You wouldn’t think that a hitter as elite as Juan Soto – someone we compared to the all-time greatest hitters ever when he was just 20 years old – would be available in a trade, as he seems to be this winter. Then again, you wouldn’t think he’d have already been traded once, either, but that didn’t stop the Nationals from dealing him to the Padres at the 2022 Trade Deadline. So sure, it’s possible. It might even be likely.
That it might happen again says more about the state of the Padres than it does about Soto, really. San Diego has to replace hundreds of innings, given that Blake Snell, Seth Lugo, Josh Hader, Michael Wacha and Nick Martinez are all free agents, and the recent passing of team chairman Peter Seidler puts some uncertainty into how they’ll operate going forward.
That doesn’t mean the Padres won’t or can’t be strong in 2024. You certainly don’t have a roster that includes Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts, Yu Darvish, Ha-Seong Kim, Joe Musgrove and Fernando Tatis Jr. if you don’t expect to contend. They might just keep Soto and move him at the Trade Deadline, or not at all. But the more the days pass, the more the smoke seems to swirl about a potential Soto trade happening -- maybe even soon.
If it does, what would that even look like? And what might be the right destinations?
1) He really is that great
As a reminder, all those “he’s Ted Williams” comparisons that got kicked around back from 2019-20 have … largely held up. Whether he’s exactly Ted is sort of irrelevant, given the massive differences in the sport between then and now. (Not only did Williams miss his age 24-26 seasons while serving in the United States military, but he spent the first part of his career playing against segregated rosters, and opposing starting pitchers who would routinely go four times through. Despite playing in parts of four decades, he faced only seven opponents. It’s a different sport, basically.)
But the fact remains that Soto’s performance through age 24 is something close to unparalleled. We can (and have previously) belabored that point for thousands of words; for now, let’s sum it up quickly with a single leaderboard. In the post-war era, if we just look at best hitting performance (via OPS+) through age 24, with a minimum of 1,500 plate appearances …
Best OPS+ since 1945, through age-24
- 177 // Frank Thomas
- 170 // Mike Trout
- 167 // Albert Pujols
- 166 // Mickey Mantle
- 161 // Dick Allen
- 157 // Soto
- 155 // Eddie Mathews
- 153 // Willie Mays
- 149 // Ken Griffey, Jr.
- 148 // Reggie Jackson
… the names are absolutely spectacular. Thomas, Mantle, Mathews, Mays, Griffey Jr. and Jackson are Hall of Famers. Trout and Pujols will be. Allen should be. Barring serious injury, it’s all but impossible to get off to a start like this and not end up with a fantastic career. (If we bring it back to 1920, where Williams is first, Soto is still 10th-best in AL/NL history.)
When the Padres traded for him, it was in part because they expected they could get three playoff pushes out of him. But now, he’s just a year away from free agency. How often does a player this good get moved with one year left?
2) Finding similar trades isn’t exactly easy
A player like this getting dealt doesn’t happen that often, you’ll be unsurprised to learn. Given that it’s hard to find comparables to Soto as a hitter, it’s even harder to find players like that who have actually been traded. Still, there are some.
We’re going to look at hitters only (sorry, Johan Santana and Cliff Lee). We’ve got to keep it to players of a somewhat similar age, because the final-year trades for Paul Goldschmidt, Griffey Jr. and Andrew McCutchen are directionally correct, but not quite.
Since 1995, there have been 38 hitters with at least three 5+ WAR seasons through age 27. Soto, of course, is not 27; he only turned 25 in October, and he’s younger than 2023 rookies like Josh Jung and Yainer Diaz. But given that a great player at 27 is hardly old, and that we’re trying to expand our search to find enough names, it will do.
Of the 37 others, most didn’t get traded, either ever or not until late in their careers. (We’re not counting pre-stardom trades like when the Padres dealt Anthony Rizzo after a single, unremarkable, age-21 season.) Two of the ones who were dealt don’t really apply here, because their trades came in the midst of massive contracts with many years remaining (Alex Rodriguez and Giancarlo Stanton, each to the Yankees).
Three more don’t apply in the opposite direction, because Scott Rolen, Carlos Beltrán and Machado were each traded in the middle of their walk seasons, not before it, and when Miguel Cabrera went from the Marlins to the Tigers ahead of his own age-25 season, he had three years left.
