Trying to rationalize Soto trade after emotional day

First of all, it’s OK for Nationals fans to be sad. No one would blame them if they were also downright mad.

There’s no other way to put it: Yesterday was a dark day for the Nationals franchise, this fan base and this city.

How else do you describe a day in which a team trades away perhaps its best player ever with 2 ½ more years of contractual control at the age of 23 before the prime of his career?

That’s what happened Tuesday when Nats general manager Mike Rizzo traded Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres for six players, including five highly touted prospects. An unprecedented move that sent shock waves through the baseball world and may end up being the biggest trade in the sport’s history.

Shock was indeed the initial reaction. How could the Nats do that? Why can’t they just re-sign Soto? Was the return good enough? Will it ever be good enough? How did we even get here?

Looking back at all that has happened over the past couple of weeks, from an objective point of view, all of these things can be true:

1) The Nationals’ 15-year, $440 million offer to Juan Soto was a historic offer that would have paid him the most money ever seen in baseball.
2) Juan Soto was correct in rejecting that offer on the basis that the $29.3 million average annual value would only rank 20th among current baseball contracts.
3) Juan Soto was correct in wanting to see how the Nats’ ownership situation plays out before committing to the team long-term.
4) Juan Soto is correct in wanting to go to arbitration two more times and hit the free agent market after the 2024 season, creating the highest possible floor for his next deal.
5) The Nationals were correct in exploring all of their options, entertaining trade offers and trying to get the best possible return for Soto when his trade value is at its highest.

Rizzo admitted during his press conference yesterday that after Soto rejected their latest contract offer, the Nationals didn’t feel like they would ever extend him to a long-term deal, putting the wheels in motion for the eventual trade.

“We did feel that we were not going to be able to extend him,” Rizzo said. “And we felt that, at this time, with 2 ½ years remaining and three playoff runs available with Juan Soto, he would never be at more value than he is today. And that's what we were predicated on. There was no edict to trade him or not to trade him. It was business as usual. Ownership gave me the latitude to make a good baseball deal if I felt it was a franchise-altering deal. And it turned out that we got one to our liking and it worked.”

Was this a franchise-altering deal? Unequivocally, yes. But was it franchise-altering in a good way? That remains to be seen.

The haul for Soto and Bell was massive, with execs around the league calling it the biggest trade return ever. Left-hander Mackenzie Gore and shortstop C.J. Abrams are major league-ready prospects who are already showing their potential as rookies. Outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood are two of the highest rated prospects in all of baseball and are already ranked in the Nats’ top five, per MLB Pipeline (Hassell is No. 1 and Wood is No. 4). And right-hander Jarlin Susana (No. 8) is said to have the highest ceiling of them all, with a 6-foot-6, 235-pound frame and triple-digit fastball.

Luke Voit is the veteran of the group at the age of 31. He fills the hole at first base left behind by Bell, is only making $5.45 million this year and is under team control for two more seasons.

“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. … 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.”

Does the potential of these young prospects ease the pain of losing Soto? No. It shouldn’t. At least not right now.

Soto was a sure thing the Nationals had now and for two more seasons. He’s won a World Series, Silver Slugger Awards, batting titles and a Home Run Derby. He’s proven his worth.

The five prospects show promise, sure, but they’re still just that: prospects. Their major league careers are still question marks, and we won’t know the answers for at least a few more years.

“I feel like what we did is going to definitely help us get in the direction that we want to go, and that's to win another championship. No doubt,” manager Davey Martinez said during his pregame press conference after the trade was made official. “I watch these guys on video and they all got potential to be really good. Some of them really got potential to be future All-Stars. 

“On one hand, you're sad to see these guys go. On the other hand, I'm really super excited to get to know these guys, start building these relationships and get them going in our organization. I've said this before, with some of the guys we got down in our minor league system, adding these guys now, the future's bright. It really is. And I'm really excited about that.”

The future may be bright, but that doesn’t necessarily lighten up the gloomy present.

Credit to Rizzo and Martinez: They said all of the right things yesterday. They were emotional when talking about Soto, Bell and how difficult making the trade was. But they were also confident that what they were doing was best for the Nationals franchise and its future.

They would not be in the positions they are in if they weren’t confident men. Some serious questions would be raised about the GM and manager if they weren’t.

