With Juan Soto Available, the Nationals Have Upended the Trade Market

Juan Soto
James A. Pittman-USA TODAY Sports

The Nationals are going to trade Juan Soto. Oh, sure, it’s not official yet, but it’s basically official. After he turned down their most recent extension offer, a reported 15-year, $450 million deal, reports emerged that the team was open to dealing him. And with the trade deadline conveniently only weeks away, general manager Mike Rizzo will have no shortage of phone calls to field in the coming days.

In a fortuitous coincidence, I’m currently working on our annual trade value series, so I’ve spent a good deal of time considering Soto’s value. He’s an interesting case, perhaps one without precedent in the trade market. He’s undoubtedly one of the best five or so players in baseball. In a down year, he’s still hitting .250/.405/.497, good for a 152 wRC+. That’s the kind of production that most players would call a career year, and we’re writing about adjustments he can make.

In addition, Soto is no rental. He’s under team control through the 2024 season, and while he’ll command record-breaking arbitration salaries for the next two years, he’ll still be an unbelievable bargain while doing so. Consider: He’s making $17.1 million this year in arbitration and on pace for roughly 5 WAR in a down year. What would teams pay for that production on the open market? Well, the Mets are paying Max Scherzer $43.3 million per year over the next three years, and Soto has out-WAR’ed Scherzer in each of the past three seasons. He’s also only 23, so it’s not as though he’s approaching age-related decline.

As Jay Jaffe detailed this offseason, Soto had already received and declined a 13-year, $350 million extension offer. That even included another year of arbitration; per ZiPS, it was paying him an estimated equivalent of $27.3 million per year of free agency. That’s simply not enough money for Soto; all you have to do is look at the top ten salaries in baseball this year to get the picture:

Top 10 Salaries in MLB, 2022
Player 2022 Salary
Max Scherzer $43.3M
Mike Trout $37.1M
Anthony Rendon $36.6M
Gerrit Cole $36M
Jacob deGrom $36M
Carlos Correa $35.1M
Nolan Arenado $35M
Stephen Strasburg $35M
Francisco Lindor $34.1M
Corey Seager $33M
Note: Trevor Bauer, who was scheduled to receive $35.3M this year, is on the restricted list

The Nationals’ most recent offer comes closer to the mark; it works out to something like $30 million per year over the last 13 years of the deal. But the backloaded structure of the contract — it didn’t feature deferrals, but reportedly had higher annual values in later years of the deal — further depresses the offer. If they truly wanted to retain Soto, something like ten years and $400 million would get them closer to the mark (and would probably still be a decent value for the team based on our dollars-per-WAR framework).

The Nationals don’t want to, as best as I can tell. The Lerner family, the owners of the team since 2006, are exploring a possible sale. The team has plenty of future salary commitments; the strategy of offering deferred money in contracts helped turbo-charge a World Series win in 2019, but it also means the franchise will be paying Scherzer $15 million for the next six years (in addition to the $15 million Washington is paying him this year). If you’re looking to sell, you might want to clear the books for the new owners. That’s the theory, at least, though if I were a new owner, I think I’d like the idea of having one of the very best young players in the game in the fold for a decade to come.

Soto’s contract extension, or lack thereof, won’t enter into the trade talks now taking place. Whichever team trades for him will be getting him for the rest of this season and the next two. Will said team try to convince him to sign an extension? Certainly. But you don’t need certainty around that to give up a king’s ransom in exchange for Soto. Per ZiPS, he’s projected to be the best player in baseball each of the next two years, and only behind Shohei Ohtani in rest-of-2022 value. Adding the very best player in the game for the next three playoff runs? I can think of plenty of teams who would like to do that.

Do you like your contending team’s best prospect? You’d like Soto more. That probably won’t get the job done, though. Adding a superstar is so valuable beyond the raw WAR figures — you’re concentrating production in a single roster spot, and the upgrade from whoever you’re currently plugging into Soto’s spot in the lineup will be massive — and the raw WAR figures already argue for nearly $90 million of surplus value in the next two-plus years.

If the Nationals are serious about trading him — and by all accounts, they are — they should do so by the trade deadline. Think of it this way: the best time to trade Juan Soto is never; the second-best time is right now. The difference between trading him now and after the season is enormous; all the teams likely to be in on the bidding are probable playoff teams, so having his bat in the lineup for an extra October will sweeten offers significantly. The last time a superstar of this magnitude was traded with this many years of team control remaining is basically never. You can think of the Chris Sale deal as a rough peer, and that required a huge haul from the Red Sox.

Have we learned anything new about Soto the player this year? Not much, I’d say. He makes the best swing decisions in baseball. He has above-average contact rates and tremendous power. He’s become such a complete hitter that he’s putting up better offensive numbers than his already superlative 2019 season, despite clearly being a little off and a little unlucky; he’s making less hard contact and underperforming expectations on the contact he does make.

“Unchanged” isn’t a bad place to be when you’re at the top of the game. There’s perhaps no better bet in the entire sport to provide premium offense; only Yordan Alvarez has much of a case in my mind. In the next few weeks, we’ll learn how much teams are willing to give up to plug Soto into the middle of their lineups, and whether the Nationals are truly willing to let another young face of the franchise leave, only four years after Bryce Harper did the same.

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

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Sammy Sooser
1 year ago

Man, $450 million. That’s more than I make in a week!

Mean Mr. Mustard
1 year ago
Reply to  Sammy Sooser

Well, you could be making that if you follow this one simple trick…

1 year ago

Like the username. Few more and we can complete the b-side

1 year ago
Reply to  Sammy Sooser

Sammy I think you are due for a raise.