The Case for Trading Juan Soto Sooner Than Later

To make the 2025+ Nationals the Best They Can Be, if Juan Soto (through agent Scott Boras) Never Makes a Solid Counter-Offer the Nats Would Be Foolish Not to Explore Trades When Soto’s Value is Highest.

I apologize upfront for the length of this post. But there are a LOT of moving parts here, and this is intended to trigger fact-based discussion with supporting logic/arguments (not insults or unsupported assertions of “truth”).

Most of the commentary I’ve seen on the possibility of trading Juan Soto is couches in good/evil terms with a side dish of “only a complete IDIOT” would (consider trading Soto at all) (turn down $440M) (fill in the blank here with your favorite “why X and/or Y are complete idiots). As humans, we like to have villains. Pick your favorite villain (Boras, Rizzo, the Lerners, Steve Angelos—even Juan, though it’s tough for most of us to call Juan a villain).

This post argues something different, if not nearly as emotionally satisfying: that both Juan Soto (through Scot Boras) *and* the Washington Nationals are behaving rationally in maximizing their future success in the current negotiations.

Most disturbingly, that rational approach may well mean that if Juan Soto (through Scot Boras) never offers the Nationals *any* solid counter-offers (as in “Juan will sign if you offer $XXXM with $YYM AAV”), the next Nationals competitive window will likely be sooner and better if the Nationals trade Juan Soto either this summer or (at the latest) before 2023 when the team trading for Soto is trading for at least two full years of team control. This post lays out the rationale for why this is correct.

Assumptions: these are “things treated as fact for purposes of argument.” They can be challenged, but only by presenting a case as to “Here is why this assumption isn’t true.”

“Here’s why this assumption isn’t true” should not include variations on “You’re a lemming!” or “That’s insane/stupid!” (the core of all too many comment discussions). Feel free to disagree with any of these assumptions, but please do so by stating the specific assumption disagreed with and provide a case why you believe it is wrong.

– The Nationals *cannot* force Juan Soto to sign anything

There is no power on earth the Nationals have to *force* Soto to sign a contract extension. I repeat that because it seems to be an assumption so many commentators start from (that it is up to the Nationals to sign Soto and if they do not that is evidence the Nationals “failed”). The. Nationals. Can. Not. Force. Soto. To. Sign. Anything. They do NOT have a gun they can hold to a players head. They just don’t.

The counter-argument often heard is the team should “Just Pay the Player, man!” That argument assumes it is possible for the team to “make an offer they can’t refuse.” See below why it is actually hard to come to a specific dollar figure a player “can’t refuse”. Indeed, every and any offer a team makes suggests to a player/agent seeking top dollar thinks they might get more.

– It is the exception/very unusual for *any* team to sign young stars to long term extensions. The Nationals are the norm, not exceptionally bad at signing young stars to long term contracts.

Sure, it happens (Tatis/SD, Franco/TB, Acuna & Albies/ATL, Trout/LAA). And teams that do it may end up regretting it (Texas/ARod, Miami/Stanton etc) because it is not risk free to do this either. The list of teams that have signed young stars to pricey extensions and went on to win championships is currently…low (maybe NYY/Derek Jeter as the only one?). The LAA are still waiting for Trout’s first playoff win as Trout gets ready to turn 31 this August 7th. (and now in the fourth season of that 12/$426.5/$35.5M AAV contract.

But the majority of young baseball stars do hit free agency. This is *normal* for *all* teams. The NYY could not extend Judge (or Cano back in the day, for that matter). The LAD did not extend Seager or Trea Turner. The BoSox traded Mookie Betts. And on and on.

The Nationals have had an amazing run of success in *getting* superstar young players. What are the odds the same team would get the two players tied for #2 on the MLB All Time Most HR As A Teenager list in the same decade?), But the Nationals *have* extended some of their star young players (Zim, Stras—the latter one of very few Boras clients to sign extensions). That suggests the fact that the Nationals did not sign Harper, Rendon, Turner or (so far) Soto to extensions does not make them unusually bad at signing young stars to extensions. It makes them a normal MLB franchise in this respect.

There are good reasons most players fail to sign extensions:

– Both player and owners can be mistaken on what player “true market value” is.

The Nationals have a track record of coming up with their own estimate of a player’s market value and not going too much higher than that. How good the Nats estimate measures the “true market value” has been an intense point of debate in many of these online chats.

For example, the Nationals offered Desmond more money than anyone ELSE was willing to give him either. In other words, the Nationals *over*-estimated what Desmond’s true market value was.

