D.C. sports fans deserve better than the Nationals’ trade of Juan Soto

Hughes: D.C. sports fans deserve better than the Soto trade originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

You don’t see trades like the one between the Nationals and Padres on Tuesday very often in part because you don’t see players like Juan Soto come around very often. All of those stats about the historic start to his career remain, they will now just take on an entirely different tone to those reading them in Washington.

You also rarely see trades like this because it’s extremely uncommon for teams to trade stars of his magnitude at his age. Soto is only 23 years old, yet he has already won a World Series ring, been a playoff hero, won a batting title, two Silver Sluggers, made two All-Star teams and won a home run derby.

Set aside the Ted Williams comparisons, of which some of baseball’s most respected historians have espoused, and say he’s the next Albert Pujols. That would mean a Hall-of-Fame player distinguished from the other greats of his time. After the age of 23, Pujols won three MVP awards and two World Series rings.

Another player in that echelon would be Miguel Cabrera. After his age 23 season, Cabrera won two MVPs, four batting titles and a triple crown. Seemingly just like Soto, you could tell early on Cabrera was destined to become one of the game’s greatest hitters.

Cabrera may be the best parallel to Soto for another reason. That’s because he, too, was traded by a team trying to cut salary not long after winning a World Series. After winning the title in 2003 with a 20-year-old Cabrera, the then-Florida Marlins cratered to last place before trading him to the Tigers in 2007. While Cabrera, just 24 when he left, went on to continue a legendary career, the Marlins didn’t get anything close to enough in return to build a contender.

Here are the players the Marlins got back: Burke Badenhop, Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Frankie De La Cruz, Dallas Trahern and Mike Rabelo. The only player among those six who made an All-Star team was Miller, but as a reliever and years later while pitching for other teams. He was traded by the Marlins after not working out as a starter.

The Marlins also included Dontrelle Willis who didn’t amount to much for Detroit, but further aligns this trade with the Soto swap, as Washington also attached first baseman Josh Bell. It is two good players, Soto and Bell, for a big pile of wait-and-see.

There are many unfortunate layers to this deal for D.C. sports fans. Consider the fact Soto is only in his fifth MLB season. He could have another decade of prime years ahead of him and maybe even more. By trading him now, the Nationals have effectively ensured he will be associated more with playing elsewhere. For example Cabrera, whom many baseball fans may have forgotten played for the Marlins, played 720 games for Florida before getting dealt. Soto only played 565 for the Nats. 

D.C. fans unfortunately know all too well how this might go. You could reach further back with the Wizards trading Chris Webber or the now-Commanders trading Champ Bailey. Or, you could stick with the baseball team.

Nationals fans saw Bryce Harper, Soto’s former teammate, win the NL MVP award last season despite being the sport’s 18th highest-paid player. Harper left in free agency and the Nats got nothing in return. Regardless of how you feel about Harper’s exit, as some fans weren’t sad to watch him go, that decision doesn’t look great in hindsight.

At least they traded Trea Turner and got something back, though all he has done since is win a batting title and start an All-Star game. He’s performing like a star for one of the best teams in the league.

Turner, of course, was traded with Max Scherzer to the Dodgers for a package of prospects. While the Nationals’ side of that trade can’t be properly evaluated until a larger sample size is provided, it doesn’t look at the moment like they got comparable talent in return. That may have contributed to why Tuesday’s trade had to happen.

The Nationals’ front office, which did a remarkable job building a winner with an overflow of star players, has arrived at a point where the cupboard is, or at least was, bare. Despite having Soto, one of the best players in the world, they didn’t see a path to contention that was quick enough to fit Soto’s timeline, even though he’s only 23.

There is where some would argue lie the potential positives of the Soto trade. By trading one great player for five prospects with considerable upside, the Nationals may be closer to contending because they needed more talent across the board. As long as some number of those players reach their potential – unlike what the Marlins got for Cabrera – the Nationals could be better off.

Perhaps that will be the case, but the odds are also not in their favor to have found even one player anywhere close to as good as Soto in that deal. In fact, the start to his career was so special, there’s no guarantee Nationals fans will see a player quite like him play for the team again. 

In a perfect world, Soto would have continued establishing his legacy as a great player in D.C. He would have gone down among the city’s all-time greats with Alex Ovechkin, Darrell Green and Wes Unseld. Very rarely does an athlete come along with the potential to join those ranks, but Soto had a real chance.

But now, somehow the team that signed Scherzer to an historic $210 million contract in free agency just seven years ago, is trading away a superstar player because they don’t think they can afford him two years before his current contract expires. They went from being an annual power player in free agency to a team that develops stars for others. In a full-circle moment, they are once again the Expos.

Soto is now playing elsewhere, the same as Turner, Harper, Scherzer and Anthony Rendon. A franchise that made the playoffs five times in eight years and won the World Series in 2019 has now officially stripped everything down to the studs to start from scratch. 

Granted, it has to be mentioned the Nationals are reportedly for sale and could have new ownership in just a few months. There are mitigating circumstances, yet still it is a stunning turn of events. It is also going to be difficult for fans to come to grips with. In a top-10 media market, for a franchise that set the bar impressively high from 2012 to 2019, all the stars are gone.

The Nationals, though, have made their decision. Out the door is one of the best players in his sport and one of the best athletes D.C. fans have had the privilege to root for in a long time. Now the Nats will rest their hopes on a collection of young players who could lead them into a new and exciting era.

But even if that happens, if say the Nationals are good again in just a few years, by then Soto could still be in his mid-20s, possibly a perennial MVP candidate. At some point, they may wish they had a bat just like his in the middle of the order.

The shuffle, the swing; Soto’s time here was fun while it lasted. Now another fanbase gets to call him their own.

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