Nationals come to grips with Soto trade

Once word that Juan Soto turned down the Nationals’ 15-year, $440 million extension offer – prompting the club to explore the possibility of trading its 23-year-old superstar – became public 17 days ago, Mike Rizzo began the process of figuring out which other organizations might actually be in a position to make a trade happen.

The Nats general manager realized the list of candidates, essentially clubs that were both in a win-now mode while also having enough elite talent in their farm system, would be short. In recent days, it became clear there were only three serious suitors: the Padres, Cardinals and Dodgers. And by the time trade deadline day arrived, it was clear that if a deal was going to happen, it was going to be with the Padres.

“We had to get the right deal, or we weren’t going to do the deal,” Rizzo said. “We set the bar very, very high, and one team exceeded it and that’s the deal we made. Props to the San Diego Padres. They’re not afraid, and ownership’s not afraid and (general manager) A.J. Preller’s not afraid. They were aggressive, and we made a deal that you call historical. I call it a good deal for both the San Diego Padres and the Washington Nationals at this time in both our franchise’s history.”

It will be some time before anyone can say with certainty if it was a good deal for either franchise. The Padres must now actually win something in October with Soto and Josh Bell added to a roster that already features Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, Yu Darvish and (just recently) Josh Hader. The Nationals must hope several of the five prospects they acquired today (along with veteran first baseman Luke Voit) become not only big leaguers but cornerstones who ultimately help them win a lot more games than they’re winning these days.

In the minutes and hours that came after today’s blockbuster news was reported, those who remained at Nationals Park were having a tough time thinking that far into the future. They were more concerned with the two cornerstones from the 2022 roster who are no longer here, not to mention wondering if anyone else from the room would be dealt.

Turns out, nobody else was. The 6 p.m. deadline passed with no more trades, leaving Soto, Bell and Ehire Adrianza (who went to the Braves on Monday) the only players moved by a rebuilding Nationals club. Nelson Cruz, Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Cishek, César Hernández, Maikel Franco and everyone else remain here.

The lack of other moves caught many by surprise, though not nearly as much as the big move of the day.

“It’s tough,” said Sean Doolittle, one of the few remaining members of the 2019 World Series roster still with the Nats, though he’s out for the season following elbow surgery and faces an uncertain future. “It’s maybe a little bit easier for me, because I’m going through a rehab and I’m not mentally preparing to play every day. But when someone like Soto gets moved, it does kind of remind you that if he can get moved, anybody can get moved. It sounds surreal saying it out loud.”

It was an emotional day for everyone in the clubhouse, none more so than Davey Martinez, who found himself saying goodbye to Soto and Bell, saying hello to just-promoted players Joey Meneses and Joshua Palacios, and then holding back tears as he discussed everything that took place during his pregame session with reporters.

“As we all know, he was a big part of our success in ’19, and those memories will never go away,” Martinez said of Soto. “We talked about them for a while. He’s a great kid, and I wished him all the best moving forward. In this game, you never know what’s going to happen moving forward. Who knows what will happen for him and myself and if we cross paths again. But what he meant to us as a National family, for the city, for the fans, we should cherish that.”

Rizzo, while acknowledging the difficulty in making such a drastic decision, insisted it leaves the Nationals in better position to win sooner than they would’ve been with Soto remaining in the organization and theoretically losing trade value over time.

“I think we’ve taken several steps forward,” the GM said, wearing his World Series ring and a red polo with the visage of the Commissioner’s Trophy on the chest. “I think it accelerates the process. I think that you lose a generational talent like that, but you put in five key elements of your future championship roster – along with last year’s trade deadline and the last three drafts and the last three international signing periods – we’ve put into this system in the last three years 15 or 16 high-quality, high tooled-up players that have very impactful futures ahead of them.”

That may make a positive difference in the long term, but it doesn’t make anything easier in the short term.

Martinez still had to figure out who was going to play for him tonight, against returning Mets ace Jacob deGrom no less. And don’t even mention to him what he needs to prepare to contend with 10 days from now, when the Padres come to town with a familiar face in the heart of their lineup that must now be pitched to by his former team.

“We gotta get him out,” Martinez sighed. “We’ve got 10 days now. I’ve got 10 days to think about that. Right now I’m worried about today, trying to get through today. But yeah, I haven’t even thought about that lineup yet.”

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