But that’s also part of their jobs. They have to say those things and exude that confidence. They have to try to sell this move to the fan base.

That doesn’t mean fans have to buy it right now.

“I feel terrible for them,” said Sean Doolittle of his message to Nats fans. “I can empathize with how they’re feeling after the guys that we’ve had here that are wearing other uniforms now. And now add Juan to that list. Add JB to that list. I feel their pain. I share their pain.”

That list is long and growing. Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies before the 2019 season. Anthony Rendon signed with the Angels after the 2019 World Series championship. Trea Turner and Max Scherzer were traded to the Dodgers at last year’s deadline. Ryan Zimmerman retired. Now Soto and Bell are gone, too. 

“What can you say?” Doolittle said. “I don’t know. I’m still here. I don’t know if that helps.”

The longtime fan favorite is still here, one of the few remaining players from that World Series team. Doolittle, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez, Joe Ross, Tanner Rainey and Victor Robles are the only ones left on the 40-man roster from the 2019 team. Four of them are injured and may not play again this year. Then who knows what the future holds?

Even with those players still in Washington, yesterday felt like the final dagger to the World Series team this franchise still holds on to so desperately.

It’s not the same team anymore. Soto was the last major and impactful link. No longer is it appropriate to draw parallels from this current team to that one. The page has turned. For good.

A new era of baseball has started in Washington, and that’s really hard for Nats fans to stomach. And understandably so.

Also, let's call this what it is: A rebuild. Rizzo has touted this as a "reboot" for the past year. But when you trade away your two best players for the second year in a row (one with multiple years left on his contract), it is no longer a reboot. It's a rebuild. Plain and simple.

That might not mean much in the big picture, but it's an important distinction now.

"I think we've taken several steps forward," Rizzo said. "I think it accelerates the process."

That may be true, but the process is now a rebuild. And it's going to be a while until we see it come to fruition.

I feel for the older generation of fans that went through decades without baseball in our nation’s capital and welcomed the Nationals with open arms. I feel for my generation of fans that grew up watching a bad team grow, eventually falling in love with a champion. I feel for the younger generation of fans who have only known winning baseball their entire lives.

My 7-year-old nephew just got into baseball this summer. He’s old enough to understand the game now and asks me about it constantly. For the first time, he had a ball, bat and glove on a family vacation and we played a game on the beach.

Who did he pretend to be in each of his at-bats? Juan Soto.

He fell in love with Soto when the family made their first trip to a Nationals game earlier this summer. They sat in the seats in right-center field. Soto hit a home run into their section. My future sister-in-law recorded a video of him jumping around in excitement.

I was going to get him a Soto Nationals jersey for his upcoming birthday. Now I have to explain to an almost 8-year-old why his favorite team representing the city he lives in traded away his favorite player.

Even my fiancé, who grew up in this area and swears she’s still an Orioles fan, felt the pain of yesterday’s trade.

“I don’t know why this is giving me anxiety!” she said to me over text. “Like my feelings are hurt by this.”

That’s fandom, babe.

Of course, there are fans who will quit the team, which can be construed as fair. I don’t necessarily believe you, but it’s fair. It’s hard when you fall in love with so many players just to see them leave. Why would you want to continue to put yourself through that?

A good friend of mine is a diehard Nationals fan. Like so many, he says winning the World Series was the best moment of his sports fandom life. He also said yesterday was one of the worst.

Known among our friends to be a little overdramatic, he stated yesterday he no longer has a desire to watch baseball. Again, I don’t necessarily believe you, but in the moment, that’s a fair sentiment.

So what can fans do, now that Soto is added to the long list of former Nationals?

Really, the only thing to do is turn your attention to the new young core and fall in love with them.

Hopefully, this fan base – along with my nephew, fiancé and friend – support Gore, Abrams, Hassell, Wood and Susana as they join Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray, Luis García, Cade Cavalli, Brady House and Elijah Green to try to become the next group of Nationals winners. Admittedly, that might be hard to do given this team's now long track record with star players.

“We are headed in the right direction,” said an emotional Martinez, addressing the fans. “Be patient. This organization will be good again. I'm proud of being a part of this organization. I'm proud of being a part of this city. So I'm looking forward to the future.”

It’s not easy to do right now. But that might be all that can be done.

Game 106 lineups: Nats vs. Mets
Road back to success is even bumpier without Soto
 

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