At 18-33, the Nationals possess the second-worst record in the National League. With a litany of injuries, the game’s worst starting rotation (by measure of ERA, FIP and fWAR), and a middle-of-the-pack offense, there’s little hope of a turnaround. Given their place in the standings and last summer’s trade-deadline fire sale, there’s been plenty of recent speculation over at ESPN about the possibility of a Juan Soto trade this summer. Soto rejected a 13-year extension offer in the offseason and is “only” controlled for two years beyond the current campaign.
Despite the lack of an extension and dwindling club control, the trade of Soto hasn’t stood out as particularly likely, and this morning, general manager Mike Rizzo made clear that he has no intention of moving Soto this season.
“We are not trading Juan Soto,” Rizzo plainly stated when asked in a radio appearance on the Sports Junkies show on 106.7 FM The Fan (twitter link, with audio). “We’ve made it clear to his agent and to the player. … We have every intention of building this team around Juan Soto. We’ve spoken to his agent by him many, many times — recently sat with him when he was in Washington DC, made it clear to him that we are not interested in trading him, and I guess the rest of the world just does n’ t believe it. But that’s our position.”
Skeptics will point to the fact that Rizzo (or any GM) would never broadcast an intention to trade Soto (or any star player) for fear of losing leverage in talks. That’s true, but it’s also true that Rizzo didn’t have to make a declarative statement at all. It’s common now, more than ever, for baseball executives to use generic front-office speak when fielding questions of this nature. Rizzo, however, did not give a boilerplate answer about how he loves the player but it’s his job to listen to all opportunities, unlikely as a deal may be. Making definitive, on-the-record statements that a player will not be traded is fairly rare.
Notably, Rizzo took this same tack with Bryce Harper at the 2018 deadline. Harper indeed stayed put, although The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal has since reported that the Astros nearly pulled off a blockbuster acquisition of Harper before Nationals ownership stepped in to nix the swap. In fairness to Rizzo, that report suggests the Harper agreement was axed on July 30; Rizzo’s comments on Harper staying in place were issued on the morning of July 31. We’ve also seen former Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen declare that neither Noah Syndergaard nor Edwin Diaz would be traded and current Royals president of baseball ops Dayton Moore state on record that Whit Merrifield would not be moved. Not even three months ago, Cincinnati GM Nick Krall announced to reporters that even on the heels of a slew of cost-cutting moves, he had no expectation of trading either Luis Castillo or Tyler Mahle prior to the season. None of the players mentioned in those statements were traded.
Circumstances can always change, and that’s particularly true of a Nationals club that is reportedly up for a potential sale. It’s also possible that a team could simply bowl Rizzo and his staff over with a Godfather offer that he simply cannot in good conscience turn down. Still, it bears emphasizing that there’s in the recent MLB example of a team’s top baseball operations officially publicly proclaiming that a player will not be traded, only to then go back on that hardline stance and explain the about-face to the fanbase. The closest example is former Rockies GM Jeff Bridich saying in Jan. 2020 that Nolan Arenado would not be traded, but an Arenado deal didn’t come together until 13 months later, when circumstances had changed.
Fans of other clubs will surely hold out hope for a Soto blockbuster, and there will be no shortage of both speculation and hail-Mary attempts from other teams to pry the 23-year-old superstar from the Nationals’ grasp. Rizzo’s Wednesday comments, however, only make that long shot all the more unlikely.
Soto has yet to celebrate his 24th birthday but already has 107 big league home runs under his belt. He’s a lifetime .294/.426/.539 hitter and is already earning $17.1MM as a second-time arbitration-eligible player. (He’ll be arb-eligible four times rather than three, thanks to his Super Two status.) The Nationals’ reported 13-year offer this winter would’ve promised Soto $350MM in guaranteed money, but he opted to turn that down in favor of a year-to-year approach. Many fans were understandably aghast at the notion of rejecting $350MM in guaranteed money, but from Soto’s vantage point, he’s already earning $17MM this season and could reasonably project to earn upwards of $70-75MM over his final three arbitration seasons (2022-24 ). The extension, then, offered to buy out 10 free-agent seasons at somewhere in the vicinity of $27-28MM annually — an annual mark well shy of the current going rate for elite players and one he could likely trounce as a 26-year- old free agent.
Even if Soto is firmly off the market, the Nationals are shaping up to be sellers for a second straight deadline season. Veterans like Nelson Cruz, Josh Bell and Steve Cishek are among the names who could be reasonably expected to change hands, as all are free agents at season’s end.