What recent MLB blockbusters tell us about the Nationals’ potential Juan Soto trade options

What recent MLB blockbusters tell us about the Nationals’ potential Juan Soto trade options post thumbnail image

There has never been a player traded quite like Washington Nationals star Juan Soto, at least not in modern major league history. Oh, there have been big names, for sure, some as big or even bigger: Mookie Betts, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Rickey Henderson (multiple times) and Reggie Jackson, among others. But in an era when a player’s value is a combination of on-the-field production and salary, Soto is a perfect storm of trade hype:

  1. He’s one of the best hitters in the league, if not the best. Even though his numbers are down a bit this season, Soto is tied with Bryce Harper for the best weighted runs created (165) in the majors over the past three seasons. And he’s been heating up the past few weeks, with an OPS over 1.200 in July.

  2. He’s only 23 years old.

  3. He’s not a free agent until after the 2024 season, so any team that trades for him will have him for three playoff drives. His salary — a little over $5 million the remainder of the season — is eminently affordable for every contender, from the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers to the Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Guardians.

Still, some of the trade scenarios we’ve seen are perhaps a little over the top. Will a team really give up its five best prospects for Soto?

Possibly, but think back to a year ago, when the Nationals traded Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers for Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray and two other minor leaguers. In a sense, Scherzer and Turner are similar to Soto: The Dodgers would get the pair for a combined three playoff drives (one for Scherzer and two for Turner). They hardly had to give up their top five prospects to do so. In fact, in Kiley McDaniel’s midseason prospects update in 2021, Ruiz came in at No. 33 and Gray at No. 46.

Maybe Nationals GM Mike Rizzo made a bad deal; maybe Soto is worth more than those two. A similar return would certainly feel underwhelming. As the Nationals consider their options, let’s look back at some of the most significant deals from the past two decades to see what kind of lessons can be taken from them — and whether the Nationals can actually win a Soto trade.

Trade Deadline: Tracker

What we’re hearing: Offense, Pitching

Mariners trade Ken Griffey Jr. to Reds in 2000

Reds receive: Griffey Jr.

Mariners receive: Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, Antonio Perez, Jake Meyer

Let’s go back to the dawn of the century with one of the most famous trades in major league history — although a difficult one to compare to Soto’s situation. Griffey had asked out of Seattle and limited the number of teams he wanted to go to, a list that eventually dwindled to just the Reds. Cameron was coming off a 5.5-WAR season with the Reds (although WAR didn’t exist as a metric back then). Perez was the prospect in the deal, although he never developed.

Who won the deal? Seattle, despite its limited bargaining position. Cameron would produce 18.4 WAR in his four seasons with the Mariners, and they would make the playoffs in 2000 and 2001 and win 90-plus games all four seasons. Griffey would produce just 12.9 WAR in nine seasons with the Reds.

Lesson learned: It’s OK to trade your franchise icon. Griffey wanted out, and the Mariners had to trade him. The Nationals made their best pitch to sign Soto to a long-term deal, and it didn’t work out. Given the state of the franchise (the worst team in the majors), they pretty much have to trade him — if not at this trade deadline, then almost certainly in the offseason.

Granted, Soto is unlikely to suffer all the injuries Griffey did with the Reds, but the point here: Mariners fans were devastated when Griffey was traded, but the next four years were the four best in franchise history. Nationals fans won’t like it when Soto is traded, but with the right trade, they can rebuild and move on in a post-Soto era.

Marlins trade Josh Beckett to Red Sox in 2005

Red Sox receive: Beckett, Mike Lowell, Guillermo Mota

Marlins receive: Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Jesus Delgado, Harvey Garcia

The Marlins sort of pioneered the whole idea of not waiting until a player’s free agent season to make a trade with the Beckett deal, followed by the next one on this list. Beckett was one of the top young right-handers in the game — a World Series hero with Miami in 2003 — when the Marlins traded him after the 2005 season with two seasons left until he reached free agency. Packaging him with veteran third baseman Lowell, they received two top prospects in Ramirez (Baseball America’s No. 30 prospect entering 2006) and Sanchez (No. 40).

