WASHINGTON — After 2,439 plate appearances for the Nationals, a batting title, three top-10 MVP finishes and a World Series crown, Juan Soto’s farewell to the D.C. fans came on Monday night in the eighth inning of an eventual 7-3 loss to the Mets.
Nationals Park was half-empty, with the majority of the remaining fans wearing orange-and-blue. For the record, Soto’s final trip to the plate was a six-pitch walk — fitting for an elite slugger left alone in a stripped-down lineup — and the few thousand Nationals partisans still in the stadium rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation.
Soto had been on the trade block for the past month, with the hysteria gaining velocity during the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium, where he won the Home Run Derby. On Monday night, the idea of Soto being moved felt too radical to be real, too crazy to actually be considered.
But just in case, the fans said their goodbyes to the 23-year-old face of their franchise, another two years away from free agency, who didn’t really have to be going anywhere. Except for the fact that Soto had turned down a 15-year, $440 million offer to essentially be a National for life, apparently sealing his fate.
The ending that night was a brutal scene, a depressing commentary on the state of the game, as a franchise that won the World Series only three years earlier continued its demolition efforts with the final swing of general manager Mike Rizzo’s wrecking ball.
Maybe it was naive to think Soto one day would be going into Cooperstown wearing a Nationals cap. But fans buy into those fantasies, and now their dazzling young star — the only reason to watch the team the past two seasons — was sent to San Diego to chase a championship with the Padres, one of the eight or so teams that consistently try to win on a yearly basis.
The following afternoon, with the trade deadline a few hours away but Soto long gone, all that remained at his locker was a rack of No. 22 jerseys and a massive cardboard box stacked to the top with cleats. Along with his bewildered teammates, who were somewhat stunned that the trade actually happened.
“It’s part of the business,” said Tyler Clippard, a 16-year veteran of 10 teams. “It’s tough for the young guys to understand that, but we still have a season to go. It’s hard for us but probably harder for the fans. He’s a generational player. Hopefully they get on board with someone else who hits home runs.”
Until that “someone else” gets too expensive, of course, and winds up a Padre, Yankee, Dodger or Met in relatively short order.
It used to be that All-Stars were dealt at the deadline in their walk years after expressing a desire to test the market at season’s end. But with the returns shrinking for these rental players, the strategy turned to dealing ones with additional years of team control — mostly just an additional season — to get more young talent back.
The Soto trade, however, has pushed into bold new territory. Offer a twenty-something star a record-breaking contract long before free agency, and if he refuses, cash in for the biggest haul possible.
While Rizzo made it sound as if he had been left with no choice by Soto and his agent, Scott Boras, there is an alternative. Use those two years to invest in the roster and keep working with the player to see if an extension eventually could become possible, at least until the offseason leading into his walk year.
Boras expressed doubt during the All-Star Game that Soto would be traded by the Aug. 2 deadline for one simple reason: it’s impossible for a GM to get back equal value in a Soto deal. The minute he’s gone, you’ve lost.
With that in mind, Rizzo had the impossible task Tuesday of trying to explain the Soto swap, which understandably netted him what is considered to be the greatest haul of young talent in MLB history, including two of the Padres’ top three prospects in outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood. The Nationals also received shortstop C.J. Abrams (No. 6 overall pick in the 2019 draft) and pitchers MacKenzie Gore (third overall pick in ’17 draft) and Jarlin Susana (only 18, with a fastball clocked as high as 102 mph). Luke Voit was added to the package when Eric Hosmer took advantage of the Nationals being on his no-trade list (Hosmer later was moved to the Red Sox).
“We set the bar very, very high,” said Rizzo, who wore his 2019 World Series ring to Tuesday’s news conference. “One team exceeded it and that’s the deal we made. Props to the San Diego Padres. They’re not afraid, and ownerships’s not afraid, and [GM] A.J. Preller’s not afraid. They were aggressive and we made a deal that you call historical.”
It’s not the first time Preller, who hails from Huntington Station, has been described as aggressive. He loves to take big swings, preferring to focus on the upside rather than the risk while too many other teams are obsessed by cost and consequences (dressed up as “organizational discipline”). Given the choice, what’s better to have: organizational discipline or 2 1/3 seasons of Juan Soto?
Preller also got back Josh Bell — the most coveted DH in this year’s deadline market — after grabbing Josh Hader a day earlier.
