In what only might have been the most eventful part of his week, Juan Soto turned down more money than I can even imagine.
$440 million to be exact. Over the course of 15 years. Soto turned down the largest overall financial commitment any team has ever made in the history of trying to hit balls with sticks. Somehow, this week’s new Home Run Derby Champion was slighted by the fact that the per year value of the contract extension offered to him by the Washington Nationals would be only the 20th highest of any player in baseball.
And with Soto having turned down said extension, the Washington Nationals find themselves in a predicament. Having provided their best offer to one of the most dominant hitters in baseball (two-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, 1-time batting champion, leading baseball in walks for the second year in a row and he’s only 23 years old) and having him rebuke it, they are left with no other recourse than to start looking for trade partners for one of the most talented players in franchise history (again, at only 23 years old).
Surely, the ball club is planning to learn from its recent history. In 2019 they lost another one of the greatest players in the history of the team, a fellow outfielder by the name of Bryce Harper. Harper walked in free agency after long negotiations with the Nationals both during the term of his contract and after just never bared fruit. Harper himself has admitted that on multiple occasions he was sure he would be a National for the long-term. It never happened, and the Nationals were left holding the bag when he signed with division rival Philadelphia before the 2019 season began. A former Most Valuable Player was gone and they got nothing but a compensation pick in the draft for him.
Washington won’t make the same mistake this time. They’ve provided their extension offer to Soto a full two and a half years before he reaches free agency and at a pivotal time in their franchise where they are in flux towards a rebuild. Soto helped propel the team to a World Series Championship in 2019 despite Harper’s departure. In fact, his ascension is a large part of what made that championship possible. Now his exodus could be the jump start for Washington’s rebuild.
And for the Nationals, the trade partners are already aplenty. Reports suggest that the Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees and New York Mets have all already inquired about Washington’s star outfielder. That’s seven teams. A new playoff format that provides for six teams in each league allows more teams than ever to squint their eyes and believe they are one player away from October success. And of course, Soto with a bat in his hands is a generational talent. Any team that says that they wouldn’t be interested in slotting him into their lineup would be kidding themselves.
Of course, “any team” therefore includes our own Cleveland Guardians. I’ll say it upfront. The chances that the Guardians really do pull a trigger on a trade for Soto are far from likely. However, with David Blitzer added to the team’s ownership group, the organization could be primed for an influx of cash that should make some higher-priced, short-termed transactions more plausible.
Additionally, the Guardians are flush with prospects to the point that there is some question about how they will handle the 40-man roster crunch when the 2023 season starts. They already have the youngest roster in the league in 2022 and continue to have a lot of young talent that has or will be graduating to the Majors in short order. This is especially true in the middle of the diamond: shortstops and center-fielders- prime positions for toolsy, athletic players that can wow scouts and front offices alike.
Soto is also the superb example of the type of player the Guardians like to trade for. Any time there is a young, pre-arbitration, or arbitration player with talent on the market, Chris Antonetti wants him. Think Franmil Reyes. Think Amed Rosario. Cal Quantrill. Myles Straw. You get the idea. Obviously, Soto is on a whole other level. His arbitration salary is on a whole other level too. In his sixth year, he will probably make more money than Jose Ramirez even before hitting free agency. Still, there is a level of cost control with him. Soto at a projected $30 million in that year would still be below market value. The Guardians could get him for the remainder of his age 23 season as well as at 24 and 25. Even at a hefty price tag relative to the rest of their payroll, that is a bargain. Oh, and they could always flip him in the future if needed. If Antonetti can trade Frank Lindor in his last arb year for a future All-Star second baseman, imagine what he could get for Soto.
So while not maybe the most probable twist that could occur in the Guardians season, it’s not entirely an absurdity either. They remain in the thick of both a division and wildcard race and plan to only get better as their roster matures in the next few seasons. There’s plenty of reason here to kick the tires on trying to bring in Soto.
But what would a trade even look like? Remember, Soto is likely to field a highly competitive market. At this point, we only have bits and pieces of data on what the asking price for his services may be. One piece of information that has come out is that allegedly neither New York team is comfortable with offering their three top prospects in exchange for the left-handed hitting outfielder. We can only surmise then that this information has made it into the media because there is some sort of goal or motivation on Washington’s part to return three top prospects within the confines of a deal. That’s probably a no-brainer. The Nationals want as many prospects as they can get. But, it’s good to know where the level might be set. Sounds like it’s at 2.5 prospects right now.
It has also been reported that the Nationals would prefer to include starting pitcher Patrick Corbin with Soto. Corbin signed a back-loaded 6-year, $140 million contract before 2019 and was also instrumental to the team’s World Series title in the same year. He has been significantly less effective since 2019 while his paycheck has only grown and grown due to the terms of his deal. Including Corbin in a trade would be a cost-cutting measure by Washington and would likely actually dissuade teams from adding more value to their trade offers.
