Why the race for Juan Soto will decide the rest of this MLB trade deadline

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At some point over the next 24 hours, the great trade freeze of 2022 will thaw, and this dud of a deadline will melt into a deluge of action. Though the lack of deals so far implies otherwise, contenders still need talent. Bad teams still want to salvage what they can of a wasted season. The motivation exists. The incentives will align. Asks will lessen. Offers will grow. And all will be well for everyone except the poor sap at Major League Baseball whose job it is to process the flurry of deals sure to commence.

What is still to be seen is how much star power the coming flurry will feature — and whether the one player with more of it than almost any other in baseball will change teams. Because this is, ultimately, the deadline of Juan Soto, and the industry-wide inaction, in many ways, traces back to the Washington Nationals holding firm on their asking price for a 23-year-old whom evaluators and analysts alike see as a generational talent.

It was Soto’s insertion into the trade deadline machine — two weeks ago, after he turned down a 15-year, $440 million contract extension offer — that helped grind the process to a halt. Since then, Andrew Benintendi went to the Yankees. Seattle paid heavy for Luis Castillo. And just about everything else piled up in a logjam.

Nobody outside of Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ GM, and his inner circle know who the favorite to acquire Soto actually is. The San Diego Padres are presumed as much because they embody the talent-rich-and-willing-to-spend-it team it takes for a presumptive Soto deal. The St. Louis Cardinals, too, have an abundance in the minor leagues and, with the acquisitions of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, have shown an inclination to play in that sandbox.

Lurking, as they always do, stealth and convicted, are the Los Angeles Dodgers, and if there is any team sitting pretty as the clock ticks and the vise tightens its grip, it’s the one with the best winning percentage in baseball. The Dodgers are no strangers to trading for stars. They have the broadest selection of what Rizzo wants: young talent, either presently in the major leagues or on the cusp of it. Pitching, catching, infielders, outfielders — the Dodgers are replete with it all.

Moreover, when the Dodgers have traded prospects in the past, they’ve rarely come to regret it. The Yordan Alvarez-for-Josh Fields and Oneil Cruz-for-Tony Watson deals were rare exceptions — and reminders that dealing tooled-up kids for relievers can end very poorly — but when the Dodgers take big swings, they tend to walk away looking better for it. Nobody from the Yu Darvish deal has panned out. The best player they gave up for Manny Machado was Dean Kramer, who four years later looks like a rotation piece. And with Betts, Alex Verdugo is OPSing below .700 and Jeter Downs might not be a big league regular.

A confluence of factors undergirds the Dodgers’ consistent presence as a player in the Soto deal — beyond the fact that he’s the sort of hitter who would look awfully good sandwiched among Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Trea Turner, Will Smith and the rest of the wrecking crew that comprises Los Angeles’ lineup.

If Rizzo truly is putting a premium on pitching in this deal, no team can compete with Los Angeles’ depth. Look at their rotation: Julio Urias, Walker Buehler and Tony Gonsolin. Dustin May will return from Tommy John surgery soon and could rejoin the rotation next year. At AAA they’ve got Ryan Pepiot; at AA Bobby Miller, Gavin Stone, Landon Knack and Clayton Beeter; at High-A Carlos Duran and Nick Nastrini, and at Low-A Maddux Bruns.

This embarrassment of riches is, in fact, the fear in St. Louis. Their rotation as presently constituted can’t compete with the Dodgers — and even less so after 2023, by which time Adam Wainwright likely will be retired and Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas free agents. The only starters left will be Steven Matz, Dakota Hudson, Andre Pallante and Jake Woodford. Including right-hander Gordon Graceffo, who’s pitching well at AA after dominating High-A, and big-league-ready left-hander Matthew Liberatore would certainly help a position-player-heavy Cardinals trade package, sure, but it would leave the cupboard relatively bare beyond right-handers Michael McGreevy (AA), Inohan Paniagua (High-A) and Tink Hence (Low-A).

Which would be fine if the Cardinals were prone to pay for pitching in free agency, but the one time St Louis ever paid a premium on a pitching contract — a five-year deal with Mike Leake — was a disaster that saw him shipped out less than two years later. St. Louis, for its continued success, never has carried a payroll above $165 million, and while the increase of the competitive-balance-tax threshold to $230 million should impel more spending, the notion of the Cardinals tacking Soto onto the $55 million annual bill for Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, then using free agency to build a staff, doesn’t exactly square with long-established habits.

