Juan Soto is now a member of the San Diego Padres. Who lost this trade, though?
It is a scenario that would’ve seemed unthinkable a year ago, even a month ago. A 23-year-old superstar, already on a career path that will lead to Cooperstown one day, traded in his prime.
The Padres had to surrender a lot to get Soto, as well as Josh Bell, from the Washington Nationals, including former top prospects Mackenzie Gore and C.J. Abrams, current No. 1 prospect Robert Hassell III, and No. 3 prospect James Wood. But the risk is well worth the reward, for the Padres are getting one of the premier talents in the league.
Now in his fifth season, Soto is already in some heady company. Just six players in MLB history have had at least 100 home runs and an OPS of .966 or better through their age 23 season. Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, and Joe DiMaggio are in the Hall of Fame. Albert Pujols will be in five years. The other is Soto.
Soto is an on-base machine. In his last 25 games, he’s reached base in more than half of his plate appearances to go along with a .324 batting average and 1.177 OPS. On Monday, in what proved to be his last game in a Nationals uniform, he hit a home run and walked three times.
Soto will team up in the Padres batting order with Fernando Tatis Jr., another 23-year-old phenom who hasn’t played all season while rehabbing a wrist injury but has started taking batting practice. Together, they’ll form arguably the most dynamic duo in baseball, a pair of talented youngsters with their best days still in front of them. Soto is also under team control for a further two years beyond 2022.
The Padres, 12 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West, are done being second to their Southern California neighbors. In one dramatic move on Tuesday, they’ve elevated themselves to legitimate World Series contenders.
The Padres came out ahead at the trade deadline. But not everyone will be happy to see Soto in a Padres uniform. Here are the three biggest losers from the “deal of the century.”
Los Angeles Dodgers
At the trade deadline in 2021, the San Diego Padres were trailing the Los Angeles Dodgers by just two games in the win column as they both attempted to chase down the San Francisco Giants in the NL West.
The Padres believed they found the perfect piece in order to leap ahead of the Dodgers: future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer. It seemed like a done deal that Scherzer would be a Padre up until the last minute. Then the Dodgers swooped in and stole him away. The Padres never recovered, going 18-36 the rest of the season and finishing 27 games back of the Dodgers and 28 back of the Giants.
Not this time. General Manager A.J. Preller and the Padres front office have had enough of playing the little brother to the juggernaut 120 miles north along California’s Pacific Coast.
The acquisition of Soto makes the Padres an instant threat to the Dodgers, not just in 2022 but for years to come. Soto remains under contract through the 2024 season, leaving the Dodgers having to contend with a lineup that also includes Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado.
Soto, a Hall of Fame-caliber player still, at the age of 23, in the prime of his career, would elevate any team’s lineup. But the Padres could use his production as much as any club. Their outfielders have hit the third-fewest home runs in the league this season, ahead of just the Tigers and Guardians. They have the fifth-worst OPS; Soto, even with his numbers down from his MVP-contending season last year, is still fifth in the NL in OPS.
The Dodgers were in contention for Soto, along with the Padres and Cardinals. This is a franchise that is used to getting what it wants. They’ve won the NL West eight of the last nine years (finishing a game back of the Giants in 2021) and are firmly in front again this year. The Dodgers are perennial World Series contenders, the Padres merely a nuisance to swat away on their way to playing deep into October.
They can’t expect that any longer. Soto is coming to Southern California and the Padres are a real threat to the Dodgers’ hegemony over the division.
St. Louis Cardinals
John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations for the St. Louis Cardinals, isn’t afraid to make the big deal. In the past four years, he’s traded for Paul Goldschmidt from the Diamondbacks and Nolan Arenado from the Rockies. Both of them sit at the top of the WAR leaderboard this season and are in contention for National League MVP.
Mozeliak had a chance to do it again this trade deadline as the Cardinals, 54-48 and three games behind in the NL Central, attempt to catch up to the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cardinals were among the teams in the hunt for Soto right until the end. But, this time, they decided not to pull the trigger.
The Cardinals had the pieces necessary to have made a trade for Soto possible. They own five of the top-100 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline, including the powerful Jordan Walker and left-handed pitcher Matthew Liberatore. Their farm system is one of the deepest in the league, with the type of promising young talent the Nationals were looking for.
The holdup on any potential Cardinals-Nationals deal: outfielder Dylan Carlson. The Cardinals were hesitant to include Carlson in a package that also included their top prospects, according to Jon Morosi. And, suddenly, a potential franchise-altering deal for Soto fell apart.
Carlson, once a top-10 prospect in his own right, is two days older than Soto. He’s appeared in 267 games the last three seasons, hitting 27 home runs with a .253 average and .744 OPS. He’s hit six homers in 296 at-bats in 2022, his OPS 150 points lower than Soto’s. The Cardinals believe Carlson will develop into a star player soon.
But he’s certainly not Soto, and the Cardinals will have to live with Soto going to a team they may meet in a three-game Wild Card series in October.
On Oct. 30, 2019, around 10:50 p.m. in Houston, Daniel Hudson threw a breaking ball to the Astros’ Michael Brantley, tossed his glove into the air, and ran into the arms of catcher Yan Gomes as the Nationals celebrated the first World Series championship in franchise history.
That was less than three years ago, but it might as well be three decades for Nationals fans. The loss of Soto, the face of the franchise who helped bring the title to the nation’s capital, is a stark reminder of how much things have changed since that magical night at Minute Maid Park.
Just five players who appeared in that Fall Classic have had an uninterrupted run with the Nationals since. Patrick Corbin, Tanner Rainey, and Victor Robles are still there. So is the perennially injured Stephen Strasburg, the MVP of that series who has made just eight starts in the last three seasons. Joe Ross hasn’t played all year. Sean Doolittle and Anibal Sanchez left town before coming back.
Manager Dave Martinez is also still there, but he would barely recognize the lineup he pencils in each night from the one that won the title. First, it was Bryce Harper who left before 2019. Anthony Rendon went off to Anaheim in 2020. Max Scherzer and Trea Turner were traded to the Dodgers last July. Franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman retired.
Just three years removed from the league’s pinnacle, Nationals fans have nothing but memories. The star players from that club have taken their rings and left town, leaving a depleted roster in their wake.
Soto might be the most significant blow. He’s just 23 and could’ve established himself in Washington for the prime of his career. But, when he rejected the club’s $440 million contract extension, his fate was sealed.
The 2019 championship banner will still hang in Nationals Park. But that title is beginning to feel like a long time ago as the Nationals prepare to start all over.