In short, the Nationals have two options regarding Corbin’s inclusion. They can include Corbin in the trade and get his money off their books, yielding themselves fewer prospects in return. Or, they can just live with Corbin collecting his checks and eating innings on what is likely to be not very good teams the next few years. Sending Soto out of town on his own will yield more prospect talent in exchange as the receiving team isn’t doing the Nats a solid and taking Corbin off their hands.
I will tell you right now, the Guardians will not perform a trade that includes Corbin in it. As much as Soto is a superb example of the type of player the team likes to add, Corbin is a superb example of the opposite. An aging, depreciating starting pitcher with a lot of miles on him who isn’t performing well and is only getting more and more expensive is the last thing on their agenda. If the Nationals insist on moving Corbin, the Guardians are dead in the water.
All of this is to say, that the Guardians won’t be paying at a discount. The Mets probably have the best two-player tandem of prospects that any team can offer between catcher Francisco Alvarez and third baseman Brett Baty. Cleveland just can’t compete with that offer if every team caps themselves at sending two top prospects back to Washington in return. So, if they won’t also endear themselves to Washington by taking Corbin off of their hands and can’t compete with the Mets on a two-player scale then the choice is simple. They have to offer three prospects.
But here’s the thing. Just because the New York teams won’t offer three prospects does not mean other suitors wouldn’t have the stomach to do so. At this point, it becomes a matter of how a three-prospect package the Guardians would put together stacks up in comparison to other teams.
In working with the valuations done at baseballtradevalues.com (for those who don’t know, a wonderful site that has evaluated literally thousands of historical baseball trades and measured how the players within those trades were valued and includes a trade machine) the Guardians could put together a competitive three-player package to compete in a Juan Soto sweepstakes.
If they are looking to put together their three most valuable minor league prospects to send to Washington in exchange for Soto, that likely entails:
RHP Daniel Espino– 2.45 ERA at AA Akron this year in four starts. #53 prospect in all of baseball according to MLB.com. 21 years old. Former 24th overall pick in the 2019 Amateur Draft.
OF George Valera– .272/.373/.484 with 13 homers in 75 games at AA Akron. #47 prospect in all of baseball according to MLB.com. 21 years old.
C Bo Naylor– .271/.427/.471 with 6 homers in 52 games at AA Akron. 22 years old. Former 29th overall pick in the 2018 Amateur Draft. Josh’s brother.
This would likely be the starting price for a deal that brings back Soto, and quite frankly, some other organizations have the arsenal to outbid this. However, there is one tweak that could make a Soto trade possibly very intriguing for both sides.
The Guardians could offer Espino and Valera and then pull from their own Major League roster as a kicker. With Soto likely taking an outfield spot in Cleveland and with a bevy of young outfield options already at the team’s disposal, perhaps swapping an outfielder back to Washington would provide utility to a deal. The team’s two most valuable young players are the 26-man roster are outfielders as well: Myles Straw and Steven Kwan.
And because I enjoy being part of his cult following, I hate to say it. I hate to even suggest it. But the current Guardians outfielder that would have the most trade value very well could be Genghis Kwan himself. Baseballtradevalues.com agrees. According to them, only Ramirez, Shane Bieber, Emmanuel Clase and Espino are more valuable players in the team’s entire organization. Kwan is 24 and only three rookies have been worth more Wins Above Replacement in 2022 than he has. As a rookie, he has struck out the second least of any player in baseball, has an OPS+ of a very solid 109 and has played well above average defense in either corner outfield spot. He is a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate.
Could a package of Kwan, Espino and Valera bring back Soto? My guess is that other lower-level players that the Nationals like would have to be part of the conversation as well. The Guardians would probably add one of their immense number of shortstops: Tyler Freeman, Carson Tucker, Milan Tolentino, someone. But Kwan-Espino-Valera would be the headliners.
That is a lot of talent and potential to give up for two and a half years of a single player. However, by adding Soto the Guardians would join Houston as the only two teams in baseball with two of the ten best hitters in the game. A middle of the order that included Ramirez, Soto and the ascending Josh Naylor could be just what is needed to vault the Guardians into World Series contention. It would show that the entire organization is dead serious about vying for the Commissioner’s Trophy. They could do it while staying within their own principles in adding the type of players they think to bring value.
It would be a bit of a dream scenario, but what a lovely dream it could be. Look at this potential batting order.
CF Myles Straw
SS Amed Rosario
3B Jose Ramirez
RF Juan Soto
1B Josh Naylor
DH Franmil Reyes
LF Nolan Jones
The best part? Hedges is the only player not locked up for 2023. You can run this same lineup back next season and likely be favorites to win the American League Central. With one big risk, the Guardians could be contenders for years to come 2023 then wheel and deal Soto. Given his track record, Antonetti will make the right calls.
And in this case, maybe those calls include bringing the Soto shuffle to Cleveland.