In recent days, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has made one thing clear to teams interested in Juan Soto: If none of them meet his — reportedly mountainous — asking price, he’ll keep the 23-year-old superstar. In the hours ahead, we’ll have a better idea if that’s a bit of a bluff and that Rizzo has been ordered by ownership to deal Soto, in lieu of signing him to a long-term deal.
But either way, you wouldn’t blame Rizzo for aiming high, because in baseball’s superstar trades, the team that gets the elite player almost always wins the deal. And any team that lands Soto stands a good chance of having two and a half years — or more — of extraordinary production. The Nationals, meanwhile, will be hoping a group of prospects can collectively come close to matching the young slugger’s production.
Soto’s career adjusted OPS+, through his age-23 season, is 159. That’s higher than Henry Aaron’s at the same age, higher than Willie Mays’, in the same ballpark but less than Mike Trout‘s or Ted Williams’ — a pretty good statistical neighborhood to inhabit.
Dusty Baker was manager of the Nationals when Washington signed Soto, and what he remembers is seeing how big Soto was as a teenager, how strong he was even then. Baker mused about a possible comparable, and when Joey Votto was mentioned, Baker said no — Soto, he believes, even at this age, has more power than Votto, the future Hall of Famer who won an MVP while playing for Baker.
Alex Cintron, the hitting coach for the Astros, said Soto reminds him of another guy just inducted into the Hall of Fame. “David Ortiz, when he was with the Red Sox,” Cintron said. “An impact guy.”
The thing everyone agrees on: While it’s early yet, Soto is on a Hall of Fame trajectory. And when teams agree to give up those kinds of players, the history has been mostly ugly.
Some examples, all Hall of Famers who were traded for prospects near the peaks of their careers:
Tom Seaver: Following a spat with Mets chairman M. Donald Grant, Seaver was dealt to the Reds for Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, Pat Zachry and Dan Norman — who all had decent major league careers. Henderson batted .280 over 12 years, with 68 homers. But none of them came close to generating what Seaver would in the remaining years of his career — or even his five seasons with the Reds, which included a no-hitter, 12 shutouts and two All-Star appearances.
Frank Robinson: After the 1965 season, the Reds dealt the 30-year-old Robinson to Baltimore for pitchers Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and 22-year-old outfielder Dick Simpson. The very next year, Robinson won the Triple Crown and the MVP award for the Orioles, and over six seasons with Baltimore, he would post an adjusted OPS+ of 169. Pappas pitched nine more years in the majors but never made an All-Star team; Baldschun and Simpson were out of the majors by 1971.
Mike Piazza: He was actually traded twice within the span of nine days during the 1998 season — the second being a prospect trade with the Mets, who gave up Preston Wilson, Geoff Goetz and Ed Yarnall for the 29-year-old catcher. In Piazza’s eight seasons with the Mets, he hammered 220 homers and made six All-Star teams. Combined, the three prospects the Marlins got in return made … one.
Gary Carter: The All-Star catcher was 30 years old when the Expos traded him to the Mets for this package of four players: veteran outfielder Hubie Brooks, catcher Mike Fitzgerald, pitcher Floyd Youmans and another outfielder, Herm Winningham. Carter made four more All-Star appearances in his first four years in New York. The highlight of the returning players’ careers was Brooks’ 14th-place finish in MVP voting in 1985 … the same year Carter finished in sixth.
Rickey Henderson: He is the greatest leadoff hitter of all time and scored more runs than anyone in baseball history with his 2,295. In 1984, the Athletics traded him to the Yankees for pitchers Jay Howell, Tim Birtsas, Eric Plunk and Jose Rijo, as well as outfielder Stan Javier. In Henderson’s first four seasons with the Yankees, he scored 472 runs and generated an adjusted OPS+ of 137. All of those traded for him had good careers; Jose Rijo made an All-Star team with the Reds. But Rickey was the greatest — as he told us.
Vida Blue: He won the AL Cy Young Award in 1971, and after commissioner Bowie Kuhn refused to allow A’s owner Charlie Finley to sell the left-hander to the Yankees in 1976, he was swapped at age 28 to the Giants in a massive deal in 1978, for six players and cash. The best of those players, as it turned out, was catcher Gary Alexander, who hit 55 homers in his career. Blue began a slow fade but still had a 3.41 ERA for the Giants in four seasons, with 54 wins and 30 complete games.
Ken Griffey Jr.: This was a rare case when landing the headliner wasn’t a wipeout deal for the acquiring team, because Griffey’s time with Cincinnati was generally sabotaged by injury. The Reds gave up outfielder Mike Cameron as part of a four-player package, and Cameron would go on to have four really good seasons in Seattle. But besides the obvious marketing advantage he gave them, Griffey wasn’t awful with the Reds on the field, either, not by a long shot: In his first eight seasons in Cincinnati, he hit 195 homers, made two All-Star teams and had an adjusted OPS+ of 124.
Miguel Cabrera: Cabrera’s not in the Hall of Fame yet, but he will be. And at age 24, he was traded by the Marlins — along with left-hander Dontrelle Willis — for pitcher Andrew Miller, outfielder Cameron Maybin and three others. Miller became one of the game’s most effective relievers, and Maybin had a long career, extended by the perception that he was an excellent teammate. But think about what the Tigers got in return, from Cabrera: two MVP awards, seven top-10 finishes, 2,232 hits and 368 homers.
If Soto is traded, the players swapped for him could be solid contributors, guys who last in the big leagues. But they will almost certainly be hard-pressed to match Soto’s career production to date — let alone what he’ll do in the rest of his career.