Who won the deal? Really, both teams. Beckett signed a three-year extension in July of 2006 and then helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2007 (and Lowell finished fifth in the MVP voting that year). Meanwhile, Ramirez developed into perhaps the most exciting player in the game there for a few seasons, including a 30-30 season in 2008 and a second-place MVP finish in 2009. Sanchez would have several good seasons with the Marlins before he was traded to the Tigers.

Lesson learned: Go for quality over quantity. Ramirez had been the No. 10 prospect entering 2005 and dropped a bit after a so-so season in Double-A, but the Marlins correctly projected his star ability. The Marlins never won anything with Ramirez, but he’s the type of future star the Nationals would love to acquire in any deal for Soto.

Tigers receive: Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis

Marlins receive: Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, Frankie De La Cruz, Dallas Trahern, Mike Rabelo

In terms of age, offensive production and contract status, Cabrera is probably the closest historical comp to Soto. When the Marlins traded him after the 2007 season, Cabrera was entering his age-25 season, had two seasons left of team control with two top-five MVP finishes already on his resume, and was coming off a season in which he hit .320/.401/.565 with 34 home runs. The Marlins were coming off a 71-91 season and, with their penny-pinching ways, knew they weren’t going to sign him to a long-term extension.

The Marlins obtained two top prospects in Maybin — Baseball America’s No. 6 prospect in both 2007 and 2008 — and Miller, the No. 10 prospect in 2007 who had scuffled in Detroit as a rookie in 2007 with a 5.63 ERA in 13 starts. In spring training of 2008, the Tigers signed Cabrera to an eight-year, $152.3 million extension.

Who won the deal? Detroit. By a landslide. While Maybin and Miller would go on to long major league careers, neither did much with the Marlins. Maybin was shipped out to the Padres after a couple years for Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb. Miller had a 5.89 ERA in three seasons with the Marlins before he was traded to the Red Sox (for Dustin Richardson), where he would eventually develop into one of the game’s top relief pitchers. None of the other four players did much either.

Lesson learned: Even building a trade around two highly touted prospects is no guarantee. The direct analogy in 2022 might be a deal with the Padres for C.J. Abrams and MacKenzie Gore, or outfielder Robert Hassell and Gore, although Gore’s initial run in the majors has at least been a little more successful than Miller’s was in 2007. Other teams with two top 30-ish prospects include the New York Mets (Francisco Alvarez, Brett Baty), Toronto Blue Jays (Gabriel Moreno, Orelvis Martinez), San Francisco Giants (Marco Luciano, Kyle Harrison), Dodgers (Diego Cartaya, Bobby Miller), Yankees (Anthony Volpe, Jasson Dominguez), Guardians (Daniel Espino, George Valera) and Red Sox (Marcelo Mayer, Triston Casas).

Rangers trade Mark Teixeira to Braves in 2007

Braves receive: Teixeira, Ron Mahay

Rangers receive: Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Beau Jones

Two weeks after Teixeira turned down an eight-year, $140 million contract extension, the Rangers traded their All-Star first baseman to the Braves for five minor leaguers. While Teixeira wasn’t quite at Soto’s level at the plate — his OPS+ from 2005 to 2007 was 139, well below Soto’s career mark of 160 — he had hit 43 home runs in 2005 and 33 in 2006. He had another season of team control through 2008, but on their way to an 87-loss season, the Rangers decided to make a move.

Who won the deal? Texas. General manager Jon Daniels went for prospect depth, with Andrus the top player in the deal as an 18-year-old shortstop in Class A. He would be Baseball America’s No. 19 prospect entering 2008 and reached the majors in 2009, but Saltalamacchia (No. 36 entering 2007), Harrison (No. 90 entering 2007) and Feliz (No. 93 entering 2008) were also top-100 prospects. Andrus, Harrison and Feliz would all be key contributors to the Rangers’ World Series teams in 2010 and 2011.

Teixeira played great for the Braves down the stretch in 2007 (.317/.404/.615), but they missed the playoffs. They would end up trading him to the Angels at the 2008 deadline (for Casey Kotchman).

Lesson learned: Going for quantity can pay off, even if none of the players turn into huge stars — although Andrus would produce 29.8 WAR over his 12 seasons with the Rangers. Let’s call him a minor star, which is still a valuable addition to any team. The deal would have been an even bigger win for the Rangers if Harrison and Feliz had remained healthy.

