The Padres Add Juan Soto in the Blockbuster of All Blockbusters

© Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Players like Juan Soto don’t get traded. Why would they? A 23-year-old with a stat line that stands next to those of the all-time greats of the game is the kind of player you dream about stumbling into. They’re shooting stars, once-in-a-lifetime phenoms. All you have to do is hitch your wagon to their meteoric ascent and enjoy the ride.

The Nationals, though, didn’t feel that way. In the depths of a crushing teardown that has seen them fall from 2019 World Series champion to worst in the majors this season, the Nationals had nothing around Soto to make the team competitive. Soto was a mint Ferrari in the garage of a one-room shack. They offered him a 15-year contract extension worth $440 million this season, but he turned it down, either holding out for more money in free agency or hesitant to sign up for 15 more years with a currently-bad team that has an uncertain future thanks to a pending sale.

Let’s just call it that: thanks to their own rebuilding plans and potential organizational changes, the Nationals decided they could neither compete in the immediate future with Soto nor retain him beyond the 2024 season. I don’t really believe that to be true – I think they could have worked something out if they had truly put their mind to it and committed to making Soto the centerpiece of their next competitive team – but that’s a discussion for another time. If you determine that your options are to trade him or let him walk after 2024, trading him is the lesser of two evils.

That trade came to fruition today after weeks of negotiations. Soto and Josh Bell are now San Diego Padres. To secure their services, the Padres sent back perhaps the richest haul of young talent traded this century: C.J. Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, Robert Hassell III, James Wood, and Jarlin Susana, in addition to first baseman Luke Voit. In a related move, San Diego dealt Eric Hosmer to Boston (after he exercised his limited no-trade rights to scotch his involvement in this deal), opening a spot for Bell in the lineup.

If you stopped following prospects exactly two years ago, you’d think Gore was the no-doubt headliner of the deal. He topped out at second overall on our Top 100 in 2020 after entering that season ranked third, but that was before mysterious mechanical issues clouded his future. He’s been more average than exciting in his major league debut thanks to intermittent control lapses, but the upside is certainly there; when he’s at his best, he looks like one of the top young starters in baseball, with an explosive fastball that plays better than its already-impressive velocity and two breaking balls that would be elite if he could command them better. Currently on the IL with elbow inflammation, he’s a fixer-upper of sorts, but a luxury one, a mansion in need of remodeling and a new groundskeeper.

Abrams isn’t far behind when it comes to pedigree. A rangy middle infielder with great bat-to-ball skills and projectable power, we currently consider him the 11th-best prospect in the game, a 60 FV. In his report on the Padres system, Eric Longenhagen wondered if Abrams might move to center field in the future, but was wowed nonetheless, saying “regardless of where he ends up, it’s a virtual lock to be an up-the-middle position, where Abrams’ contact ability should be enough for him to be a good everyday player, while his looming power is what could make him a huge star.” Still only 21, he’s struggled in the big leagues so far this year, but he has shown impressive flashes while doing so. And just getting to Petco Park this quickly is impressive: Thanks to a 2020 lost to the pandemic and a fractured leg/sprained MCL combination in ’21, Abrams has played in very few games as a professional. Simply being in the majors would be unimaginable for most players of his age and experience.

I won’t linger too long on Hassell, Wood, and Susana; you can read Eric’s more in-depth look at the prospects involved in the deal here. Suffice it to say that they’re far more than chopped liver. Hassell checks in at 41st on our updated Top 100 prospects list (50 FV), with impressive bat-to-ball skills, nascent power, and enough speed that he might be able to stick in center field. He’s torching the Midwest League at age 20, nearly two and a half years younger than the average player there. Wood (50 FV, 66th overall) is yet another center field prospect, but one with far more raw power; he’s 6-foot-7 and is running an OPS above 1.000 in the offense-friendly Cal League before his 20th birthday. Dan Szymborski DM’ed me to drool about Wood’s potential, and trust me, he doesn’t do that about every prospect in the game. We’re slotting Susana in as the 10th-best prospect (40+ FV) in DC, but only because Abrams, Hassell, and Wood are all ahead of him.

Here’s the easiest way to think of this: yesterday, the Nationals had the 24th-best farm system in baseball based on our rankings. Today, thanks to this trade, they’ve leapfrogged to eighth. Per Craig Edwards’ research, the Nationals can expect roughly the same amount of organizational value from the prospects they acquired today as they can from their entire system as of yesterday. That doesn’t even count Gore, who has already exhausted prospect eligibility (Abrams should graduate soon, too). Make no mistake: this was a treasure trove of a return, more glitzy prospects than have ever been exchanged in-season. It could get even better than that; Voit won’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season, and while his stock is down after two seasons where he’s been more average than exceptional, the Nationals would find several interested bidders if they decided to flip him for a prospect.

