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Why Patrick Corbin’s name comes up in Juan Soto trade speculation

Patrick Corbin is in the middle of another tough year for the Nationals. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

What should the Washington Nationals do with Patrick Corbin?

The question, asked often in recent years, changed shape after Juan Soto turned down a 15-year, $440 million contract offer this month. Before that, when Corbin was struggling through another season, the choices were to move the left-hander to the bullpen, pair him with an opener to lessen the number of times he saw the opponent’s best hitters or keep running him out there and be thankful for the consistent innings, which would require forgetting his annual salary.

Washington has gone with the latter. But with the club listening to trade offers for Soto, a new possibility has emerged: package Corbin with Soto to offload some of — if not all of — what’s left on the six-year, $140 million deal Corbin signed in December 2018.

There is recent precedent for the maneuver. When the Boston Red Sox traded Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020, they also sent along David Price, whom they still owed three years and $96 million. And though Corbin has a partial no-trade clause, according to two people with knowledge of his contract, it is not thought to be an impediment to moving him before the Aug. 2 deadline.

Since the start of the 2020 season, Corbin has a 5.61 ERA in 337 innings, never missing a start yet falling way short of expectations. A team interested in Soto could eat Corbin’s remaining money or a share of it to increase its chances of landing the 23-year-old star. Washington, though, should be wary of lessening the return package for a bit more payroll flexibility in the next two years.

Can the Nats fix Patrick Corbin? It’s a question without an easy answer.

It is hard to quantify what including Corbin could cost the Nationals. Similarly, it is extremely hard to quantify what Soto could cost on his own in the coming weeks, especially because the receiving club would get three pennant races with him before he can reach free agency in the fall of 2024. But if the Red Sox would have netted more than Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs and Connor Wong without Price in the deal — and logic says they would have — the Nationals should consider the pitfalls of that structure.

Imagine Soto is dealt with Corbin’s contract tacked on. Without Soto, the Nationals would almost certainly not compete for a division title next year. And 2024 would look bleak, too, with Mike Rizzo’s “reboot” turned into a far more traditional rebuild. It’s hard, then, to endorse offloading Corbin’s remaining salary if that shorts the Nationals another player or two, even if those players are coin-flip prospects who would complement the premium talent that would be required in any package for Soto.

Financial flexibility would be a better sell ahead of a big winter of spending — or, put another way, at a stage the Nationals would not reach in the near future if they trade Soto. Seeking flexibility at this point would feel more like shaving payroll. Plus, having Corbin eat innings for a noncompetitive club does hold a bit of value. He is averaging about 5⅔ innings this season. His numbers, of course, don’t line up with the $23.3 million hit toward the competitive balance tax threshold (the six-year average for $140 million). But as they do now, the Nationals will need at least some veteran arms to fill out their staff.

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Because Corbin is not the Nationals’ only well-paid starter, it’s worth noting that Stephen Strasburg has 10-5 rights — 10 years of major league service, five with the current team — and would have to approve any trade. He’s not likely to do so, nor are the Nationals likely to shop him while he’s recovering from complications with thoracic outlet surgery he underwent last summer.

So Corbin, in turn, is the one who has shown up in mock Soto trades in recent days. His contract is backloaded and includes deferred money. He got a $2.5 million signing bonus in 2018, $12.5 million in 2019, $19 million in 2020, $24 million in 2021, $23 million in 2022, $24 million in 2023 and $35 million in 2024 and will have $10 million deferred.

How those commitments might transfer to a new team would be negotiated like everything else. The Nationals just have to decide whether they want Corbin in the discussions at all.