At the outset of 2022, Kiley McDaniel’s top farm systems — those who might come to the Nationals with a quantity-type offer — were Baltimore (and they just added No. 1 overall pick Jackson Holliday), Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Miami and Arizona. The Rays are the best bet from that group to make a run at Soto. From the next tier, you have Seattle, St. Louis, Cleveland, the Yankees and the Dodgers.

A’s receive: Holliday

Rockies receive: Carlos Gonzalez, Huston Street, Greg Smith

Holliday isn’t the best match for Soto — he was entering his age-29 season when the Rockies traded him before the 2009 season and had just one season left until free agency — but this is a good example of the type of trade the Nationals might consider, acquiring young major leaguers rather than simply going all-in on prospects. Gonzalez had been a top prospect before struggling with the A’s as a rookie in 2008, when he hit .242/.273/.361 in 85 games. Street was an established closer and had two seasons left of team control.

Who won the deal? Colorado. Gonzalez produced 23.8 WAR with the Rockies (most of that in an excellent four-year peak from 2010 to 2013) and Street saved 84 games in three seasons. The A’s, meanwhile, failed to contend in 2009 and traded Holliday at the trade deadline to the St. Louis Cardinals — receiving the now forgotten Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen and Shane Peterson.

Lesson learned: Gonzalez and Street may not seem like a great return, but in the history of trade annals, it’s actually pretty good value. The Cardinals are a team with young major leaguers to include in a trade — think Nolan Gorman, Dylan Carlson and Juan Yepez — and since Soto’s trade value is obviously much higher than Holliday’s was, they could also get a top prospect like Jordan Walker as the big centerpiece. There’s another possible lesson here: If the Nationals decide to wait and trade Soto in the offseason, they might bring more teams into the trade mix (such as the A’s with Holliday). However, there is little doubt his trade value is higher right now since he would affect three playoff races rather than two if they hold on to him.

Rays trade David Price to Tigers in 2014

Tigers receive: Price (from Rays)

Rays receive: Willy Adames (from Tigers), Drew Smyly (from Tigers), Nick Franklin (from Mariners)

Mariners receive: Austin Jackson (from Tigers)

This was a three-team trade with Price going from Tampa Bay to Detroit with a year-and-a-half left until free agency. Adames, then an 18-year-old in Class A, was the top prospect the Rays received in return while Smyly was a young, proven major leaguer. If anything, the trade was viewed as a bit of a gamble for the Rays at the time, given that Adames was such a long way from the majors. The 2014 Tigers would enter the playoffs with a rotation of Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Price and Rick Porcello, but they would disappointingly bow out in three games to the Orioles.

Who won the deal? Tampa Bay. Adames gave them several good seasons before he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers (for Drew Rasmussen and J.P. Feyereisen). Smyly was later traded to Seattle for Ryan Yarbrough and Mallex Smith, while Smith was later traded back to Seattle for Mike Zunino. So if you add up all the seasons of Adames, Smyly, Yarbrough, Smith, Zunino, Rasmussen and Feyereisen, the Rays have extracted great value from the Price trade.

Lesson learned: You can always flip a player the following season. Buster Olney recently pointed to this as a possible scenario in a Soto deal. The team that acquires Soto could trade him down the road in order to recoup some of the prospect value they’ll give up to acquire him in the first place — the Guardians might be the prime example here (especially since they won’t want to pay his arbitration salary in 2024 that could approach $30 million).

Price was pitching well for Detroit in 2015 (9-4, 2.53 ERA), but with the team struggling, the Tigers traded him to Toronto for Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris and Jairo Labourt. Boyd and Norris never turned into the rotation anchors once envisioned, but the Price scenario is a reminder that Soto could be traded a couple times before he reaches free agency.

Astros receive: Verlander, Juan Ramirez, $16 million in cash

Tigers receive: Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, Jake Rogers

On the surface, Verlander had nothing in comparison with Soto: a 34-year-old veteran pitcher at the time of the deal versus a 23-year-old outfielder. Verlander, however, still had two-plus years of team control after signing a long-term extension with Detroit in 2013 (plus he had a 2020 vesting option), so his immediate short-term value in terms of team-controlled years was similar to what a team will get with Soto. Perez was the top prospect in the deal, a right-handed pitcher who would be Baseball America’s No. 35 prospect entering 2018. Cameron had been No. 74 on the list before 2016 but had fallen out of everyone’s top 100 list in both 2017 and 2018. Rogers was a third-round pick in 2016, but not a top-100 prospect.

