The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You don’t trade a player like Juan Soto — ever

Juan Soto walked in his final plate appearance with the Washington Nationals. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Here’s a pretty general rule when it comes to running a sports franchise: You don’t trade away a generational player. You especially don’t trade one when he’s 23 and hasn’t even reached what should be his best years.

Even if his agent is baseball’s answer to Lord Voldemort, Scott Boras.

But that’s what the Washington Nationals did Tuesday. They traded Juan Soto to the San Diego Padres for the usual suspects — I mean prospects.

Maybe all the kids coming to Washington will become real major league players. But, based on what usually happens with prospects, the likelihood is that if two of them pan out, that will be a lot.

Here, though, is the only question that matters: Is there any chance that any of them will become Juan Soto? The answer to that is a pretty definitive no.

Barry Svrluga: The Juan Soto deal is heartbreaking. Now the hope can begin.

Foolish might be one word to describe this trade, but I will go with selfish. It is extraordinarily selfish of the Lerner family, which is planning to cash in its chips on the franchise for somewhere north of $2 billion sometime before the end of the year. (The Lerners paid $450 million to buy it 16 years ago.)

Apparently, the Lerners feel no guilt over leaving their fan base with a truly awful team for at least two more years. The Nationals won the World Series in 2019 with Soto playing a key role. They get a pass for going 26-34 in 2020 because that was baseball’s covid-19 season; judging anyone on that year is unfair.

But they were 65-97 a year ago after their first sell-off of stars and salary, and they are well on their way to losing more than 100 games this season. Going into Tuesday’s game against the New York Mets, they have baseball’s worst record — 35-69 — with only the Oakland Athletics within shouting distance. Will next season or the season after that be any better? Not likely. Maybe if all of the best-case scenarios come true, they will be good again in 2025. By then, Washington’s fans will almost certainly have lived through five bad — or terrible — seasons.

But come on down and sign up for season tickets next spring? Seriously?

The excuse will be that Boras and Soto forced this move. Boras is villainous, and his only concern is Boras. Turning down a recent $440 million offer was all about Boras’s ego. He wants Soto to be baseball’s first $500 million player, so he can brag about it. He will almost certainly take Soto to free agency after the 2024 season and get Soto that $500 million — or more.

Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo always thought Boras would cut him some slack at crucial moments because he let him have sway on Stephen Strasburg’s innings count in 2012. If you have any doubt about that, go back to former Washington Post columnist Mike Wise’s piece in which he quoted Boras saying, “Rizzo and I put this team together.”

Boras tried to deny that quote until Wise played the tape back to him.

The bottom line with Boras is always the bottom line. He maneuvered Rizzo into giving Strasburg an out clause in his contract that kicked in during the fall of 2019, after a rare healthy and brilliant season. After becoming the World Series MVP, Strasburg opted out of the seven-year, $175 million deal he had signed in 2016 and got a new seven-year, $245 million contract.

Since then, Strasburg has won one game in three seasons. The question isn’t why he got the contract in 2019 but why he was given that opt-out in 2016 despite his injury history.

But what happened Tuesday isn’t on Rizzo. He wouldn’t — couldn’t — have made a deal without the Lerners’ approval or, more likely, their insistence.

What should they have done rather than trade Soto? Simple: Say to Boras, “Okay, Scott, you win; what’s the number we need to get a new deal with Juan?” If Boras answered that Soto wasn’t going to sign regardless of what the Lerners offered, say that publicly. Out Boras for who he is, again — and still don’t trade Soto. Hand him over to the new owners for the two years until he can become a free agent and let them deal with the migraine that is Boras.

The Lerners owed that to their fan base, not a potentially empty promise that things will be better in a couple of years.

Nats trade Juan Soto to Padres, a seismic move for the sport and franchise

A year ago, they traded Max Scherzer, who had just turned 37 but was still one of the best pitchers in the game, and Trea Turner, an all-star who had just turned 28, because they didn’t want to pay them big money — Scherzer at the end of last season, Turner at the end of this season. Trading Scherzer was a mistake; trading Turner was insane. The team also gave up Kyle Schwarber for a pitching prospect named Aldo Ramirez who won’t pitch an inning in 2022 because of elbow issues. Schwarber is now in Philadelphia, leading the National League in home runs.

If trading Turner was insane, trading Soto is beyond insane. This has become who the Nationals are, the team that loses perennial all-stars: Soto, Scherzer, Turner, Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper. It isn’t as if the Lerners are small-market owners who have to trade players rather than pay them the big bucks; this isn’t Oakland, Kansas City or Cincinnati.

They are among baseball’s richest owners. Yes, the Nationals have suffered because of the ludicrous MASN deal they were forced into when the team came to Washington. But that isn’t the reason they have lost all of these players. It’s because the Lerners have chosen not to pay them.

There are few exceptions to this rule, most notably Strasburg, who to date hasn’t been worth a single penny on the deal the Nats were forced into giving him.

Including Josh Bell, Washington’s second-best hitter, in the Soto deal was also a mistake. Bell will be a free agent this fall but might have been willing to re-sign. If the Nats wanted to trade him, I believe they almost certainly could have done better dealing with a different contender.

The oft-heard refrain from Nats apologists this summer has been this: Wait to see how the prospects acquired last summer pan out. So far, the results have been mixed at best. Now there’s a new group of prospects who will be ballyhooed all over town. We’ll see if any of them become stars.

What we do know for sure is that Soto — like Scherzer and Turner — is a star, a superstar. And, like Elvis, he has left the building.