The Washington Nationals did what once seemed unthinkable Tuesday: They traded Juan Soto.
Calling it the biggest deal of this year’s trade deadline falls short. With Soto under team control through the 2024 season, the Padres could have him for three playoff races, giving them a lineup built around Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado and first baseman Josh Bell, whom the Nationals packaged with Soto in the move.
D.C., meanwhile, is left to watch another homegrown cornerstone leave. Bryce Harper, who once won an MVP award with the Nationals, left for Philadelphia after the 2018 season. Anthony Rendon, one of the World Series heroes, joined the Los Angeles Angels shortly after that title run. And last summer, the team sent Trea Turner and Max Scherzer to the Los Angeles Dodgers, starting a rebuild that General Manager Mike Rizzo believes took a step forward Tuesday.
“It accelerates the process,” said Rizzo, who seemed on the verge of tears at various points of a 20-minute news conference. “You lose a generational talent like that, but you put in five key elements of your future championship roster.”
Yes, trading Soto and Bell landed a major haul: shortstop C.J. Abrams, left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore, outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood, first baseman/designated hitter Luke Voit and right-handed pitcher Jarlin Susana. But there is no replacing Soto or what he has meant to the organization since debuting at 19 in 2018. As the Nationals stumble toward another last-place finish, they were selling a quick “reboot” around Soto, a once-in-a-generation player and one of the few reasons to root for the team this summer.
Without him, though, the Nationals are banking on the development of unproven yet highly touted players. Such is the reality on their end of the blockbuster deal. Within the organization, all eyes shift to the future amid an ever-dreary present. The Nationals did not make any more trades after Soto and Bell became Padres.
“They’re really all tough,” Manager Dave Martinez said of the goodbyes, his voice catching with emotion. “I build these relationships with these guys. The toughest thing with Juan is he was so young … [I saw] him even when he was just a kid. But they’re all tough.”
In recent days, San Diego was in the mix for Soto along with the Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals. But by Tuesday morning, the Padres were a clear front-runner with Soto and Bell in play as a package deal. On his own, Soto could demand a handful of prospects and Voit, who has major league experience with the Cardinals, New York Yankees and Padres. But by adding Bell, the Nationals netted Susana, an 18-year-old whose fastball has been clocked in the triple digits.
While Rizzo negotiated, there were times he doubted a deal coming together. The Nationals’ ask was high. It reflected Soto’s value and two months of Bell, too. But while Bell is putting up career numbers this year, Soto’s departure is the gut punch for the Nationals — their coaches and players — and their fans.
Soto had a four-year run with the team after signing as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic in 2015. He packed that tenure with a World Series ring, a National League batting title, two Silver Slugger awards, two top-five finishes in MVP voting and a pair of all-star appearances. In July, he won the Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium, adding to a résumé that should belong to a midcareer star, not someone who can’t rent a car without underage fees.
At such a young age, Soto has followed the statistical tracks of all-time players such as Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Trout. He pairs power and contact ability with otherworldly plate discipline. Baseball writers once spent an offseason comparing him with Ted Williams, one of the best hitters ever. That’s why Soto demanded a large return and the final contract offer wasn’t enough.
“We did feel that we were not going to be able to extend him and we felt that, at this time, with two-and-a-half years remaining, three playoff runs available to Juan Soto, he would never be more at value than he is today,” Rizzo said. “And that’s what we predicated it on. There was no edict to trade him or not to trade him [from ownership, as the Lerner family explores a sale of the team]. It was business as usual.”
So Soto’s steady dominance is what ultimately complicated his future in Washington. For a long while, Soto has been set on reaching free agency after the 2024 season, the only way to see how the open market values him. Still, the Nationals made efforts to sign him to a long-term deal — a goal that became even more pressing after the club began its rebuild in July 2021, shipping out eight veterans for 12 unproven players.
First there was a 13-year, $350 million contract offer to Soto in November. After that, Washington upped the figures in May, then even more with 15 years and $440 million a month ago. But Soto and Scott Boras, his agent, felt he is worth more than an average annual value of $29.3 million. On July 16, that offer — the largest in MLB history by total value — was publicized along with the Nationals’ intentions to listen to trade offers for Soto before the deadline.
But deal Soto? Deal the player with some of the biggest hits in club history in 2019 — the go-ahead single off Josh Hader in the NL wild-card game; the score-knotting homer off Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 of the NL Division Series; towering shots against Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in the World Series — while his best years could be in front of him, not behind?
On June 1, in an interview with 106.7 the Fan, Rizzo was asked about the possibility of trading Soto. He was defiant, saying the Nationals would not shop their best player, whose left-handed swing had become synonymous with baseball in Washington. Then everything changed with 15 years and $440 million fell flat. Money often has that effect.
“When someone like Soto gets moved, it does kind of remind you that if he can get moved, anybody can get moved,” said reliever Sean Doolittle, a relic in that he was on the 2019 title team and still plays for Washington following stints elsewhere. “It sounds surreal saying it out loud.”
Soto’s journey didn’t start when he debuted at Nationals Park. It didn’t start at the club’s academy in the Dominican Republic, where he would spend extra hours on Rosetta Stone to perfect his English. And it didn’t start when the team first scouted him as a left-handed pitcher who could hit a bit.
All of this began in a living room in Santo Domingo, Soto’s dad tossing him bottle caps that the small boy smacked against the walls. He wanted to be Manny Ramirez or Robinson Canó. In long days at the playground, he mimicked Canó’s uppercut swing, the other kids calling him “Little Robbie.” Baseball is tradition in their shared country. So, too, is dreaming of major league stardom.
Those dreams have taken Soto to Washington; to around America in a Nationals uniform; to the highs of the World Series and the depths of a rebuild. Next, they will take him to San Diego, where a new fan base will hang on every one of his at-bats, on him staring down the opposing pitcher, on the “Soto shuffle” that pushes dirt around the box. Soto has always been a blink-and-you-might-miss-it sort of player.
Trading him, then, means D.C. will miss a lot.
Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the date of Mike Rizzo's radio interview. Rizzo's comments came on June 1, not July 1.