Juan Soto's trade to the Padres leaves a star-sized hole in Washington that might never be filled

WASHINGTON – For his last hit as a Washington National, Juan Soto homered off his former teammate and fellow 2019 champion, Max Scherzer, 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 times, stole a base and threw out a runner at the plate in the Monday night game that also featured fans giving him an ovation after his final at-bat (one of the walks, fittingly) 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 signed a baseball and handed it to a young fan. Last September, she caught Soto’s attention with a sign that says “Juan My Pacemaker Beats 4U” and, according to Soto, has continued to come to games regularly.

“I always talk to her,” he said.

Later, he 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 has been the worst season I've ever had.”

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

Adversity though, like hitting .247 while leading baseball in walks or playing for a team that loses nearly twice as often as it wins, can force growth, rendering a player who’s famous for his youth wise beyond his years.

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

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

On Monday night, he was calm. Veteran countryman Nelson Cruz sat with him in the clubhouse and talked about all the different scenarios. Cruz has played for seven different teams in the course of his 18-year career. He told Soto 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 cracked jokes. Chalked up his impressive performance up to proof of the oft-cited baseball cliche: “That shows you I'm controlling what I can control.” He predicted that he would sleep well.

He admitted, though, that relief wouldn’t come on Tuesday. “Tomorrow? No. It’s going to be Wednesday, probably.”

See, wise. Because Tuesday’s lesson might’ve been the toughest of all.

Soto has been with the Nationals since they signed him out of the Dominican Republic as a teenager in 2015. Recently, he bought a house in the D.C. area. Even if he always planned to walk away in free agency, he could have stayed with the team for another two-plus years. Except that then he rejected the Nationals’ polite-but-perhaps-perfunctory $440 million, 15-year extension.

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

But consider that some emotions are inevitable.

Consider Dave Martinez, for whom Soto has played his whole big-league career, describing their relationship: “I talked to his dad a lot, and I said, ‘I know by birth he's your son, but on the field,’” and then he stopped speaking, tapped his chest and blinked a bit, “‘he's my son.’”

That was after.

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

“We set the bar very, very high,” Rizzo said during a news 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 one team exceeded 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 driven by aggressive A.J. Preller, among other suitors. And yet, “it still feels a little bit shocking and disorienting,” injured veteran reliever Sean Doolittle said.

“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 guy. The remaining Nationals, those who have been here a little while at least, tried meekly to put words to the loss. Soto and Bell had both come and gone, bound for San Diego, by the time media was allowed in the clubhouse. The goodbyes had been behind closed doors.

“We talked for a while and he's got mixed emotions,” Martinez said. “So it's tough.”

Left behind was, among other things, a struggling team, a championship banner that never did quite get its victory lap, a couple young players pressed into action with big shoes to fill, and lockers in disarray, to be packed up and shipped off 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 still-muddied red cleats that he doesn’t need where he’s going now. The Cocoa Puffs box still where he left it. A Post-It note picture of a stick figure in a red hat affixed to the front of the wooden stall. And tucked 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 would talk to whenever she was at the game.

On Juan Soto (pictured), Nationals manager Dave Martinez said:
On Juan Soto (pictured), Nationals manager Dave Martinez said: "I talked to his dad a lot, and I said, ‘I know by birth he's your son, but on the field,’” and then he stopped speaking, tapped his chest and blinked a bit, “‘he's my son.’” (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Nationals' firesale led to Soto trade

Rizzo said there was no edict to trade, or not to trade, Soto. Ownership — the outgoing Lerner family whose forthcoming sale of the team must’ve factored in, although it’s hard to tell exactly how — entrusted him with evaluating the market and making the best decision for the franchise. He felt that meant selling high, as it were, maximizing the return by giving a contending team three potential postseasons of Soto under team control. Of course another way to look at that is two-plus years of exclusive rights to negotiate with a likely future Hall of Famer just coming into his prime.

Rizzo didn’t quite concede the trade was predicated on an understanding they would be unable to extend Soto. But asked about that he said, “We did feel that we were not going to be able to extend him.”

As an explanation, that presents as many moot questions — such as: why not? — as it answers. But it does work as an explanation. Even though they made Soto several offers since then, the Nationals set this deal in motion last season, if not before, with a deadline fire sale that left him stranded on a team that couldn’t hope to contend in the next couple years. For all that he is, Soto alone cannot win ballgames. This season has shown that much.

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

“I think we've taken several steps forward,” Rizzo said.

On the one hand, that’s a tautology. If you believe they’ll ever be good again, each passing day brings them only closer. But also, now the teardown is complete. They’ll build something new, something totally disconnected from the 2019 team that has since scattered around baseball. Such is the cycle in sports — sustainability is possible, consistency is not. What looks like continued dominance in certain markets is, upon closer inspection, perpetual evolution. Perhaps this is the start of what will eventually become a long and illustrious span of success in D.C. But wouldn’t it have been nice if Juan Soto was here for that?