That leaves the Padres, ever the wild card in both their willingness to consider creative ways to improve their team as well as their position entering the playoffs. They want to be more, to win the franchise’s first World Series, and certainly there are worse ways than stacking a lineup that already includes Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. with Soto.

It’s with that goal in mind that A.J. Preller, the Padres’ swashbuckling general manager, somehow figures out a way to cram 30 hours of work into a 24-hour day. There’s no other explanation for his ability to be in communication with so many teams — the Nationals for Soto, yes, but also plenty of teams that clearly represent the contingency plan if they don’t get him: the Chicago Cubs for multiple players, the A’s for Frankie Montas, the Miami Marlins for Pablo Lopez.

The Padres are regarded by other sellers as a dream trading partner due to the overflowing talent of their top prospects — a crop of players that, were the urgency to win not so acute, would guarantee San Diego sustained success. Outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood, shortstops C.J. Abrams and Jackson Merrill, recently injured but unquestionable talented left-hander MacKenzie Gore — they all can be the centerpiece of any trade San Diego wants, whether by themselves or packaged with Eric Hosmer.

But the gravity of the now yanks at them, and whether it’s Soto or a grouping of players in other deals, the Padres are in prime position to strike. The Dodgers know this, and appreciate that the 12-game cushion between them and the Padres affords them a greater ability to toe the line — and relish the win-win situation in which they find themselves. In the bidding for Soto, Los Angeles could land him or drive up the price on its greatest in-division threat.

It all likely feels eerily familiar in San Diego, when last year the Padres thought they were on a path to landing Max Scherzer at the deadline, only for the Dodgers to swoop in and grab him in addition to Trea Turner. The gut punch of last year’s July 30 deadline still resonates in San Diego, and it could inform how the Aug. 2 deadline unfolds this year.

That doesn’t mean Preller will be willing to throw around a godfather offer. He has his limits. It’s certainly possible that neither Preller nor Dodgers president Andrew Friedman nor Cardinals president John Mozeliak blinks — and that the Texas Rangers don’t jump back into the sweepstakes. That would leave Rizzo with a decision to make. His five- and six-player asks may be outlandish, sure, and the lack of a deal thus far supports that premise. But there’s no guarantee he’ll lower the price necessary to land Soto.

The next 24 hours will be telling in this regard. If Rizzo moves off his demands, it will be a sign — he’s going to make a deal, and it’s just a matter of offering the best one. If he holds firm, it will be because there is no mandate to move Soto this summer. He would almost certainly be made available again this winter, when Rizzo hopes market forces could put him in a position for an equally strong return.

Just think: If Aaron Judge leaves the Yankees with a massive hole at the top of their lineup, how many players can replace him? Soto could. New York going after Soto in the next 36 hours is a long shot at best; New York pursuing him if Judge leaves is certainly realistic, even at the cost of shortstop uberprospect Anthony Volpe. Plenty of contending teams that don’t want to disrupt their playoff-ready rosters in the next two days will be happy to wheel and deal in November.

And yet for the Padres and Cardinals and Dodgers, the lack of a Soto deal now would rob them of a postseason run with him in their lineup, and their offers — the ones Rizzo is currently not confident enough in to consummate a deal — will be for less. Whatever the Nationals may gain in other suitors, they could lose more in the whims of the present ones.

All of which leads people in the industry to believe a Soto deal will happen before 6 p.m. on Tuesday, though they’re not quite as confident as they were a few days back. Markets do that. They ebb and flow, responding to ever-changing conditions. Last year, after another slow start to the deadline, 36 deals went down in the last 48 hours.

In the end, nothing supersedes the need for talent, so the teams with the most desirable sorts — the Cubs, the Red Sox, the A’s, the Giants and, even beyond Soto, the Nationals — may be rewarded for waiting. There is almost no scenario in which a bad team holding onto a free-agent-to-be makes sense, so plenty of players will be moved. It’s the in-between cases, those with club control that extends beyond this year, that could stay put. (Though one notable exception to that rule, at least in terms of discussions that could lead to trades: relief pitchers with multiple years of control.)

Soto is in a class by himself. He’s preparing like he’s going to be moved, readying himself for the moment the only organization he’s ever known, the one he helped lead to a World Series, says goodbye. Maybe it’s a few months from now. Or maybe it’s imminent. Maybe it’s just a matter of the Nationals relenting slightly, one of the trio of suitors meeting them where they land. If that happens, the biggest trade in recent years could start the deluge — one that, with a little star power, will turn into an unforgettable deadline.



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