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

WASHINGTON – Before his final hit as a Washington National, Juan Soto homered to his former teammate and 2019 co-champion Max Scherzer, who is now pitching for the likely playoff-bound New York Mets. By the time the team played again, Soto had been traded to the San Diego Padres. He also walked three, stole a base and threw a runner at the plate in Monday night’s game, in which fans also gave him an ovation after his last at bat (one of the walks, appropriate) before the trade deadline.

The Nats went down quietly in the ninth inning of their 69th loss, with Soto watching from the dugout. When it was done, he drew 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 has continued to come to games regularly, according to Soto.

“I always talk to her,” he said.

He later stood in front of what used to be 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.”

The funny thing is, he’s not completely wrong. His OPS is 58% better than the league average, but that’s a drop from last year when he was 77% better than the league average, or 2020 when he was more than twice the average Major League hit. Before that, he won a World Series. Before that, he went from A-ball to big-league star in one season.

Adversity, such as hitting .247 while leading baseball in walks or playing for a team that loses nearly twice as often as wins, can force growth, leaving a player known for youth wise beyond his years.

“I learned more about myself,” Soto said of how this season has changed him. “I learned about the team, the company and all that stuff.”

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

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

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

But with his future still uncertain, Soto joked. He made his impressive performance proof of the oft-quoted baseball cliche: “That shows I’m in control of what I can control.” He predicted that he would sleep well.

However, he admitted that relief would not come Tuesday. “Tomorrow? No. It will probably be Wednesday.”

See, wise. Because Tuesday’s lesson was arguably the toughest 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 if he always intended to walk away in free agency, he could have stayed with the team for another two years. Only then, he rejected the polite, but perhaps perfunctory, $440 million, 15-year extension of the Nationals.

On the day of the deadline, players and people within the game will tell you that baseball is a business. And then they will tell you over and over again. These are not breakups, they are business transactions. That’s why when they talk about trading the face of their franchise, GMs will call him “the player” and “the piece”.

But remember that some emotions are inevitable.

Think of Dave Martinez, for whom Soto has played his entire career in the Premier League, describing their relationship: “I talked a lot with his father and I said, ‘By birth I know he’s your son, but on the pitch ‘” and then he stopped talking, tapped his chest and blinked a little, “‘He’s my son.'”

That was after.

With hours remaining until the deadline, news broke that Juan Soto and Josh Bell, an underrated switch-hitting first baseman with a .301 average and an impressive array of picks to begin with, were traded to the Padres. In return, the Nationals received long-acclaimed rookie left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore; fast rookie shortstop CJ Abrams; outfield prospects Robert Hassell III and the 6-foot-7 James Wood; pitching prospect Jarlin Susana, who is furthest from the major leagues but has the most advantage according to the Nats; and veteran Luke Voit, after Eric Hosmer vetoed his inclusion in the deal.

“We set the bar very, very high,” Rizzo said during a press conference that was sometimes defensive – “I was also the guy who signed him,” he said – and emotional because he seemed almost in tears. “And then a team surpassed it. And that’s the deal we made.”

Soto’s impending departure had dominated the baseball news cycle for weeks, always in connection with the ambitious Padres driven by aggressive AJ Preller, and other suitors. And yet, “it still feels a bit jarring and disorienting,” said injured veteran reliever Sean Doolittle.

“It sounds surreal. Like, saying it out loud, I guess.”

The muted clubhouse TVs showed footage of Soto interspersed with analysis of how the Padres got their man. The remaining Nationals, those who have been here for at least a while, meekly tried to put into words the loss. Soto and Bell had both come and gone, heading for San Diego, by the time media was allowed into the clubhouse. The farewell had taken place behind closed doors.

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

Left behind included a struggling team, a championship flag that never quite made it to its victory lap, a few young players sprang into action with big shoes to fill, and lockers in disarray that had to be packed up and shipped to the players in their new ones. House.

For Soto’s: A box the size of a large kitchen appliance was full of sweaters and still muddy red cleats that he doesn’t need where he’s going now. The Cocoa Puffs box still where he left it. A post-it photo of a stick figure wearing a red hat on the front of the wooden stall. And hidden inside, what appeared to be a custom screen-printed T-shirt with a photo of the young fan holding the sign about Soto and her heart, the one he said he’d talk to when she got to the game.

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

About Juan Soto (pictured), Nationals manager Dave Martinez said: “I talked a lot with his father and I said, ‘By birth I know he’s your son, but on the field,'” and then he stopped talking, tapped his chest and blinked a little, “‘he’s my son.'” (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Nationals firesale sparked trade in Soto

Rizzo said there was no edict to trade or not trade Soto. Ownership – the outgoing Lerner family whose imminent sale of the team must have been factored in, though it’s hard to say exactly how – entrusted him with evaluating the market and making the best decision for the franchise. He felt that this meant high sales, as it were, maximizing returns by giving a contending team three potential post-season Soto seasons under team control. Another way to look at that, of course, is more than two years of exclusive rights to negotiate with a likely future Hall of Famer just coming into his prime.

Rizzo did not fully admit that the trade was based on an agreement that they would not be able to renew Soto. But when asked, he said, “We felt like we wouldn’t be able to renew it.”

As an explanation, that raises just as many unsolved questions – such as: why not? – as it answers. But it does work as an explanation. Though they’ve made Soto several offers since then, the Nationals kicked off this deal last season, if not sooner, with a fire sale deadline that left him stranded on a team that couldn’t hope to compete in years to come. Despite all he is, Soto cannot win ball games alone. This season has shown that.

The evaluators will have their say on the return and then time will tell better than any projection model ever could. But it’s fair to ask now what these moves mean in the simplest sense: Are the Nationals better prepared to win today than they were yesterday?

“I think we’ve made some steps forward,” said Rizzo.

On the one hand, that’s a tautology. If you believe that someday they will be good again, each passing day only brings them closer. But also, now the disassembly is complete. They will build something new, something completely separate from the 2019 team that has since spread to baseball. That’s the cycle in sport: durability is possible, consistency is not. What appears to be continued dominance in certain markets is, on closer inspection, an eternal evolution. Perhaps this is the beginning of what will eventually be a long and illustrious success in DC. But wouldn’t it have been nice if Juan Soto was here for that?

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