What’s next for Juan Soto? Potential landing spots, the Nationals’ strategy and more

There are building blocks to almost every trade, with the final transaction typically built on a slow, methodical process through which the teams involved evaluate, theorize, swap concepts and haggle.

But as the Juan Soto talks play out and Washington general manager Mike Rizzo weighs his options, Rizzo’s peers say he has a long history of moving quickly — and decisively. What Rizzo tends to do, rival executives say, is to identify the prospects he wants from a particular organization and then focus his deal-making with that team. “We wanted to talk about [Max] Scherzer and [Trea] Turner,” an NL decision-maker said, “but it felt like we weren’t really even allowed in the room. It seemed like Rizz kind of made up his mind that he wanted Keibert Ruiz and then worked with the Dodgers.”

If the Soto talks play out similarly, then, what will matter the most in these negotiations is who Rizzo wants to augment the Nationals’ organization. The message that other clubs have gotten from Washington is that the team wants major-league-ready players — young players on cheap contracts who are already in the big leagues or close to making their debuts.

Soon enough, rival executives will ascertain whether Rizzo — who did not return a message for this article — prefers shortstop C.J. Abrams and/or pitcher Mackenzie Gore, who might be the best trade chips the Padres are willing to offer. Or would Rizzo rather comb through the voluminous wave of position-player prospects the Cardinals could offer, from Nolan Gorman to Jordan Walker to Dylan Carlson. And there are other options who could be made available, if Rizzo prefers to attempt to build a deal around Yankees shortstop prospect Anthony Volpe, or the Giants’ Marco Luciano.

Whoever is included, a deal for Soto is a real possibility before the Aug. 2 trade deadline, according to multiple rival executives — partly because his trade value will only decline year to year, in concert with his rising salary, and partly because of the perception that the ongoing sale of the team is a driving force. The incoming owners could want the Soto situation resolved, one way or the other, before they take over the team, lest they be left with the unpalatable task of trading a future Hall of Famer.

At least two rival execs believe this is just a drill for the Nationals, a time to gather information for the time when Washington is better prepared to make what will be a monumental trade.

Whenever the Nationals pull it off, it would see Soto, 23, become the most significant young player traded since 24-year-old Babe Ruth was dealt from the Red Sox to the Yankees in December 1919. Soto’s plate discipline separates him from the best hitters of this era, and in most eras; so far in his career, he has more walks (452) than strikeouts (406), with a career-adjusted OPS+ of 160, better than most all-time greats. Henry Aaron’s career adjusted OPS+ was 155; Stan Musial’s 159.

Soto would be a perfect fit for every team, of course, including small-market clubs. As one executive noted, the fact that Soto is not locked into a massive long-term deal means that even the teams with the most modest budgets could get involved. Taking on Soto’s remaining salary would not wreck a payroll: He is making $17.1 million this year, and is arbitration eligible — he could see salary jumps into the range of $23-$24 million next year and close to $30 million in 2024 before he reaches free agency.

“You saw in the spring how the Rays took a shot at signing Freddie Freeman,” noted one evaluator. “Any team could take on Soto and instantly make their lineup so much better.”

The Padres are seen by rival executives as perhaps the most motivated team in the trade market, with an aggressive all-in mentality. Owner Peter Seidler has funded one of the highest payrolls in baseball, highlighted by Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr., and the club has had internal discussions about pursuing some of the bigger names in free agency in the next couple of years — so presumably, they’d be ready to move prospects for Soto. Seidler has become his generation’s Mike Ilitch, devoted to the idea of building a winner for his city, even if that means spending beyond the industry’s expectation for his team.

There are plenty of other contenders: The Blue Jays, in the midst of a window of opportunity for their young core of players, desperately need a left-handed hitter to complement the right-handed-hitting Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The Dodgers constantly make big aggressive moves, like for Scherzer and Turner last summer, but within the organization, there is confidence in the excellence of the current roster and some concern about the high number of prospects dealt in recent years. The Cardinals’ primary need of the moment might be for high-end pitching, rather than a hitter — even one as great as Soto. The White Sox, like the Padres, are in a win-now mode. The Rangers have the payroll and prospect wealth to have some flexibility to make a big move. The Mets and Braves might have the desire for Soto, but it’s not yet clear whether the Nationals would even consider installing Soto with the division rivals that they must now chase. The Yankees are a franchise of extraordinary wealth and financial capability, but one organization source said that at the moment, the focus within the front office is on American League MVP candidate Aaron Judge, who will be eligible for free agency in the fall. Said a rival exec: “Actually, getting Soto would give them an excuse to move on from Judge — and they’d get the younger player, like the Braves getting [Matt Olson] after they couldn’t sign Freeman.”

Because Soto does not have any no-trade rights and is under team control for another two and a half seasons, a team that acquires him in a deal now could even flip him before he reaches free agency to recoup some prospect value. The evaluator picked out the Guardians as an example: “They have a good [farm] system and could use those assets now and get him to try to win this year, and then sometime in 2023 or 2024, he could flip him to another team — and he would have plenty of value. He’s that good.”

After an emotional week for Soto — the leak of his rejection of the Nats’ $440 million, 15-year offer, the trip to Los Angeles, a Home Run Derby win — some rival officials now believe that the leak serves both the player and the team. For Soto and agent Scott Boras, it sets a extraordinary floor for future negotiations, and for the Nationals, it is a message to fans that yes, they tried to keep Soto with what would have been a record-setting deal. It’s also a tangible demonstration to the industry of the exceptional value in the slugger — something the team certainly hopes potential trade partners will keep in mind.

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