Juan Soto trade to Padres leaves a star-sized hole in Washington that may never be filled

WASHINGTON – For his latest hit as a Washington National, Juan Soto retired former teammate and fellow 2019 shortstop Max Schercher, now pitching for the New York Mets’ potential playoff run. By the time the team played again, Soto had been traded to the San Diego Padres. He also walked three times, stole a base and threw out a runner at the plate in Monday night’s game that also featured fans applauding him after his final at-bat (one of the walks, fittingly) before the trade deadline.

The Nats quietly went down in the ninth inning of their 69th loss, with Soto watching from the dugout. When it was done, he signed a baseball and gave it to a young fan. Last September he caught Soto’s attention with a sign that said “Juan My Pacemaker Beats 4U” and, according to Soto, continued to come to matches regularly.

“I always talk to her,” he said.

Later, he stood in front of what was Ryan Zimmerman’s locker, a box of cacao husks on the floor nearby, and said, “I feel like this was the worst season I’ve ever had.”

What’s crazy is that he’s not completely wrong. His OPS is 58% better than league average – but that’s down from last year, when he was 77% better than league average, or 2020, when he was more than twice as good as the major league average . Before that, he won a World Series. Before that, he went from A-ball to major league star in a single season.

However, adversity, such as hitting .247 while driving baseballs in walks or playing for a team that loses nearly twice as often as it wins, can force growth, making a player famous for his youth wise beyond his years.

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

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

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

But with his future still uncertain, Soto made jokes. He credited his impressive performance as proof of the oft-cited baseball cliché: “That goes to show you I control everything I can control.” He predicted that he would sleep well.

He admitted, however, that relief would not come on Tuesday. “Tomorrow? No. It’ll be Wednesday, probably.”

See, wise man. Because Tuesday’s lesson may have been the hardest of all.

Soto has been with the Nationals since they signed him out of the Dominican Republic as a teenager in 2015. He recently bought a home in the DC area. Even if he always planned to leave in free agency, he could have stayed with the team for two more years. Except then he turned down the Nationals’ gracious-but-perhaps-excessive $440 million extension over 15 years.

On deadline day, players and insiders will tell you baseball is a business. And then they will tell you again and again. These are not breakups, these are business transactions. This is why GMs, when talking about trading the face of their franchise, will call him “the player” and “the piece.”

But consider that some feelings are inevitable.

Consider Dave Martinez, for whom Soto has pitched his entire major league career, describing their relationship: “I talked to his dad a lot and said, ‘I’ve known since birth that he’s your son, but on the field,’ and then he stopped talking, patted his chest and blinked a little, “he’s my son.”

That was after.

With hours remaining before the deadline, word broke that Juan Soto and Josh Bell, an underrated first baseman with a .301 average and an impressive reel of options at first, had been traded to the Padres. In return the Nationals received highly touted rookie left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore. Speedy rookie shortstop CJ Abrams. outfield prospects Robert Hassell III and 6-foot-7 James Wood; Jarlin Susanna, who is the furthest from the big leagues, but the Nats believe he has the most upside. and veteran Luke Voight, after Eric Hosmer vetoed his inclusion in the deal.

“We set the bar very, very high,” Rizzo said during a press conference that was at times defensive — “I was the guy who signed him, too,” he said — and emotional as he appeared close to tears. “And then a team overcame it. And that’s the deal we made.”

Soto’s impending departure had dominated the baseball news cycle for weeks, always linked to the ambitious Padres led by outfielder AJ Preller, among other suitors. And yet, “it still feels a little shocking and disorienting,” said injured veteran reliever Sean Doolittle.

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

Silent TVs in the clubhouses showed footage of Soto interspersed with analysis of how the Padres got their man. The remaining Gentiles, those who had been here at least a little while, meekly tried to put words to the defeat. Soto and Bell had come and gone, bound for San Diego, by the time the media was allowed into the club. The farewell was behind closed doors.

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

Left behind, among other things, was a struggling team, a championship banner that never managed to win a victory lap, a pair of young players pressed into action with big shoes to fill and lockers in disarray, to be packed up and sent to the players in their new homes.

In front of Soto’s: A box the size of a large kitchen appliance sat full of jerseys and muddy red bags he doesn’t need where he’s going now. The box of Cocoa Puffs is still where he left it. A Post-It note image of a stick figure with a red hat taped to the front of the wooden bench. And tucked inside, what appeared to be a custom screen-printed T-shirt with a photo of the young fan holding a sign for Soto and her heart, who she said she would talk to whenever she was at the game.

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

Of Juan Soto (pictured), Nationals manager Dave Martinez said, “I talked to his dad a lot and I said, ‘I’ve known since birth that he’s your son, but on the field,’ and then he stopped talking, he tapped it on his chest and blinked a little, “he’s my son.” (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The sale of subjects led to the Soto trade

Rizzo said there was no edict to trade or not trade Soto. Ownership — the outgoing Lerner family, whose impending sale of the team must have factored in, though it’s hard to say exactly how — trusted him to evaluate the market and make the best decision for the franchise. He felt that meant selling high, as it were, maximizing the return by giving a contending team three possible postseasons of Soto under team control. Of course, another way to look at this is two-plus years of exclusive rights to trade with a potential future Hall of Famer who is just entering his prime.

Rizzo didn’t admit the trade was based on the understanding they wouldn’t be able to extend Soto. But asked about it, he said: “We felt we couldn’t extend him.”

As an explanation, this presents so many controversial questions — such as: why not? — as he answers. But it works as an explanation. Although they’ve made several offers to Soto since then, the Nationals put that deal in motion last season, if not before, with a trade deadline that left him locked in a team he couldn’t hope to pitch in the next two years. Still, Soto alone can’t win ballgames. This season has shown a lot.

The evaluators will have their piece on the comeback and then time will tell better than any projection model. But it’s fair to ask, right 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 taken quite a few steps forward,” Rizzo said.

On the one hand, this is a tautology. If you think they’ll get back together, every day that passes only brings them closer. But also, now the teardown is complete. They will build something new, something completely disconnected from the 2019 team that has since scattered baseball. That’s the cycle in sports — sustainability is possible, consistency is not. What looks like continued dominance in some markets is, on closer inspection, constant evolution. Maybe this is the start of what will eventually become a long and illustrious run of DC success, but wouldn’t it be nice if Juan Soto was here for it?

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