A week ago, Juan Soto was a National for life. Or so everyone thought.
With the Nationals anchored at the bottom of the NL East — only three seasons removed from a World Series title, mind you — general manager Mike Rizzo made a very public effort to insist that Soto would not be a part of any looming fire sale.
That certainly made sense at the time. Even with the Nationals mailing in the 2022 season and the franchise up for sale, Soto figured to be the centerpiece of any rebuilding project. He’s only 23, is under team control through 2024 and is arguably the most dangerous lefthanded hitter in the game. The perennial MVP candidate already owns a batting title — .351 in the pandemic-trimmed 2020 season — and has a career .968 OPS.
Heading into the All-Star break this year, Soto was hitting .250 but still had 20 homers, 43 RBIs, a .405 on-base percentage and a 162 OPS+ (100 is league average). Even with the Nationals (31-63) a lost cause, Soto seemed to be their one untouchable as the Aug. 2 trade deadline approached.
Of course, that all changed last weekend with the revelation that the Nationals now were open to dealing Soto after he recently rejected their latest offer for a long-term extension: $440 million over 15 years. And with that, Soto instantly rocketed to the top of everyone’s most coveted trade candidate list.
“For me, right now, I’m just going to concentrate on playing baseball,” Soto said at the All-Star Game. “I can’t do anything about it. I have my hands tied. I’m just going to play as hard as I can and forget everything else. I don’t make the decisions. They want to make the decision.”
Soto is only half-right on that. He could have chosen to accept the Nationals’ offer, the highest total in MLB history, easily surpassing Mike Trout’s 12-year, $426.5 million deal. But with Scott Boras his agent, Soto wasn’t taking anything with an average annual value that light. At $29.3 million, it would rank 14th among current contracts and sink further with each passing year.
On the flip side, the Nationals don’t have to trade him now, either. They could keep him through the season, giving them more time to find a package to their liking over the winter, or even try again next deadline. The obvious advantage to doing it before Aug. 2 is extracting a huge package from a contending team that would have Soto for three shots at the playoffs, with potentially a big window to sign him as well.
Under that scenario, however, how can Rizzo put a value on that? As Boras said at the All-Star Game, players like Soto don’t get traded because a GM couldn’t survive making a deal like that. It’s a no-win scenario for the team trading a player that good at such a young age.
The clock is ticking. Regardless, it’s not a surprise that Soto is at the top of our deadline list. Here are the next 19 (based on availability and talent level).
2. Willson Contreras, Cubs, C: Who wouldn’t love a run-producing catcher in his walk year? We know a team in Flushing that could use one. Contreras earned his third All-Star appearance with 13 homers, 35 RBIs and an .821 OPS in the first half.
3. Luis Castillo, Reds, SP: Perhaps sensing what’s at stake, Castillo aced his Bronx audition before the break, allowing only two hits and a run with eight strikeouts in seven innings. With a 2.77 ERA in 13 starts and another year of team control, he’s going to be costly in terms of talent.
4. Frankie Montas, Athletics, SP: The Nickelball A’s couldn’t trade players fast enough this past winter and Montas (3.26 ERA) is next on the list, although he was rehabbing shoulder inflammation during the All-Star break. If he’s OK, teams will be lining up, especially given that Montas isn’t a free agent until after the 2023 season.
5. Josh Bell, Nationals, 1B/DH: The perfect offensive spark for a stretch run: switch hitter with 13 homers, 50 RBIs and a slash line of .311/.390/.504 in the first half, plus he’s a rental. One caveat: Bell leads the majors in grounding into double plays with 18.
6. Andrew Benintendi, Royals, OF: Remember when Benintendi, then with the Red Sox, was supposed to give Aaron Judge a run for Rookie of the Year? Now he’s a sought-after second-half rental (.317 batting average, .786 OPS) on the block. Buyer beware: He’s not vaccinated, so he could be stuck in the States for any future games in Toronto.
