a team and organisational renewal.

If there’s good news for the Nats, it’s getting five prospects in return for Soto and Josh Bell, with all five rated somewhat higher than the haul they took back from the Dodgers in exchange for Max the Knife and Trea Twinkletoes. But if there’s worse news for the Nats, it’s the number one problem with prospects: No matter how highly rated, they’re just prospects who might or might not cut it fully as Show players.

If they do cut it, it’ll take the sting out of losing a bona fide franchise player only if their cutting it turns into another world championship or two. If they don’t, this one’s liable to sting for Nats fans as long and as deep as such historically notorious purgings as Brock for Broglio, Ryan for Fregosi, Seaver for a quartet that sounds more like a law firm—Flynn, Henderson, Norman, and Zachry—than team reinforcements.

This wasn’t even the top deal of the day when it comes to breaking fan hearts. It’s not that Nat fans weren’t wringing hands and drying tears once they first knew Soto became expendable, but Oriole fans in the throes of seeing an unlikely revival enough to put the team right into the wild card hunt from almost out of nowhere hurt even more losing Trey Mancini.

Hours before Soto moved west, Mancini’s ticket to the Astros was punched in a three-way deal sending promising but inconsistent outfielder Jose Siri from the Astros to the Rays, pitcher Chayce McDermott from the Astros to the Orioles, and pitchers Jayden Murray and Seth Johnson from the Rays to the Orioles.

Trey Mancini

Trey Mancini tipping his cap to Oriole fans after what proved his final home game in Baltimore—he goes somewhat west now, to the Astros.

For Mancini it’s a terribly mixed blessing. One moment he goes from a home ballpark whose left field fence was moved back far enough to cut his power production at home to a ballpark with a short enough porch that he’d have hit over twice the ten bombs he has on the season so far. But he also says goodbye to a mutual love affair between himself and a city starving for the days when the Orioles were consistently great, year-after-year.

His agreeable personality and his courageous fight to beat colon cancer two years ago endeared him even further to Oriole fans than his live bat. As Baseball Prospectus observes, “Mancini . . . was the heart and soul of a franchise long depleted of either.”

The depletion may include Orioles general manager Mike Elias, who offered one of the most cacophonous explanations ever heard after a team struggling to return to greatness unloads a highly popular and franchise-valuable player:

The winning last couple of months that we have, the momentum we have, has made this a much more difficult decision and a much more complicated trade deadline than it would have been or that any of the past ones have been.But ultimately, I have to tether my decisions to the outlook and the probabilities of this year. We have a shot at a wild card right now but it is not a probability that we’re going to win a wild card.

Translation: In one deal and one bowl of word salad whose flavour no dressing on earth could improve, Elias as much as told Oriole fans he’s pushing the proverbial plunger on both this season whole and his team’s gallant, almost-from-nowhere re-entry into the postseason picture, however much distance the Orioles might still have to travel to get there.

Maybe Elias is still building for the nearest future after all. But maybe something could have been done without making the Orioles’ heart and soul the proverbial sacrificial lamb. Could, and should. “He’s the nicest human I’ve ever met,” says Orioles first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, a sentiment that seems to be common in the Oriole clubhouse and Baltimore itself.

Until today, people were even willing to bet on the Orioles having a phenomenal enough shot of reaching in. Now they’re uttering a couple of four letter words, one of which is the vulgar synonym for fornicate and the other a word meaning either a large receptacle for holding gas, an armoured attack vehicle, or taking a dive. Three guesses which meaning Orioles (and Nats) fans think applies.

“Teams liked to claim that captains were no longer necessary because one player shouldn’t be elevated above his teammates,” BP says, “but also, that same force made one player essentially untradable. If someone is designated the heart of a team, you can’t cut him out. Their value might go to waste.”

The region of the nation’s capital has taken enough blows that have knocked the wind out of its belly in the last few years. The Nationals and the Orioles, both of whom enjoy substantial capital followings, have told them, basically, “What’s two more sucker punches among friends?”

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