Who won the deal? Houston, in one of the biggest heists in history.

Lesson learned: Do your homework. Don’t panic. Don’t overrate prospects. Perez had pitched very little when the Tigers acquired him, although he had reached Double-A at age 19. He was more of a stuff-plus-command guy than a pitcher with a super high ceiling, and while he was very young, his strikeout rates weren’t exceptional. Due to injuries, he’s pitched just 43 1/3 innings since the trade and has a 10.05 ERA this season in rookie ball. Cameron’s hit tool has always been a concern, which has limited him to backup outfielder status. Rogers has missed this season with Tommy John surgery. Just a bad deal, mostly born out of an organization that felt like it “had” to make a trade.

Dodgers receive: Machado

Orioles receive: Yusniel Diaz, Dean Kremer, Zach Pop, Rylan Brannon, Breyvic Valera

With Machado a lock to head to free agency after the 2018 season, trade rumors had swirled around Machado and the Orioles since the offseason. Despite coming off a 75-87 season and what looked like a non-playoff team, the Orioles decided to hold on to him — only to go 28-69 in the first half even though Machado was playing the best baseball of his career (he hit .315/.387/.575 with 24 home runs in 96 games for the Orioles). The Orioles discussed trade possibilities with the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, Yankees, Brewers and Guardians before finally taking the Dodgers’ offer.

Diaz was the headline name in the deal, a top-100 prospect coming off a two-homer game in the Futures Games — which perhaps inflated the perception of him at the time, as he would finish that minor league season with just 11 home runs. At 25, he’s yet to reach the majors and is now a non-prospect, hitting .161 in the minors in 2021 and .228 in 2022 with little power.

Who won the deal? The Dodgers. They ended up giving up nothing of significant value. Machado played well for them, and they reached the World Series, although they lost in five games to the Red Sox.

Lesson learned: Don’t wait too long to make a deal. Dan Duquette’s biggest mistake was thinking the Orioles had a chance to contend in 2018; instead they lost 115 games, one of the worst miscalculations by a GM in recent decades. We’ll never know what the Orioles might have received if they had traded Machado in the offseason, but this trade yielded nothing outside of Kremer, who might at least give them a back-end starter. That’s why the Nationals are so willing to trade Soto now — his value only decreases with each half-season increment of time.

Red Sox trade Mookie Betts to Dodgers in 2020

Dodgers receive: Betts, David Price, cash

Red Sox receive: Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs, Connor Wong

Unable to reach an extension with their star right fielder in his final season before free agency, the Red Sox shockingly traded Betts for a trio of players — while also including Price in the deal, much like the Nationals would love to include Patrick Corbin in a Soto trade — in early February right before spring training started. Price was owed $32 million for three more seasons at the time of the deal, and the Red Sox have picked up half of that each season. Corbin is 4-13 with a 6.02 ERA and is making $23.4 million this year, $24.4 million in 2023 and $35.4 million in 2024.

Who won the deal? So far, the Dodgers. They signed Betts to a mega-extension — 12 years and $365 million — and he helped them win the World Series in 2020 while finishing second in MVP voting. He’s been great in 2021 and 2022, although nagging injuries could make the back half of the extension risky. Verdugo was solid for the Red Sox in 2020 and 2021 but awful this year (minus-0.6 WAR), while Downs — Baseball America’s No. 86 prospect entering 2020 — has struggled the past two seasons in the upper minors and has been overmatched in his initial call-up to the majors.

Lesson learned: The Nationals may be able to get a team to take on Corbin’s contract, or at least part of it, but that could (A) limit the number of trade partners; (B) limit the return. It’s understandable why the Nationals would want to unload Corbin’s contract, especially since they’re also paying the injured Stephen Strasburg $35 million annually through 2026. But it feels like maximizing the return for Soto is the best way to rebuild, not saving on payroll.

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