There is no overstating the emotions Tuesday afternoon at Nationals Park, where grown-and-grizzled men were moved to tears over a trade involving baseball players. When the Washington Nationals ran out a feeble, who-are-these-guys lineup to face New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom, Juan Soto’s beaming image still adorned an enormous banner that covers one of the parking garages beyond center field, where he bombed so many home runs for the Nats, who are now wholly unrecognizable from the team Soto helped to a World Series title.
“I talk to his dad a lot,” said Dave Martinez, the only big league manager Soto has known, in one of a series of reminiscences. “I said: ‘I know by birth, he’s your son. On the field …’ ” and by this point, the tears he had mostly held back were flowing. He stopped talking.
Finally, he managed to force out, “he’s my son.”
A trade of Juan Soto — which the Nationals pulled off hours before Tuesday’s deadline, sending the 23-year-old outfielder and first baseman Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres for six players — was always going to be a business decision that drew out the rawest emotions. Mike Rizzo, the general manager who signed Juan Soto and traded Juan Soto, choked up several times in discussing not the trade but the people involved.
“It’s a difficult day,” Rizzo said.
But this is how you have to process it, the only way to get through the idea that Soto is leaving and the Nationals are somehow better for it. Close your eyes, and think of the 2025 season opener at Nationals Park. MacKenzie Gore is on the mound, already proven but still with more potential to tap, because he was once the third pick in the draft. C.J. Abrams is the shortstop, just 24 and still on the rise — which means Luis García long ago slid over to play second base.
Robert Hassell III and James Wood are precocious outfielders talented enough to start on a contender. Cade Cavalli is ready to take the mound the next day, with Josiah Gray behind him, all throwing to Keibert Ruiz — by now an experienced big league catcher. Plus, a 6-foot-6, 21-year-old right-hander named Jarlin Susana who throws 100 mph is pushing to join the rotation by midseason.
And Soto has left the San Diego Padres, where he never won a World Series, to sign the largest free agent deal in the history of the game with, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers or the New York Yankees. The team doesn’t really matter. (Unless it’s the Mets or the Phillies or the Braves, I suppose.)
It takes some combination of faith and vision to let the mind believe events will play out that way. Tuesday’s trade that sent the best young hitter in the sport to the Padres can be lots of things at once: jarring, predictable, dumbfounding, logical.
But the way that it becomes a success is if the Nationals get back to contending — as they did from 2012 to 2019, with that last season bringing the brightest trophy in the sport — with the players they received from the Padres on Tuesday and the Dodgers last summer as something of a core. Development isn’t a straight line, and the scenario above almost certainly won’t play out perfectly. But that’s how this admittedly depressing scenario can provide some hope.
Rizzo, charged with articulating how trading such a talent is a positive, fiddled with the sizable bling on his left ring finger, the bauble from that 2019 title.
“I wore this ring purposely,” Rizzo said. “It shows what we’ve done in the past and what we’re going to do in the future. In 2019, we had a slogan: Bumpy roads lead to beautiful places. We’re in a bumpy road right now, and we believe that coming out of this thing, it’ll be a beautiful place.”
The lump in his throat was real. This process is hard.
Is the team that the Nationals fielded Tuesday night against the Mets better because Soto and Bell were dealt to San Diego for that package of prospects? Absolutely not.
But are the Nationals, as a franchise, deeper in the minors and the majors — with more flexibility to pursue trades and free agency — than they were Monday night? Yes, absolutely. An attempt at quantifying all that can be provided by the essential website FanGraphs. Before the trade, the Nationals had the 24th-best farm system in baseball. After it, if you include Gore as a prospect rather than a major leaguer, they have the fifth best. That’s a franchise reset.
“I think we’ve taken several steps forward,” Rizzo said. “I think it accelerates the process. I think that you lose a generational talent like that but you put in five key elements of your future championship roster. … It was the right move at the right time for where we’re at as a franchise.”
Still, I’m not going to declare a winner or loser today. Teams make the best decisions they can in real time.
We know that Soto turned down a 15-year, $440 million offer from the Nationals. We know he said repeatedly that the idea of going to free agency intrigues him. We know that people in the industry believed the return for his services would be highest at this trade deadline because the receiving team would get three pennant races out of him. And we know the Nationals need a lot more than just a right fielder.
I always thought a deal would be hard to pull off, in part because it would be easy for Rizzo to say that the team loves Juan Soto, that the Lerner family is in the process of selling the club, so why not let the new owners take a crack at it? The situation was fluid. I was wrong.
But there’s also some thinking that new owners — and we don’t yet know who that might be or what philosophy they’ll impose — didn’t want their first move upon arrival to be failing to convince Soto to sign an extension, then doing this dance over the winter and possibly up to this point next summer. That would have put a bit of a cloud over what’s supposed to be a fresh, invigorating start.
Ownership uncertainty and potential of the prospects aside, let’s be clear: This stings. In a vacuum, and in totality, because Soto follows Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner out the door, and because it says here when it’s all said and done, he’ll be the best of the bunch. As Soto said Monday night — after what turned out to be the last of his 565 games as a National, when he hit the last of his 119 homers as a National — “I understand it’s a business.”
It is, and a harsh one. For fans, it’s still a game.
“I feel terrible for them,” said Sean Doolittle, the injured reliever who is one of the few remaining ties to the title. “I can empathize with how they’re feeling. After the guys that we’ve had here who are wearing other uniforms right now, add Juan to that, add [Bell] to that, I feel their pain. I share their pain. What can you say?”
Juan Soto wasn’t just a known commodity here. He was a World Series champion, a batting champ, an unreal hitter, a reason to watch, a smiling kid who became a man. Those prospects above, they’re currently nothing more than names and ages and stats and hope.
Get to know them. Then close your eyes. This team is going to lose 100 games this summer.
But the Nationals of next season or 2024 aren’t the Nationals of Tuesday night. They’re not going to lose 100 games in perpetuity. There’s a path back to contention, and it became more identifiable because the Nationals swallowed hard and traded the untradeable Juan José Soto. The tears are real, but the progress is, too.