The Nats are similarly happy they did not match Detroit’s offer for Jordan Zimmerman. And it’s not like Anthony Rendon’s deal has worked out well for the LAA either (though admittedly not as disastrously as the Nats new post-opt-out Strasburg deal). While the player’s “true market value” for JZimm and Rendon ultimately proved higher than the Nats offered, as it turns out the teams that signed those players regretted doing so at those prices. Just as Texas and Miami regretted signing ARod and Stanton to big dollar extensions.

And while there is a long-standing and often highly emotional argument the Nationals ultimately underestimated Bryce Harper’s “true market value”, a similar argument can be made for Bryce Harper and Scot Boras *overestimating* Harper’s “true market value.” Harper’s own perception of his market value as he neared free agency was over $400M (as marked by his curt “Don’t sell me short” to a notional $400M contract). Bryce waited and waited and waited until well into Spring Training (2 March 2019) trying to get something like that perception before finally “settling” (it’s weird to use that word, granted) for 13/$330M. Sure, that’s a TON of money, but over $70M less than the only public figure I know of that Harper gave for what Bryce perceived his true market value as.

The Nats in Winter 2018-19 had a choice—

(1) give Harper what he was looking for (and like Soto–see below–if the Nats never got a real counter-offer from Bryce through Boras they simply didn’t KNOW “how much was enough”);

(2) wait until maybe Bryce’s asking price came down to something more reasonable (ironically, what Harper ended up signing in early March it was arguably reasonable for the player and the team) but risk still not signing Harper AND having all the other major free agents sign elsewhere before they had an answer from Harper; or

(3) move on to sign other players rather than wait around for Harper to accept a more realistic true market value.

The Nats clearly chose (3). As a Nationals fan, I’m quite okay with how 2019 turned out! Aren’t you? But Harper (through Boras) *had* to try free agency to test their perception of Bryce’s “true market value.”

– The *only* way for a player to *know* for absolute certain they received every last dollar the market would bear is to go to free agency.

All it takes is one team to fall in love with you to end up with “stupid money.” Players *like* getting “stupid money” (who wouldn’t, in their place?). And star players at the MLB level tend to by nature accept what their agents tell them when they are asked to “bet on themselves” and go for top dollar.

A free agent player may well be disappointed/fall short of their perceived true market value. Harper fell short of his target. Desmond and Conforto fell way short. If Soto is thinking 15 years/43.333M AAV (649.5M) Soto may well find there aren’t ANY teams—not even Cohen’s Mets—willing to go THAT far. Players can be unrealistic just as teams can be. But the only way to test this is to go to free agency.

– Looking for the “maximum true market value” gives players (and their agents) an incentive NOT to make a counter-offer/actually negotiate with their original team.

Since the only way to PROVE to a player they have an inflated sense of their market value (and for that matter the only way for a player and agent to KNOW they have truly gotten every dollar the market will bear) is to go to free agency, players and their agents have a disincentive to make a solid counter-offer during extension talks as long as the objective is “get top dollar.”

If an agent set *any* counter-offer in stone (“Juan will sign for 12/$440M, $36.7M AAV”), that agent is forestalling any possible larger offers might come in. For example, an agent who tells a team “My guy will sign for X” and hears the team to immediately say “Done!” should be legitimately concerned (unless the player TOLD him to get a deal done, not get top dollar) that the agent just shortchanged the player he’s working for. “We asked for 12/$440 and they accepted it on the spot? Maybe we could have gotten $500M…or maybe $520M”.

Annoying as it may be for us as fans (and for the Nationals, for that matter), Boras’ job (unless/until Juan does a Stras and directs Boras to get an extension done) is to get top dollar for his players. That’s his job. He’s not paid to be popular, he’s paid to get his player top dollar.

That search for top dollar at the end of the day means the *only* way an extension happens for a young player is when the player (like Strasburg) *tells* the agent “Get an extension done” or a player like Acuna or Tatis is willing to accept an offered figure as “top dollar” with no effort to find out if the player could get more by waiting. Most young players simply don’t do that. Clearly, Soto hasn’t done that yet.

– Unless/until Soto (through Boras) makes a definite counter-offer, the Nationals have no solid number on what “just pay the man what he wants” means.

As many have noted, “keep talking and we’ll let you know if it’s good enough for Soto to sign” leaves the Nationals “bidding against themselves.” Literally *any* offer they make becomes the floor for the next possible offer—thus ratcheting up the potential of what “top dollar”/”true market value” means.

Unless/until Soto changes Boras’ orders from “get top dollar” to “get a deal done”, Boras has little incentive to say “good enough” *no matter what the Nationals offer* when he might well get his client more. Indeed, one can argue that Boras’ professional incentives *demand* that he continue asking for more since he can always tell Juan to try the full market anyway.

