August 2, 2022 [LINK / comment]
Well, the once-unthinkable worst-case scenario has come to pass: Just before noon today it was announced that young superstar Juan Soto is being traded to the San Diego Padres. Later in the afternoon, the details of the exchange were announced: the Nats' mid-career slugger Josh Bell was part of the package, and the Nats were to receive one veteran and five rookies and minor league prospects. Only two months ago, General Manager Mike Rizzo declared unequivocally that Juan Soto will NOT be traded! Just six weeks ago he [Soto] shook hands with the Lerner family during the Ryan Zimmerman retirement ceremony, a hopeful sign that a deal was still possible. Evidently, there was never much chance that Soto would agree to any terms offered by the Nationals. For that, we presumably have his agent Scott Boras to blame.
So, let's take a look at who got traded today (details from MLB.com): two players are going from Washington to San Diego, while six are going the opposite direction. (Each player's position and age are listed in parentheses.)
The first three players have been added to the Nats' 40-man roster, likely to be called up from the minors in September, while the other three will spend a year or more developing their skills in the minor leagues. So, who got the better end of the deal? I read one commentator who opined that the Nationals got "fleeced," but I wouldn't go that far. Given that most of the players the Nat are getting are very young and of uncertain ultimate value, it will be years before we know for sure. Yesterday I expressed trust in General Manager Mike Rizzo's judgment to get a good deal, but the fact that he threw in Josh Bell along with Soto just to get the deal done really makes me wonder. Good negotiators keep in mind their "BATNA": Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, that is, what do you do if the deal falls apart? Just because Soto's trade value is higher now than it would be during the coming off-season doesn't mean the Nats couldn't have gotten a better deal for him later on. Sure, it would have been awkward with Soto just hanging around for the last two months of this season with minimal chance of staying with the Nationals over the long term, but that's his problem! Voit will presumably inherit first base from Josh Bell, but his batting average is only average: .258 over six seasons with the Cardinals, Yankees, and Padres.
And so, all that is left of the 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals team is Victor Robles, Stephen Strasburg, and Sean Doolittle -- the latter two of whom hardly played at all this year due to injuries, and whose futures are quite uncertain. What an awful collapse for a franchise that seemed poised to become a dynasty. In retrospect, the big contract given to Strasburg in late 2019 was a huge mistake, draining the team of the financial resources necessary to field a contending team. Robles has shown steady improvement this year, and it's entirely possible that he will attain the high hopes the team had of him when he was called up for the first time in 2018 -- along with fellow Dominican Juan Soto, who was initially a big unknown.
It is not just Juan Soto's offensive firepower that makes him worth so much much, it's his rare charisma and grace that could inspire his team-mates to perform better and brought crowds to a frenzy. Compared to him, Bryce Harper is just a very gifted mechanic who does his job very well, but that's about it. Soto's special qualities became evident almost as soon as he was called up to the majors as a 19-year-older in June 2018. Ironically, it was against his new team (the Padres) that he hit a home run in his first at-bat as a starting MLB player; it was on the very first pitch he saw, in fact! Even though the Nats didn't make the playoffs that year, Soto repeatedly got clutch hits that kept his team in the running until late in the season. In November 2018 he lost in NL Rookie of the Year voting to the Braves' Ronald Acuña, despite amassing better statistics overall.
In 2019 Soto blossomed and became a regular slugger who helped propel the Nats into the postseason. I saw him help the Nats beat the vaunted Dodgers in a thrilling game on July 28, hitting a home run. That game turned out to be a preview of the dramatic National League Divisional Series, which the Nats won, of course.
But perhaps Soto's biggest contribution ever to the Nationals was in the eighth inning of the NL Wild Card Game in Washington on October 1, 2019 when he hit a clutch 3-run single (aided by the right fielder's error) to give the Nats a 4-3 lead over the Milwaukee Brewers. Nationals Park erupted in a jubilant shower of beer tossed into the air! It was a truly miraculous comeback victory. Then, after the Nats overcame both the Dodgers and the Cardinals in successive series, Soto played a huge role in the World Series, with mammoth home runs in Minute Maid Park (Game 1 and Game 6), as well as a clutch RBI single in Game 7. (See my October 25, 2019 and November 10, 2019 blog posts.) In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Soto won the NL batting title with a .351 average. In 2021, he led the Nationals in the big three categories: batting average (.313), home runs (29), and RBIs (95). Just two weeks ago he won the 2022 Home Run Derby in Dodger Stadium, and last night in Washington, for the first time since the All-Star break, he hit a home run -- his 21st of the year; see below.
¡Hasta la vista, Juan! Que le vaya bien en San Diego.
Among other high-profile trades today, the Red Sox acquired Eric Hosmer from the Padres, after Hosmer exercised his no-trade clause to refuse to be traded to the Nationals. Ouch! It should be noted that the Red Sox are still in last place behind the Orioles in the AL East, and have only a slim chance of making it to the postseason, even with the third wild card team this year. Also, the Philadelphia Phillies added former Met pitcher Noah Syndergaard in a trade with the L.A. Angels. Finally, even though it's not a trade, the Braves announced yesterday that their slugging third baseman Austin Riley had signed a ten-year contract worth $212 million.
Another miracle took place in Nationals Park this evening: an unknown rookie by the name of Cory Abbott out-pitched Mets ace Jacob deGrom, just returning after four months on the Injured List. Abbott barely got out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning, throwing more than 30 pitches, but then he settled down and went a full five innings. He left the game with the Nats ahead 1-0, but his replacement (Victor Arano) gave up a solo home run, spoiling Abbott's chance for a win in his second start in the big leagues. It was one heck of an outing. In the bottom of the sixth inning the Nats quickly retook the lead on a two-run homer by Luis Garcia, followed immediately by a homer by Yadiel Hernandez. And one inning later, 30-year old Joey Meneses got his first major league hit -- a solo home run! That was after Kyle Finnegan was called in from the bullpen to thwart a Mets rally, which he did thanks to an unassisted double play by shortstop Luis Garcia. Just like in the Nats' win on Saturday, he pitched 1 2/3 tense late innings to help ensure another "miracle" victory. Nats 5, Mets 1.
The Mets won Game 1 of the series, to the surprise of no one, as Max Scherzer did his usual dominant pitching on behalf of his new team. He did the fans a favor by pitching to Juan Soto, who hit a solo homer (#21) in the fourth inning. Hooray!? Meanwhile, Patrick Corbin at least improved upon his previous outing (2/3 inning) and kept the Nationals in the game when he left in the fifth inning. But in the sixth inning, Francisco Lindor hit a three-run homer to give the Mets a 7-3 lead, and that's what the final score was.
Tomorrow afternoon the series concludes, as the Nats' Anibal Sanchez (0-3) takes the mound, going up against Chris Bassitt (7-7). It would take a minor miracle for the Nationals to win this series, right? Then the Nationals go on a road trip to Philadelphia and Chicago, after which they welcome to town none other than -- the San Diego Padres!