Farm systems can be re-stocked by trades, drafts and international free-agent signings. There is only one Soto. For Preller, it doesn’t even seem to be a choice. When a Soto is available, he feels as if he has to have him.
“Ultimately, we’re looking at it as three years, three pennant races, with one of the best hitters — maybe the best hitter in the game,” Preller said during Wednesday’s news conference. “That’s a long time. We’ll have time to figure out down the road the long-term commitment.”
In other words, the half-billion-dollar contract can wait. That was a Nationals problem. The Padres are focusing on the playoffs, and what it means for their fan base. The impact is more tangible than merely a greater chance at winning the World Series. Thanks in part to Preller’s aggressiveness over the years, the Padres rank fifth in average home attendance this season at 36,847 — behind the Dodgers, Cardinals, Yankees and Atlanta. With the increased demand after the Soto trade, they’re also on the verge of capping their season-ticket sales for the first time since Petco Park opened.
As for the Nationals, they’re waiting for a new owner and unapologetically going into hibernation for a few seasons. All the Soto fans they developed now can buy Padres jerseys instead.
“I was the guy who signed him, too,” Rizzo said, “And I’ll remember Juan as the guy who was with me when I won my first World Series as a general manager. Now I’m looking to do my next one.”
It's a task that is going to be much more difficult without Soto. Good luck in finding the next one of those.
Deadline winners and losers
1. Padres (61-48, second, 1 1/2 games ahead for wild card). Duh. As if Soto wasn’t enough, Preller also got Bell in the same deal after grabbing a closer in Hader along with red-hot Brandon Drury.
2. Twins (56-50, first, two games ahead). Looking for more separation in a woeful but tight AL Central, they significantly improved their rotation by getting Tyler Mahle and boosted their bullpen with two of the top names on the block, adding Jorge Lopez (with an extra year) and Michael Fulmer, former Mets prospect and one-time Yoenis Cespedes bait.
3. Yankees (70-37, first, 10 1/2 games ahead). Frankie Montas isn’t Luis Castillo but should be the front-end starter they needed, and outfielder Andrew Benintendi was the lefty contact guy on the shopping list. Lou Trivino and Scott Effross make nice bullpen pieces, but trading reliable lefty Jordan Montgomery for a boot-wearing Harrison Bader (plantar fasciitis) needs further examination.
4. Mariners (57-50, third wild card). GM Jerry Dipoto paid a steep price in prospects, but there’s significant value in 1 1/3 seasons of Castillo, the top ace available.
5. Astros (70-38, first, 12 1/2 games ahead). Trey Mancini’s first three hits as an Astro were homers, including a grand slam, and Christian Vazquez is a big offensive upgrade for their weak-hitting catcher position.
1. Mets (67-39, first, 3 1/2 games ahead). Vastly improved their DH platoon by acquiring Darin Ruf and Daniel Vogelbach, who already has homered twice, including a grand slam, with a 1.026 OPS in 11 games. Mychal Givens isn’t much of a needle-mover for bullpen. May regret not giving extra for Willson Contreras.
2. Phillies (58-48, third, third wild card). Swiped David Robertson from Mets, but Noah Syndergaard is nothing like the bolt-throwing Thor from his Flushing days and could get knocked around at cozy Citizens Bank Park. Brandon Marsh is a nice fit for defensively-challenged outfield group.
3. Dodgers (73-33, first, 13 1/2 games ahead). Given that L.A. has prospects to burn, why not toss a No. 15 (righty Clayton Beeter) for a flyer on Joey Gallo? He was begging to escape New York, and it will be fascinating to see how Gallo does in SoCal.
1. Orioles (55-51, fourth, 1 1/2 games back for wild card). Baltimore is one of this season’s best stories, moving to the brink of its first playoff appearance in six years, and the Orioles sell at the deadline? GM Mike Elias publicly casting doubt on his team’s chances must have gone over great in the clubhouse.
2. Cubs (42-63, tied for fourth, 15 1/2 games back). Held a fire sale for the bullpen but still clung to pending free agent Contreras and evidently couldn’t get the value back for an additional season of Ian Happ.
3. Nationals (36-72, fifth, 32 games back). Said goodbye to Soto in the most seismic trade since Babe Ruth. Let’s see if takes the Nationals another 86 years to win their next World Series.