The Dodgers rolled into Washington this week with one of the best records in the major leagues, a loaded roster, and championship aspirations. The Washington Nationals, less than three years removed from knocking out the Dodgers on their way to winning the World Series, have none of those nice things. They’re in last place. They’re years away from returning to title contention. But they’ve arguably had the best player on the field the last two nights.
Juan Soto is a 23-year-old left-handed hitting machine who has drawn comparisons to Ted Williams. He boasts power to all fields. His plate discipline is otherworldly. His tranquil swagger is unflappable. He’s a superstar.
And Soto is a National. At least for now. Last week, ESPN reported “rival execs” are wondering if the Nationals might be “compelled” to trade Soto before the Aug. 2 trade deadline. Hours later, the Washington Post reported general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez are in the last guaranteed year of their contracts, meaning organizational change could be looming. That is all on top of the recent news that Nationals ownership is exploring selling the franchise.
The impact of those variables on Soto’s situation is unknown, but Scott Boras, Soto’s agent, told the New York Post a trade is “not happening.” That didn’t stop speculation from swirling.
Last Thursday, reporters received an email with “Juan Soto Trade Odds” in the subject line. The Nationals were listed as the favorites to have Soto on their roster after the deadline. Number two? The Dodgers.
The last time the Dodgers had seen Soto before this week wasn’t as an opponent, but as a fan when he attended the National League Wild Card game at Dodger Stadium in October to root for former Nationals teammates Trea Turner and Max Scherzer. He wore Turner’s Nationals jersey. Surely some Dodgers fans’ imaginations ran wild that night. ESPN’s report last week only refueled them.
The Dodgers will have the opportunity to add Soto one day. The question is when and how. Will the Nationals trade a generational talent entering his prime? Or will they keep him until he hits free agency after the 2024 season and risk losing him for nothing?
Soto declined a 13-year, $350-million contract extension in November and later signaled that he plans on reaching free agency. There’s a chance he’ll eclipse Mike Trout’s 12-year, $426.5-million, record-shattering deal and reset the market.
Trading superstars ahead of free agency has become more prevalent across Major League Baseball in recent years. The Boston Red Sox sent Mookie Betts to the Dodgers with one year of team control remaining in February 2020. The Cleveland Guardians traded Francisco Lindor to the New York Mets at the same point a year later, also one season from free agency. But two and a half seasons before free agency would mark new territory.
The Nationals have some experience in this department. In 2018, Rizzo agreed to send Bryce Harper to the Houston Astros before the trade deadline. The Nationals were out of the playoff race and Harper was slated to become a free agent that winter. Ownership, however, voided the trade. Harper then signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.
The organization went hard in the other direction last July, unloading eight veterans in less than 30 hours. Two All-Stars — Scherzer and Turner — went to the Dodgers, so there’s some recent trade history between the front offices.
“I’ll take him over here any day,” Turner said. “Man, if that guy is on your team, you guys are lucky. I think Nats fans obviously know that and I think a lot of the country knows that. But I think if there’s one person that I can play with again, for sure it would be him because he’s really good. He’s really, really good.”
The Dodgers’ farm system ranks among the best, ostensibly giving them as good a shot as any other club to land Soto should he hit the trade market. The acquisition cost for Soto would, theoretically, fall the closer he gets to free agency, but he could command more than both Scherzer and Turner even in two years, depleting an organization of several top prospects.
“Whatever you think, and then double it,” a league executive said this week.
As for the money, Soto will earn $17.1 million this season. He’s in line to set a record through arbitration next year. He’d shatter that number again in 2024.
Money shouldn’t be a problem for the Dodgers. Trevor Bauer’s recent two-year suspension leaves the Dodgers with a competitive balance tax payroll of $263.6 million, according to RosterResource.com, giving them more than $25 million to work with under of the $290-million tax threshold. That’s assuming Bauer, who appealed his ban, remains suspended for the remainder of the season.
The Dodgers have more room after the season when more than $100 million comes off the books. And they have just three players under contract for the 2024 season: Betts, Freddie Freeman and Chris Taylor. They should have the flexibility to add Soto — whether it’s via trade in the next two years or in free agency after that.
For now, the series between the clubs this week offered a stark window into the growing divide between the league’s contenders and rebuilders.
On Monday, the Nationals went hitless for five innings and lost 10-1. On Tuesday, Turner cracked a two-run home run three batters into the game off Josiah Gray, one of the prospects the Dodgers dealt to Washington for Turner and Scherzer. A reliever was warming in the bullpen before the end of the first inning. The Dodgers won easily, 9-4.
They are franchises on opposite tracks. One a title contender going on a decade. The other whose days as a power are over for the foreseeable future. They’ll meet again in late July days before the trade deadline. It should mark Juan Soto’s return to Dodger Stadium — unless last week’s smoke came from a legitimate fire.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.