It is a relief, I must confess, to finally just get to talk about "Juan Soto The Baseball Player." Not "Juan Soto The Generational Talent" or "Juan Soto The Trade Chip." Soto has been in so many headlines over the last month that you almost forgot what it was like to watch him play baseball -- that you almost got sick of him. The "Juan Soto Trade Discourse" became exhausting, kind of like an overhyped movie you're tired of having to watch the same trailer for over and over; in the end, it almost doesn't matter how good the movie is, you just want to get back to talking about something else.
Now that Soto has been traded to the Padres, he gets to just be a baseball player again -- one of the best in the world, as it turns out. But our desire for Hot Stove and Trade Deadline action -- our insatiable need to play fantasy general manager, to scroll our timelines for every single bit of trade and free agent news and rumormongering -- will make sure that we move onto someone else quickly. Soto said, before he was traded, that he just wanted this to be over: He might play for the Nationals after the Deadline, he might play for the Cardinals, he might play for the Padres, but no matter what, he wanted no longer to be the center of attention. Now that he has been traded, he won't be. Now someone else gets to be.
Who's that person going to be? Who's the next MLB rumor centerpiece? Here's a look at the likeliest next five candidates. It's their turn next. Because it's always somebody's turn.
Aaron Judge, OF, Yankees
He's the biggest … well, he's the biggest everything. He's the biggest player in baseball (or at least close to it), he's the biggest home run hitter in the game and he's the biggest free agent to hit the market since … Bryce Harper? He's older (30) than Harper was when he hit the market, which could theoretically limit his suitors, but Judge will also enter free agency coming off a year in which he's trying to become the ninth player in baseball history to hit 60 homers or more (and the first in 21 years). He is also one of those faces that everyone, even people who don't watch that much baseball, recognizes. It's tough to imagine the Yankees letting him walk away, but he has already rejected one reasonable offer to bet on himself, a bet that looks like it's paying off. The free-agent market won't really get going until Judge signs with someone. We'll all be waiting on him.
Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets
It turns out that the long layoff for deGrom did not, in fact, affect his pitching ability. deGrom was nearly perfect -- literally -- in his first home start for the Mets in 2022, and now he has two months to stay healthy and hone his genius before he teams with Max Scherzer for one of the most incredible one-two postseason rotations in baseball history. And then, by all accounts (including his own), he's going to opt out of his contract and become a free agent.
How do you possibly value a pitcher like deGrom? He has pitched in only 29 games in three years, he'll turn 35 before the All-Star break next year, he throws so hard and so brilliantly that he's always going to be dealing with some sort of injury concern. But also he's, uh, just about the best pitcher any of us have seen in a decade. What's a smart offer for him? What will it take? What is too much? These are all fascinating questions. And we're going to be asking them over and over and over, all winter.
Shohei Ohtani, RHP/DH, Angels
Ohtani already went through a little bit of this at the Deadline, though all told, it was probably unreasonable for anyone to figure out how to trade for one of the best pitchers and one of the best hitters in the sport (with another year on his deal no less) in the span of just a few days before the Deadline. But the Angels, sad to say, have every reason to shop Ohtani to every team in baseball this winter. The team, as we've discovered, is much farther away from a playoff spot than anyone had anticipated, and Ohtani's a free agent after next season. And, for what it's worth, he hasn't exactly sounded married to staying in Anaheim once he hits the market either.
The Angels basically need everything, and the nice thing about having an Ohtani to trade is that he's a guy who might just bring back everything in a trade. There are questions about whether or not owner Arte Moreno really wants to trade a once-in-a-lifetime player like Ohtani, but the Angels can't let a player like Ohtani -- a player every team in baseball should want -- just walk away for nothing. You'll hear about Ohtani on a daily basis until Opening Day. And then if he isn't traded before April, just wait until next Trade Deadline when he's just months from free agency. Be ready.
Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox
He's not quite the level of player of the names above him here, but these are the Red Sox we are talking about, and the Red Sox are going to have a pivotal, and very emotional, offseason. Bogaerts signed a six-year, $120 million extension in April 2019 -- wow, April 2019 feels like an awfully long time ago, doesn't it? -- that included an opt-out after the 2022 season. There was some debate as to whether or not he'd use that opt-out, but after a one-year extension offer prior to Opening Day from the Red Sox that some in the Bogaerts camp found to be a non-starter, it's widely considered likely that he'll use it.
Bogaerts is having another fantastic year and will turn 30 on Oct. 1. Boston has some huge questions to answer, not just with Bogaerts but, potentially, with Rafael Devers, who will hit the market after next season, three years younger than Bogaerts will hit it this year. If the Red Sox clean house this offseason -- something that, considering how things are going right now, doesn't seem entirely off the table -- that could put Devers on the trade market as well. So maybe it's Bogaerts, and maybe it's Devers, but we sure are going to be talking a lot about Red Sox stars this winter.
Manny Machado, 3B, Padres
Oooh, didn't see this one coming, did you? Hear me out. Machado, until his left ankle injury in June hobbled him, was having an MVP season this year, arguably the best season of his career. With all the talk about Fernando Tatis Jr., it was Machado who carried this Padres team the first half of the year, keeping them in contention and looking for all the world like the superstar the Padres paid for back in February 2019. That contract was 10 years, $300 million, the biggest contract in American sports at the time. But a lot has happened since then, including Harper and, two years later, Machado's teammate Tatis surpassing that total. And many might have missed that small little proviso in that 2019 contract: Machado has the ability to opt out of the deal after the 2023 season. Wild, right? Now, at $30 million a year, it'd be a risk for him to do so, but if he is healthy and has another MVP-caliber season, he'd have to at least consider it, right?
He'd be doing so too while the Padres are paying Tatis all that money and paying Soto for his final two years of arbitration and, ostensibly, trying to figure out a Soto extension. Can you imagine the chaos a Machado opt-out would throw into that situation? The first four players on this list are the Soto-esque conversation leaders coming this winter. But next winter, the winter of 2023? Machado could blow them all away.