Juan Soto’s trade with the Padres leaves a star-sized hole in Washington that may never be filled

WASHINGTON — For his final hit as a Washington National, Juan Soto beat former teammate and 2019 co-champion Max Scherzer, now pitching for the New York Mets likely in the playoffs. By the time the team played again, Soto had been traded to the San Diego Padres. He also walked three times, stole a base and threw a runner at the plate during the Monday night game which also saw fans give him a standing ovation after his last at bat (one of the walks, deservedly so) before the trade deadline.

The Nats went down quietly in the ninth inning of their 69th loss, as Soto looked on from the dugout. When that was done, he signed a baseball and handed it to a young fan. Last September, she caught Soto’s attention with a sign that read “Juan my pacemaker beats 4U” and, according to Soto, continued to come to games regularly.

“I always talk to her,” he said.

He later stood in front of what was once Ryan Zimmerman’s locker, a box of Cocoa Puffs on the floor nearby, and said, “I feel like this is the worst season I’ve ever had. never had.”

What’s crazy is that he’s not entirely wrong. His OPS is 58% better than the league average – but that’s a downturn from last year when he was 77% better than the league average, or 2020 when he was more than twice as good as the major league average hitter. Before that, he won a World Series. Before that, he went from A-ball to big league star in a single season.

However, adversity, such as hitting .247 while leading the baseball down the treads or playing for a team that loses almost twice as often as it wins, can force growth, making a player famous for his wise youth at- beyond his years.

“I’m learning more about myself,” Soto said of how this season has changed him. “I got to know the team, the company and all that stuff.”

Juan Soto had a memorable final game with the Nationals.  He left for San Diego after being traded before the MLB deadline.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Juan Soto had a memorable final game with the Nationals. He left for San Diego after being traded before the MLB deadline. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Monday night it was quiet. Fellow veteran Nelson Cruz sat with him in the clubhouse and talked about all the different storylines. Cruz played for seven different teams during his 18-year career. He told Soto that the first trade is the hardest. When this happened to him, as a minor leaguer, he cried for two days.

But with his future still uncertain, Soto cracked jokes. He put his impressive performance to the test with the oft-quoted baseball cliché: “It shows you that I control what I can control.” He predicted that he would sleep well.

He admitted, however, that relief would not come on Tuesday. “Tomorrow? No. It will be Wednesday, probably.

See, sage. Because Tuesday’s lesson may have been the most difficult of all.

Soto has been with the Nationals since they brought him out of the Dominican Republic as a teenager in 2015. He recently bought a house in the DC area. Even though he had always planned to leave for free agency, he could have stayed with the team for another two more years. Except he later rejected the Nationals’ polite but perhaps perfunctory 15-year, $440 million extension.

On deadline day, players and people involved in the game will tell you that baseball is a business. And then they will tell you again and again. These are not breakups, these are commercial transactions. That’s why GMs, when talking about swapping the face of their franchise, will call it “the player” and “the piece.”

But consider that some emotions are unavoidable.

Consider Dave Martinez, for whom Soto has played his entire major league career, describing their relationship: “I talked to his dad a lot, and I said, ‘I know from birth that he’s your son, but on the ground'” and then he stopped talking, patted his chest and blinked a bit, “‘that’s my son.'”

It was after.

With hours to go before the deadline, news broke that Juan Soto and Josh Bell, an underrated first baseman with a .301 average and an impressive early pick reel, have been traded to the Padres. In return, the Nationals received rookie left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore; fast rookie shortstop CJ Abrams; 6-foot-7 outfield prospects Robert Hassell III and James Wood; pitching prospect Jarlin Susana, who is furthest from the big leagues but who the Nats say has the most upside; and veteran Luke Voit, after Eric Hosmer vetoed his inclusion in the deal.

“We set the bar very, very high,” Rizzo said at a sometimes defensive press conference – “I was also the guy who signed him,” he said – and emotional as he seemed on the verge of tears. “And then a team passed him. And that’s the deal we made.

Soto’s impending departure had dominated the baseball news cycle for weeks, ever tied to the ambitious Padres led by the aggressive AJ Preller, among other contenders. And yet, “it still feels a bit shocking and disorienting,” injured veteran reliever Sean Doolittle said.

“It seems surreal. Like, say it out loud, I guess.

Muted clubhouse TVs showed footage of Soto intercut with analysis of how the Padres got their guy. The remaining nationals, those who have been here a little while at least, meekly tried to put the loss into words. Both Soto and Bell had come and gone, bound for San Diego, when media were allowed into the clubhouse. The farewells were held behind closed doors.

“We talked for a while and he has mixed emotions,” Martinez said. “So it’s hard.”

There remained, among other things, a struggling team, a championship banner that never quite got its victory lap, a few young players spurred into action with big shoes to fill and messy lockers, to package and ship to players in their new homes.

Outside Soto’s: A box the size of a major kitchen appliance was filled with still-muddy red jerseys and cleats he doesn’t need where he’s going now. The box of Cocoa Puffs still where he left it. A Post-it note photo of a stick figure wearing a red hat affixed to the front of the wooden cabin. And hidden inside was what appeared to be a personalized screen-printed T-shirt with a photo of the young fan holding the sign about Soto and his heart, the one he said he would talk to whenever she was at the match.

Of Juan Soto (pictured), Nationals manager Dave Martinez said:

On Juan Soto (pictured), Nationals manager Dave Martinez said: ‘I talked to his dad a lot and said, ‘I know from birth that he’s your son, but on the court’, then he stopped talking, patted his chest and blinked a little, “‘He’s my son.'” (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Nationals clearance sale led to Soto trade

Rizzo said there was no edict to trade or not trade Soto. The property – the outgoing Lerner family whose next team sale had to be factored in, although it’s hard to say exactly how – gave him the task of assessing the market and taking the best franchise decision. He felt that meant selling high, so to speak, maximizing the return by giving a contending team three potential Soto playoffs under team control. Of course, another way to look at this is over two years of exclusive rights to negotiate with a likely future Hall of Famer who has just reached his prime.

Rizzo didn’t quite admit that the trade hinged on an agreement that they wouldn’t be able to extend Soto. But when asked about it, he replied: “We felt we weren’t going to be able to extend it.”

As an explanation, this presents so many debatable questions – such as: why not? – as he answers. But it works as an explanation. Though they’ve made several offers to Soto since then, the Nationals kicked off that deal last season, if not before, with a cut-sale that left him stranded on a team that couldn’t hope to face each other at the over the next two years. For all that he is, Soto alone cannot win football games. This season has shown that.

Reviewers will say what they think of the performance, and then time will tell better than any projection model. But it’s fair to wonder, right now, what those moves mean in the simplest sense: Are the Nationals better positioned to win today than they were yesterday?

“I think we’ve taken several steps forward,” Rizzo said.

On the one hand, it is a tautology. If you believe they will ever become good again, each passing day only brings them closer. But also, now the dismantling is complete. They will be building something new, something totally disconnected from the 2019 team that has since scattered around baseball. Such is the cycle in sport – sustainability is possible, consistency is not. What looks like continuous dominance in some markets is, on closer inspection, perpetual evolution. This may be the start of what will eventually become a long and illustrious period of success in DC. But wouldn’t it have been nice if Juan Soto was there for that?

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