Which leaves us with exactly three comparables, in terms of star-level seasons, age and just one year left before free agency, in the nearly three decades since the Wild Card era began.
- Jason Heyward // traded from Braves to Cardinals ahead of his age-25 season in 2015 with Jordan Walden for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins
- Mookie Betts // traded from Red Sox to Dodgers ahead of his age-27 season in 2020 with David Price and cash for Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs and Connor Wong
- Francisco Lindor // traded from Guardians to Mets ahead of his age-27 season in 2021 with Carlos Carrasco for Andrés Giménez, Amed Rosario and two prospects
Heyward subsequently signed with the Cubs, while Betts and Lindor each ended up signing extensions to stay with their new clubs.
It happens, is the point. But it’s rare. This is what it looks like.
3) Who are the best fits?
From a baseball point of view, all 30 teams would benefit with Soto in their lineup, but of course many won’t be in the conversation due to reasons of payroll, timeline to contention or ability to send enough back to San Diego. It’s possible that a team trading for Soto could sign him to an extension before he reaches free agency at the end of next season, yet they also have to prepare for the very real possibility that they’re trading for just one season.
With apologies to the Dodgers, Braves, Mariners, Red Sox and others, the five top fits in our view are …
Given their willingness to spend and their hopes to erase the disappointing taste of the 2023 season, the Mets are going to be included on any list for any free agent. The baseball fit is obvious, because they don’t have a left fielder, their lineup is thin and they could easily afford to extend him right away. The flip side: They need to worry about pitching even more than their hitting. They also have their own star situation to sort out with trade rumors circling around Pete Alonso, who reaches free agency at the same time Soto does.
With Cody Bellinger and Marcus Stroman each off to free agency this winter, the Cubs have holes to fill and some newly found payroll space to fill them; it’s no accident they keep coming up in Shohei Ohtani rumors. A farm system that’s stronger than it’s been in years would be enough to satisfy San Diego’s needs, and it’s an absolute, 100 percent must that if they don’t retain Bellinger, they find a top-level bat to replace him – a big ask in a very, very thin free-agent position-player market. They may have no choice but to turn to trades.
It’s the same story, just with a different star. It’s well known by now that the Giants tried to add Carlos Correa and Aaron Judge last year but were unable to come up with either. It’s beyond clear that the roster is somewhat bland and doesn’t slug nearly enough. There’s no team that would benefit more from adding Ohtani, both because of the on-field fit and the off-field attraction. The fit here is imperfect only in the fact that the current Giants roster isn’t close enough to contention in 2024 that it’d be worth the effort to get Soto for just a single season, but that may not be enough to suppress their interest.
2) Blue Jays
A surprise? Maybe. Toronto needs to fill at least three lineup spots, and doesn't currently have a left fielder or a DH. Like the Cubs and Giants, they keep coming up in Ohtani rumors. Unlike the Cubs and Giants, they already have a roster that looks like it could be a serious contender in 2024, given their strong rotation and still-young position-player core, which would make it more palatable if they ended up keeping Soto for only a single season. Imagine, if you would, a top four of a lineup that went something like “George Springer, Bo Bichette, Soto and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.”
Five seasons ago, the Yankees were considered to be one of the favorites to sign a young, elite, left-handed-hitting corner outfielder who had made his debut with the Nationals at 19 years old and grew up idolizing a Yankee. They chose not to sign Bryce Harper, who wanted to imitate Mickey Mantle and went on to star with the Phillies instead, much to the chagrin of Yankees fans. They have the chance to rectify that error this time around by adding Soto, who grew up watching Robinson Canó’s heyday in pinstripes.
Though Yankee Stadium is built for a lefty hitter, that’s largely overstated for a hitter of Soto’s all-fields skill, and the fit here is less one of park than it is of roster need, as the 2023 Yankees had the third-weakest lefty hitting in the game. It's not just that this is a lineup that needs a boost (it does) or a franchise that needs a new energy (it does). It's that they can afford to sign him long term, and if they do, given his age, then in a dozen years or so, we'll be talking about the next superstar who grew up watching Soto become a Yankees legend.