Juan Soto, as of this writing, has a career adjusted OPS+ of 159 -- or 59% better than the league average -- in more than 2,400 plate appearances.
And he is only 23 years old.
In Major League history, only four other players amassed an OPS+ that high, that young, with at least 2,000 trips to the plate. Their names? Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Albert Pujols and Mike Trout.
So for those in need, that should provide some historical perspective as to why all these rumors and rumblings about Soto, who is under the Washington Nationals’ club control through 2024, potentially getting dealt by Tuesday’s Trade Deadline are such a big deal. This is a very rare opportunity for a club to acquire an established, game-changing talent who has proven himself in the postseason and is still fairly far from free agency.
But even if you understand why a Soto swap would be seismic, you might still not understand why this might happen between now and Tuesday’s 6 p.m. ET Trade Deadline. So let’s use this space to answer some pressing questions about how we got here and where Soto might be headed.
For up-to-the-minute trade news, rumors and analysis, tune in to MLB Network's Trade Deadline special from 3-7 p.m. ET on Tuesday. The show will also stream live on MLB.com and in the MLB App.
Didn’t Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo say, “We are not trading Juan Soto?”
You have a good memory! Yes, Rizzo did indeed say exactly that in an interview with WJFK-FM in D.C. on June 1. He added that he had made it clear to both Soto and to Soto’s agent, Scott Boras, that the Nats had “every intention of building this team around Juan Soto.”
So what happened?
Well, this is baseball, which means … June 1 was a loooong time ago.
Before the All-Star break, the Nationals offered Soto $440 million. He turned it down.
But that’s a lot of money!
It is definitely a lot of money. In fact, it would have been the largest deal, in terms of total value, in MLB history.
The catch was that the $440 million was spread over 15 years. That’s an average annual value of $29.3 million -- again, a lot of money, but it would “only” rank 20th all-time, and that would be below the current average annual salaries of a handful of position players, including Trout ($35.5M), Carlos Correa ($35.1M), Anthony Rendon ($35M), Francisco Lindor ($34.1M), Nolan Arenado ($32.5M), Corey Seager ($32.5M), Miguel Cabrera ($31M), Mookie Betts ($30.4M) and Manny Machado ($30M).
So while Soto turning down $440 million is a major gamble, it is much more understandable when you consider that context. His agent, Boras, also expressed concerns about signing an extension with a team that might be sold soon.
The Nationals are for sale?
Yes, the Lerner family announced its intention to explore a sale in April. A new owner may not want to take on a contract as significant as what it would take to keep Soto. Additionally, a prospective owner may prefer that any Soto trade be completed prior to assuming control of the club.
So the Nats have to trade Soto now?
No. But Soto’s value to an acquiring club is higher if he can impact three playoff races than if he is only around for two.
The Nats will have to weigh that added value against the value of retaining him into the offseason and potentially revisiting the extension talks at that point, when it’s possible that a new owner is in place. And sometimes, the trade market in the winter is replete with more teams that have the flexibility to make a blockbuster deal … although it would appear the market for Soto is very robust, as is.
What will it cost to acquire Soto?
It’s hard to say, exactly, because there is really not a clear historical comparison to a deal like this. The cleanest one is probably the Tigers’ 2007 Winter Meetings deal with the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, in which Detroit gave up Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin, Mike Rabelo, Frankie De La Cruz, Dallas Trahern and Burke Badenhop. At the time, Maybin was considered the Tigers’ No. 1 prospect, De La Cruz and Trahern were also well-regarded prospects and Miller had just exceeded his rookie limits, one year after the Tigers took him sixth overall in the Draft. Cabrera was entering his age-25 season and had put up a 143 OPS+ in Florida.
The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal reported that the Nats want “four or five top young players” for Soto, meaning top prospects and/or young Major Leaguers who are under contractual control for several more seasons.
As far as money is concerned, Soto’s remaining salary for 2022 will be around $5 million, along with two years of arbitration control in which he’ll make well north of his $17.1 million salary this year.
Is Soto really worth all that?
It’s fair for some fans to ask that in what has statistically been a down season for Soto. As of this writing, his batting average (.245) is 68 points lower than last year, his on-base percentage (.401) is 64 points lower and his slugging percentage (.485) is 49 points lower. He also grades out poorly as a defensive outfielder (first percentile in Outs Above Average).
Within the industry, though, Soto is still highly coveted because of his combination of discipline and power. Even in a “down” year, he ranks in the 80th percentile or better in hard-hit percentage, expected batting average, expected slugging percentage, barrel rate and strikeout percentage. His 20% walk rate is the best among qualified hitters. It’s worth keeping in mind that Soto doesn’t have much help in the Nationals’ lineup, and, as a result, his rate of 55.1% of pitches thrown outside the strike zone is the sixth highest among qualifiers. It would be interesting to see how he is approached in a deeper lineup.
Which teams make sense for Soto?
This is a fascinating situation, because, for a player this young and with this much control, the pool of potential fits is not necessarily limited to big-spending powerhouses. USA Today reported that seven suitors jumped to the forefront early -- the Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Mariners, Mets, Yankees and Cardinals. But teams with more limited financial resources, such as the Rays and Guardians, can conceivably take on Soto’s remaining salary through 2024 and have the prospect capital to make an enticing offer. Other clubs such as the Blue Jays, Cubs, Brewers and Rangers have been bandied about as conceivable fits for Soto as well.
In other words, it’s a really wide spectrum of possibilities, and that’s what makes the Soto situation so interesting. MLB.com’s Will Leitch ranked the contenders for Soto.
What are some other factors that could affect the deal?
The Washington Post has reported that the Nats have considered attaching left-handed starter Patrick Corbin to Soto in a deal. However, in an interview with The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan in D.C. on Wednesday, Rizzo said, "We're not going to dilute the return for any player by including a bad contract."
Corbin is owed nearly $60 million from 2023-24 and has an ERA of 5.90 over the past two seasons, so that -- or any player attached to Soto -- would potentially impact the price tag, the teams involved or both.
Does Soto have trade veto power?
No. The Nats can make a deal without his agreement.
What is Soto saying about all this?
Just prior to winning the Home Run Derby during the All-Star festivities, Soto addressed the rumors.
“For me, it’s about playing baseball,” Soto said. “I can’t do anything about it. I’m just working as hard as I can to play baseball. I don’t make the decisions. They make the decisions.”
The Nationals have a decision to make soon.