7. David Robertson, Cubs, RP: Not a ton of great high-leverage relievers definitely available this season, and the resurgent Robertson has big-market playoff experience on his resume, too. At age 37, the pending free agent has a 1.93 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 33 appearances.
8. Tyler Mahle, Reds, SP: Like Montas, Mahle was shut down in early July with a shoulder issue, but he’s expected to be back after the break — with enough time for the Reds to move him by Aug. 2. He’s rebounded with a 3.51 ERA in his last 11 starts, and another season of team control makes him that much more attractive.
9. Brandon Drury, Reds, INF: It’s no coincidence the Reds are filling up this list, and Drury has everything a team wants at this time of year — more bang for the buck, with 18 homers, 52 RBIs (!!!) and an .864 OPS at the low, low cost of roughly $400K for the rest of this season.
10. Jose Quintana, Pirates, SP: Incredibly, the Pirates are third in the NL Central. At 39-54, they aren’t going anywhere, though, so the cheaply effective Quintana — a pending free agent — is a reliable back-of-the-rotation starter. Before two lackluster outings leading into the break, he had a 3.33 ERA though his first 16 starts.
11. Andrew Chafin, Tigers, RP: Detroit didn’t pan out as everyone’s pick to surprise this season, but at least the Tigers have Chafin as a trade chip as the best lefthanded reliever on the market. He has a 2.22 ERA and 10.8 K/9 rate, and if healthy, he certainly will decline his $6.5 million player option for 2023.
12. Martin Perez, Rangers, SP: Tough decision for Texas. While the Rangers are not likely to climb into contention, does it make more sense to try to extend Perez now or get something back on a swap with maybe another crack this winter? Probably the latter, as Perez ranks seventh in the AL in ERA (2.68) and fifth in innings (111.0).
13. Whit Merrifield, Royals, 2B/OF: Like his teammate Benintendi, he’s unvaccinated, so that should be part of any equation for a contending team. But the versatile Merrifield can be productive outside of Canada, hitting .282 with a .746 OPS in 35 games since June 3. He has another season left on his five-year, $23 million contract.
14. Daniel Bard, Rockies, RP: He’s got big-market-pressure experience from his days in Boston, and that’s a plus for this rental when packaged with his numbers this season: 2.02 ERA, 10.6 K/9 and 20-for-22 in save chances.
15. Michael Fulmer, Tigers, RP: Forever known in Flushing as the prospect that got Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets, Fulmer has reinvented himself as a reliever with the Tigers — and a good one, with a 2.38 ERA and a 9.0 K/9 in 35 appearances. Also a free agent at the end of the season.
16. Noah Syndergaard, Angels, SP: Thor’s relaxing bounce-back season by the beach is about to get more hectic. Syndergaard doesn’t have the same velocity coming back from Tommy John surgery, but he’s been solid with a 3.97 ERA and 8.21 K/9 in his last six starts. Problem is, he’s expensive, with roughly $9 million left this season before he’s a free agent.
17. Mychal Givens, Cubs, RP: The competition is always steep for relief pitching, and Givens, a pending free agent, should be a valuable chip for the Cubs with a 2.92 ERA and 10.9 K/9 rate in 36 appearances.
18. Miguel Andujar, Yankees, 3B/LF: Andujar, upset by another demotion, asked to be traded in June, and with the team’s needs at the deadline, he’ll probably get his wish before Aug. 2 — or maybe replace Joey Gallo in the outfield mix.
19. Dominic Smith, Mets, 1B/DH: The Mets tried to trade Smith at the end of spring training and would have been happy to move him in May rather than demote him to Triple-A Syracuse. At this point, it’s hard to defend keeping Smith on the roster, and maybe the Mets can attach him to another player or two for a team willing to roll the dice on the upside he showed in 2020.
20. Nelson Cruz, Nationals, DH: Cruz looked as if he would be able to hit forever. He’s now 41, and that’s up for debate. With eight homers and a .685 OPS through 84 games, maybe he has something left for a stretch run. But with nearly $6.5 million left for this season, the Nationals are going to have to help with the tab.