Soto's suddenly winding path now arrives in the Bronx

From almost the moment he first set foot in the Nationals clubhouse in May 2018, Juan Soto was asked from time to time whether he liked playing in Washington, whether he could see himself staying in Washington for many years, whether he ever thought about playing somewhere else like … oh, New York.

And Soto’s answer was always consistent.

“For me, this is the team I’ve been with since, what, 2015?” he said one morning standing in front of his locker, referencing the year he first signed with the organization as a teenager from Santo Domingo. “I’ve been with this team, and I feel good with it. When I get to know the city more, it feels great. Why should I need to change?”

Soto provided that particular answer on July 16, 2022. Two weeks later, he was traded to the Padres.

And now, remarkably, he has been traded again, this time to the Yankees.

Prior to the morning of July 16, 2022, the notion of Soto being traded could be brushed off. Who could’ve possibly imagined he would proceed to be traded twice in the next 17 months?

And why has that now happened?

It has nothing to do with his individual performance. Soto hit a career-high 35 homers this season, drove in 109 runs (one shy of his career-high), delivered a .410 on-base percentage and .930 OPS (fifth-best in the National League).

It has nothing to do with his character. Soto remains a hugely popular player who has never gotten into any trouble off the field or caused any kind of significant problems in his clubhouse.

It has everything to do with his pending free agency, which finally arrives next winter and promises to challenge this winter’s Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes in general hysteria.

The above quote from Soto came only minutes after The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported the outfielder had recently turned down a 15-year, $440 million contract offer from the Nationals, who were now prepared to consider dealing him before the upcoming trade deadline. Nats management, which had already seen previous stars (and fellow Scott Boras clients) Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon leave via free agency, decided it wasn’t worth it to wait another 2 1/2 years and risk getting nothing in return when Soto inevitably left. So they traded him (and Josh Bell) for perhaps the biggest prospect haul in baseball history: CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, James Wood, Robert Hassell III and Jarlin Susana, plus veteran first baseman Luke Voit.

A year and a half later, the Nationals are pleased with the return. Abrams enjoyed a breakthrough season at shortstop. Gore flashed enough potential to make many believe he can be a future ace. Wood blasted 26 homers in the minors this season and is currently rated the seventh-best prospect in baseball. Hassell and Susana struggled at times this year but still have time to figure it out.

The Padres? Well, Soto did help lead them to the NL Championship Series in 2022 (which they lost to Harper and the Phillies). But they were a mess this season, missed the playoffs amid reports of major clubhouse discord and now decided to cut bait with a generational player one year early in hopes of recouping at least some young talent.

In this trade for Soto (plus center fielder Trent Grisham, who seems destined to forever be connected to his nemesis from the 2019 NL Wild Card Game), the Yankees gave up Michael King, Drew Thorpe, Jhony Brito, Randy Vasquez and Kyle Higashioka. It’s a nice package, but it’s nowhere close to what the Nats got for him in the first trade.

The Yankees, of course, are only guaranteed one year of Soto’s services. He’s still due to become a free agent at the end of the 2024 season. Which means the next calendar year is going to be inundated with even more speculation about his future.

How will Soto handle this? Outwardly, he’ll be fine. He’s too good a hitter, too motivated an athlete, to let anything bother him that much. And anyone who questions if he’ll be able to “handle playing in New York” should receive the eye roll emoji in response.

Of course Soto can handle New York. Have you paid any attention to this guy’s career? In his first-ever game at Yankee Stadium, he hit two homers, each of them go-ahead homers, the latter of them a 436-foot blast off a left-hander.

That happened in the 20th game of Soto’s major league career. One month earlier, he was playing in high Single-A. Three weeks before that, he was playing in low Single-A.

The spotlight has never been a problem for him.

But what about behind the scenes? Just because Soto is brilliant at playing baseball no matter the circumstances, he’s still human. And according to multiple people close to him, he does have mixed feelings about this trade. Just as he did when the Nationals initially traded him.

Soto does care about his public image. What will that image be for a 25-year-old star who has now been traded twice? If he doesn’t re-sign with the Yankees next winter, he could end up playing for four different franchises in four seasons. That’s not the typical resume of a superstar who’s still that young.

Soto, of course, could have avoided all of this had he accepted the Nationals’ $440 million offer way back when. He would’ve been hailed as a D.C. sports legend and positioned himself to play his entire career here. He also would’ve been left wondering if he sold himself short and could’ve made even more as a free agent. And perhaps would’ve someday questioned if he would’ve rather played for another team, especially if the Nats’ rebuilding efforts didn’t come to fruition.

The Yankees surely will try to lock him up before he ever gets the chance to negotiate with another club. Boras will probably try to convince him to wait it out and decide next winter, at which point he’ll have the right to negotiate with all 30 clubs and could still ultimately stick in the Bronx if that is his preference. In theory, it will be Soto – and only Soto – who gets to make the decision.

And when that day comes, will he think back to his time in Washington, a time he adored, a time when he was on top of the world, won a World Series ring and played with a wide smile on his face every single day?

“Why should I need to change?” Soto asked 17 long months ago. Little could he have known.

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