If I were the Padres, I’d be happy to make this trade anyway. Again, have you heard of Juan Soto? He’s a career .291/.427/.538 hitter. Since he debuted, he’s second only to Mike Trout in on-base percentage, and his 155 wRC+ is fourth in the league, behind Trout, Yordan Alvarez, and Aaron Judge. His .408 OBP this season is third in baseball and also 63 points lower than what he produced in 2020 and ’21.

He’s hardly gotten anything to hit this year, which explains why he’s walking 20.9% of the time while striking out only 14.2% of the time. His plate discipline and understanding of the strike zone are unparalleled; you can’t make him chase, and he also makes an above-average amount of contact in the zone, which leads to the kinds of swinging strike rates you’d expect from slap-hitting, contact-crazed shortstops rather than slugging MVP contenders.

Oh yeah, Soto slugs. He won the Home Run Derby this year, recorded the highest bat speed in that bopper-packed event (which we know thanks to new Statcast cameras), and consistently records elite exit velocities and barrel rates. He’s having a down year any way you slice it and he’s still posting a 151 wRC+ with far more walks than strikeouts despite meaningfully underperforming his batted ball metrics.

It’s crazy to say this about a team with Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr., but Soto now projects to be their best player. He’s posting a better batting line than Machado even in one of Machado’s best years with the bat and is also a whopping six years younger. He’s older than Tatis (though only slightly), and each of them possess otherworldly talent, but Soto is remarkably durable, while Tatis has missed huge swaths of time in three of his four major league seasons. They’re a star-studded top trio, but I feel comfortable saying that Soto is the best of an enviable group.

Not that it matters with someone so good that you’d find a way to play him no matter what, but Soto even fills a positional need for the Padres. Their infield is phenomenal – and just got a boost by bringing Bell into the fold at first base – but their outfield is piecemeal. Nomar Mazara and Wil Myers are currently holding down right field, and they’ve combined for an 84 wRC+, essentially a replacement-level platoon. Getting any right fielder would have been an upgrade, never mind getting Soto.

If you’re shopping with the Nationals, you might as well add Bell to your cart, and the Padres did just that. A free agent after this season, Bell is in the midst of a career year. He’s making more contact than he ever has while showing above-average power when he does connect. It’s been more doubles than homers, but it still works out to a .301/.384/.493 line, and even if you think his average is due for a decline, the on-base skills and power make him an offensive force.

That’s especially the case when you compare him to Hosmer, who has faded hard after a sterling start to the season. He’s posted a .224/.287/.339 line since the start of June; if it hadn’t been for a 200 wRC+ explosion in April, he’d be a complete offensive black hole (81 wRC+ since May 1). That’s an unfair way to slice up samples, but if you want a big sample, how about the last four years? That comes out to .270/.326/.417, basically a league average bat, and 0.8 WAR in three full seasons’ worth of plate appearances. Bell has tripled that WAR this year alone.

The Padres have played at a .558 clip so far this year, but they’ve outperformed their run differential and BaseRuns expectations, both of which peg them as more of a .530 team. Now, they should be markedly better than that the rest of the way. Soto and Bell will immediately make their lineup both deep and star-studded, and Tatis is nearly ready to begin a rehab assignment, which would further put them over the top. They’ve been an average lineup on the year, but that’s with lackluster offense from first base and a black hole in right field. That’s also with a parade of backups and glove-first utility men playing shortstop.

The Padres now boast the best right fielder in baseball (Judge is a center fielder these days, and I’d take Soto over him for the rest of the year anyway). In a few weeks, they might have the best shortstop too. Bell upgrades first base from squarely below average to top 10. If Tatis returns at full strength this year, I peg them as the second-best offense in the NL, behind the Dodgers and narrowly ahead of the Mets and Braves. Combined with a pitching staff that goes five starters deep and a bullpen topped by Josh Hader, that makes the Padres a playoff team that no one wants to face.

That’s for this season, of course. The future is murky in San Diego, particularly now that they’ve pushed their chips in to target the near term. Next season will still be a star-studded affair; a Tatis/Machado/Soto offensive triumvirate with useful auxiliaries like Jake Cronenworth should create an excellent offense, and the recent Joe Musgrove extension means he, Yu Darvish, and Blake Snell will top the pitching staff. The departures start after that; Darvish and Snell will reach free agency after the 2023 season, as will Hader. Soto will reach free agency after the 2024 season.

