Column: Soto trade is so fitting for DC sports

August 3, 2022

Washington Nationals' Juan Soto walks on the field between innings of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Friday, July 29, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Juan Soto is gone. Just like Bryce Harper, Chris Webber and Champ Bailey before him.

As a lifelong D.C. sports fan, though, this one just hits differently.

The Washington Nationals’ three-year free-fall from World Series champion to worst team in the majors hit rock bottom with the trade of Soto to San Diego, extracting the last little bit of joy from a fanbase, still in its infancy, already reeling from a painful rebuild.

What the Nats got in return for Soto is irrelevant. Each of the six pieces acquired in the deal could go on to be enshrined in Cooperstown and I couldn’t care less. Most won’t be playing for a while anyway.

My reasons are twofold: First, Soto’s value transcends his stats and WAR.

Secondly, the Nationals’ team-building approach sucks. General Manager Mike Rizzo arrogantly sat in front of the media Tuesday, World Series ring on his hand, and brazenly said he built a title contender once and he’ll do it again.

Good luck doing that without a 23-year-old generational talent that’s the very embodiment of the player you build a championship team around. Rizzo could do this another 50 years and never find another player like Soto.

Soto is box office. He’s as entertaining as he is productive, and he was ours. How often does Washington have something the sports world actually envies?

Maybe Rizzo is right to believe Soto wouldn’t re-sign in Washington and just had to get the best deal available. Or that the pieces he added can be the foundation of a return to prominence.

But if you don’t pay Soto, or Bryce Harper, or Trea Turner, or Anthony Rendon, then who do you pay? What happens if/when the players Rizzo got from the Padres develop into All-Stars? Does he deal them away later, when the franchise again doesn’t want to pony up the elite-level cash to keep an elite-level performer?

There was a point at which this could have been prevented. The $440 million offer could have been trimmed to 10 years rather than 15. Or the money upped to $500 million, a number Soto’s agent, Scott Boras, is almost certain to covet.

All that money saved from letting Harper, Turner and Rendon go should have been dumped in Soto’s lap.

This isn’t Green Bay or Cincinnati. D.C. is the nation’s capital and a top-10 market. It’s flat-out unacceptable that the billionaire sports owners here shrug their shoulders and say “we can’t afford him” every time they luck into a great player.

But while talking with my former WTOP colleague, I was reminded that D.C. is also notorious for politics ruining things.

Potential buyers

Noah Frank is now a contributing writer for Baseball Prospectus and has previously worked for multiple MLB teams, including the Nationals. He believes the impending ownership change colored this transaction.

“If [the Nationals] were simply committed to rebuilding, there is no better player around which to rebuild your franchise than a 23-year-old, charismatic, dinger-swatting superstar,” said Frank.

“This is about dumping any perceived long-term financial debt under the idea that any potential buyer sees more value in a team with the least amount of large contracts, no matter how bad the product on the field.”

Assuming this to be true, add it to the list of non-sports reasons why D.C. keeps exporting its best players to places like Sacramento (Webber), Denver (Bailey) and now San Diego, where Padres are collecting young stars like Soto and Manny Machado to team up with Fernando Tatis, rather than using them as trade chips.

Frank added that the Nationals had a choice: either blow up the team completely and start over, or financially commit to a young core to build around.

“There is no reason that the Nats need to lose 97 games right now, but they’re choosing to, and choosing to get actively worse with this trade,” Frank said.

This is the endless frustration of being a D.C. sports fan. We get a bad rap outside of Washington, but the fans here are generally knowledgeable and passionate. The real problem here is the lack of big-time ownership.

The Lerners were cheap even before they had one foot out the door. Ted Leonsis has presided over much of the decadeslong irrelevance of the Wizards and the vast underachievement of the Capitals.

The Washington Spirit forever have my admiration for overcoming their toxic ownership to win last year’s NWSL title. And I don’t even know where to begin with the Burgundy and Gold, whose fans have suffered through decades of Dan Snyder’s death grip.

The worst thing a large-market team can be is irrelevant, and that’s especially dangerous for the Nationals, who are only 18 years old and still trying to cultivate a strong fanbase. Soto was the kind of homegrown face-of-the-franchise that can do it, regardless of the on-field product. Now Alex Ovechkin stands alone as the only cradle-to-grave Washington superstar of this generation.

Nationals fans don’t deserve this gut punch. Of course, as my colleague Shawn Anderson points out, a gut punch would be welcome compared with what we’re actually seeing on South Capitol Street.

Yes, sports is a business. Guess what? Business is transactional — if I’m giving you my hard-earned money, I’d better be getting some enjoyment in return. Even if the Nationals lost 100 games over each of the next three seasons, I’d pay to see Juan Soto play baseball. I ain’t breaking bank to watch Patrick Corbin get rocked every five days.

But the Nationals did. And if I wore a Stephen Strasburg jersey to every Nats game I’ve attended over the last two years, it would have more wear and tear than his actual jersey. If Rizzo ever stops admiring his championship ring, he’ll need to answer for that.

(And by the way — all respect to him and the 2019 Nationals, but from a general-managerial perspective, it’s not like he built a juggernaut that won 110 games and swept through the playoffs. They got hot at the right time. He’s far from incompetent, but this “kiss the ring, peasant” routine is a bit much. Correction: a lot much.)

So Mikey, keep that World Series ring polished and safe. It might be another eight or nine decades before Washington sees another one.

Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is a versatile broadcaster with a broad range of experience. He can be heard in in WTOP's traffic center and on the Sports Desk and his byline is on WTOP.com as a web writer/editor and sports columnist.

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