– Given where the team is now, the next Nationals window of success is unlikely to begin before 2025.

The current Nationals team is nowhere close to competing in 2023 and would only be a strong playoff contender in 2024 with a combination of very good luck and a Cohen-esque explosion of free agent spending. Other than Cade Cavalli, all of the most promising prospects are likely to arrive no earlier than 2025+.

– This matters because (of course) by 2025 absent an extension Soto is no longer under Nationals team control.

So without an extension or a trade, the only value Juan adds to the 2025+ Nationals is the free agency comp pick. At best, an addition to the 2028+ Nationals! This means…

– Maximizing the next Nationals “window”—maximizing team quality in 2025 and beyond—could be built either around a Soto extension or by getting maximum leverage from Soto’s trade value.

The Nationals deliberately kept Harper and Rendon through their walk years because the Nationals were trying to win a title in 2018 (didn’t work out) and 2019 (did!). That’s a conscious choice that made sense in both cases—removing those players from the 2018/19 squads immediately *decreases* the chance for a title in 2018 and/or 2019.

Sadly, that is not where the Nationals are in 2022/23 and probably not 2024. Their chances for a title in 2023 or 2024 are effectively zero (and thus can’t go lower no matter whom they trade). The Nationals need a major talent infusion to start a new “window” like the 2012-2019 window (where the Nationals won more games than any team other than the LA Dodgers–and won one more title than the Dodgers did during that window).

That sought-after next Nationals “window” in 2025 and beyond could be built around
(1) a Soto extension (preferred)—any team with Soto on it is by definition better than otherwise;
(2) a Soto trade made this year or before 2023 begins;
(3) a Soto trade made by the 2023 trade deadline;
(4) a Soto trade made in 2024 before the 2024 trade deadline; or
(5) using the comp pick after Soto departs in free agency in 2025 (woo).

– Time is a real factor for Soto’s trade value—higher now, steadily decreasing over time.

A hard truth is absent a Soto extension (which assumes Soto is willing to sign one vs testing the market), the Nats team in 2025 and later gets worse the longer they wait to trade Soto. The fewer years left of player control, the less quality and quantity of prospects will come back to the Nats for their 2025+ window. There is tons of evidence backing this up.

Even a Max Scherzer “rental” doesn’t bring you two good (not superstar prospects) by himself—it took adding in 1 ½ years of Trea Turner to get Gray and Ruiz. Trading a three-month rental of Manny Machado did not get Baltimore much at all (the highest prospect, Yusniel Diaz, was #84 on MLB Pipeline; the next two guys were the #27 and #28 overall Dodgers prospects). When Harper was tentatively put on the market before the 2018 trade deadline the Nationals apparently did not get any better offers than what the Orioles got that summer for Machado rental.

If the Nationals want true top-of-the-line quality prospects and/or good young MLB players who can contribute to that 2025+ window, the earlier they trade Soto the more likely they are to get those kinds of players. That trade value is maximized before the 2022 trade deadline and is fairly high before the 2023 season.

By the 2023 trade deadline the return probably looks like the Trea/Max deal (1 ½ years of Juan is better than 1 1.2 years of Trea, but that trade included the Max rental). By 2024 it’s a one-year rental for the team trading with the Nats (as with the Dodgers and Trea, they can’t assume they will sign Soto long term either) and they would of course adjust the prospect/player haul accordingly.

– If Juan plays out his contract or is traded it’s best to assume he’s not coming back to the Nats for planning their 2025+ window.

While it is *possible* the Nats could play Soto through 2024 and then re-sign him as a free agent (which is what happened with Strasburg after his opt out), the chance of that never good when competing against 29 other teams.

Similarly, the chances of the Nats pulling an “Aroldis Chapman” trade (getting a good haul of prospects for trade and then re-signing the traded player) are also not good. It would be great (and funny!), but do not make solid long term plans based on those kinds of longshots.

– With the prospective sale of the team, there is an extra incentive for the new owners to either get Soto extended or traded before they take over.

The new owners logically would prefer to either know they are buying a team with Soto on it for the long term or not getting set up to “play the villain” and trade Soto as one of the first things they do with their new team and fan base.

The extension is almost certainly preferred—why not build around one of the brightest stars in the game while giving the fans the chance to root for Soto long term?

– Unfortunately, that extra incentive to extend Soto in turn incentivizes Soto (through Boras) to wait.