The Padres could be hoping to sign Soto to a market-price extension and build their future around three transcendent stars. They could also be selling out for the next three years; their talent acquisition spree over the past two-plus seasons has left their farm system barren, and a huge chunk of their talented pitching staff will likely leave in the coming years. They could make the payroll work around a Soto/Machado/Tatis/Musgrove core, but it would likely involve some awkward maneuvering. Trading essentially your entire farm system makes it harder to develop cost-effective options internally, so they might be forced to dip into free agency to complement their starry core with average role players.

It wouldn’t be out of the question to plan on letting Soto leave after 2024, and expend future resources as necessary to improve the team in the short-term. Going toe-to-toe with the Dodgers every year is a tough business; the Padres might prefer to keep their long-term core to Tatis and Machado while taking occasional huge short-term shots like the Soto deal.

I can see the merits in either approach, though I lean towards figuring out a way to retain Soto. The future of the farm system isn’t set in stone; a good draft or two can move these rankings around quite a lot. Wood, for example, was a second round pick only last year; it doesn’t take many picks like that or development successes elsewhere to replenish the coffers. There are plenty of 50 FV prospects in the world, and only one Juan Soto.

Regardless of which path the Padres pursue, they’ve made an indelible mark on the 2022 season, and on trade deadline history. There has never before been a deal like this. The closest I can come to a comparison is when the Marlins dealt young Miguel Cabrera, but this is bigger than that. Cabrera was two years older than Soto at the time of the deal and had put up worse offensive numbers to that point in his career. He also had less time remaining until free agency; two full years instead of two years plus a playoff chase. Finally, that was one of many Jeffrey Loria fire sales; this is a generational player leaving a high-payroll team, albeit one that’s currently terrible.

It might feel bad, if you’re a San Diego fan, to deal all the top prospects the Padres had been carefully retaining over the past few years. As the team added talent in trades, they repeatedly sent depth rather than stars, preserving a heavy-hitting core. One use for that core would be letting them play alongside Tatis and Machado, but I like what they did more. If those prospects panned out into one Soto-level player, the Padres would be beyond ecstatic. If they panned out into three players who combined to roughly equal Soto’s production, that would still be a better-than-median outcome. Cost certainty and team control are nice, and prospects certainly offer those in spades, particularly a high-upside crop like the ones they traded. But the Padres are good right now, in a division where being competitive over the long run is not assured. Striking while the iron is hot seems reasonable to me, particularly when you can do it for a three-year window with one of the best few players in the game. Win-now trades don’t always make sense, but if you’re going to attempt to win now, this is absolutely the best way to do it.

For the Nationals, I hate to say it, but this deal makes sense. Again, you have to assume a Soto trade was inevitable, but once you do that, turning your farm system from lackluster to brimming with talent is exactly what any team should do when they trade away a premium talent. There’s simply no other way to get this many high-upside players at once. The Nationals already had the major-league look of a rebuilding team; now at least they have a great farm system instead of a bottom-tier one.

The NL West race is likely over. The NL playoffs, on the other hand, figure to be an epic clash. The Dodgers are the Dodgers. The Braves are the defending World Series champions and might be better this year than last. The Mets are adding Jacob deGrom to a team playing .637 baseball. The Padres just joined that top tier with a single trade. It’s a great time to be a Padres fan. All Mike Rizzo can do is hope that in three years’ time, Nationals fans are having fun, too.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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joe_schlabotnik
3 months ago

To think, this will all be in vain, due to the impending clubhouse collapse of the padres with hosmer gone.

interesting to think about how baseball fandom is changing in the 21st century. as a nats fan, I can’t help but just feel excited for bryce, trea, and juan. I will certainly be following them more than the nats themselves for the next 3 years. I feel nothing but excitement for this trade. Its just cool to see something this dramatic happen. lets do it more.

Last edited 3 months ago by joe_schlabotnik
tz
3 months ago

It’s official. The star of the biggest trade this year, maybe the biggest mid-season deal ever, is a guy who ended up not even being part of that trade.

Forever shall this be known as The Eric Hosmer Trade™.

joe_schlabotnik
3 months ago

and beyond bizarre that grisham, hader, and soto will all be on the same team. something in the space time continuum has ripped and this brave new future will see the forging of something either terrifying or divine.. or both…

The Ghost of Tsuyoshi Shinjo
3 months ago

To think, this will all be in vain, due to the impending clubhouse collapse of the padres with hosmer gone.”

I see what you did there…bravo