Knowing the team sale adds additional pressure to get a deal done just further incentivizes Boras (again, his job is to get Juan top dollar) *not* to set any firm “Juan will sign a deal for X” price. Why not wait and see if the pressure makes the Nationals go higher still with their offer? The “Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement” (BATNA) for Boras/Soto is always to take Soto to the open market in 2025 and take the highest bidder among 30 teams.

– To sign Soto to any extension this year, the Nationals need a solid counter-offer from Soto (through Boras)—one which they are not likely to get.

Since the Nationals the Nationals need to know what Soto’s (through Boras) asking price *is* even if they want to “just pay the man”. There has been no news story at all giving a specific dollar figure where Soto would say “yes”. The only implicit (not a firm counter-offer) I have seen is a quote that Boras publicly believes Max Scherzer’s contract ($43.5M/year) is a logical AAV comp for Soto. Which would make a 15-year deal have a *starting* (not final) cost of $652.5M (!).

The Nationals response to Boras quoting Max’s contract as a good comp for Soto was apparently “Fine, we’ll do the Scherzer deal (i.e., 3 years $43.5M per). Boras declined. QED, Boras is implicitly (though apparently not explicitly in terms of a specific “You offer Juan X years at close to $43.5M per and he’ll sign”) asking for north of $40M per year for 10+ years. But STILL—and this is important–no specific “this is what it takes for Juan to sign.”

– Such a counter-offer will only be provided if Soto changes his specific directions to Boras from “get top dollar” to “get an extension done.”

Bottom line: to maximize their 2025+ window, the Nationals need either a Juan Soto extension or to get the absolute maximum value for Juan in a trade. Which means unless the Nationals actually receive a solid counter-offer from Soto through Boras, the logical move to maximize their 2025+ team quality is to trade Soto sooner rather than later.

As a Nationals fan, I very much hope Juan signs for something that makes him and the team reasonably happy. Even if that comes to something like 15/$475M or (gulp) 15/$500M). Maybe a 12/$440M ($36.6M AAV…still well short of a “Scherzer comp”) would do it. Any of those would allow the Nationals to lay in a long-term plan with Soto as a foundation to build around for their next window as the Corbin/Strasburg contracts come off the books. Meanwhile, Nats fans could watch Soto do his thing at the ballpark for years to come.

But if Juan (through Boras) has not and will not be willing to provide a counter-offer Juan would sign (which is his right, there is nothing the Nationals can do to force it), the time is now (this year or before the 2023 season) for the Nationals to explore a trade package for Soto. As Machado and Scherzer demonstrated, even a HoF-level talent in their walk year just won’t get much as a 3-4 month “rental player.” That would leave the team in poor shape (and the fan base distinctly annoyed) for 2025 and beyond.

Offer two or 2 1/2 seasons of Soto, on the other hand, could generate a far higher return that would put the Nationals in much better footing for 2025 and beyond. If the Nationals do not believe Soto will sign for less than some outlandish figure (again, see $43.333M AAV as a *starting point*–not even a firm offer), the Nationals would be doing their fans and future teams a disservice by not exploring just how big a prospect/player haul trading Juan now could give that 2025+ team.

– This analysis does NOT mean “Nats should trade Juan even if the return is a bag of baseballs.”

The target objective is “best possible team in 2025+.” If the Nationals don’t receive any prospect hauls that dramatically improve that notional 2025+ Nationals team, they can wait until the offseason of 2022/23 to see what may be offered in the future. Which also includes keeping lines of communication open to extend Soto if he is willing to commit to a counter-offer that Juan *would* be willing to sign.

Would any package match the WAR Soto is likely to generate between 2025 and (say) 2037? Who knows? As Tony Conigliaro or Andruw Jones could tell you (and Fernando Tatis may also be showing), there are no guarantees injury or performance will not cut short or prematurely end a stellar young player’s career. Which is, by the way, the extra “insurance” a player gets for signing a slightly lower AAV in a long-term deal vs maximum AAV in a shorter deal with a lower total dollar figure.

– This analysis does assume both Soto (through Boras) and the Nationals are grown-ups and negotiate accordingly.

Soto (through Boras) always has the BATNA of “If you don’t meet my (not yet fully specified” price, I can always just test the market.” Yep, that’s true. No reason to get mad about it.

But the Nationals *also* have a BATNA of “if you don’t even provide a counter-offer to set a price Soto will sign, we can always trade Soto.” Also true, and in no way shows disrespect for Soto. No reason to get mad about that, either.

So here we are. If (1) the Nationals are pretty sure their current team is not in a position to compete for titles in 2023/24 and (2) the Nationals have no idea what (if ANY) contract offer Soto is willing to sign to play with them for 2025 and beyond, why would they NOT explore trade offers? Failing to explore those options would be failing to do due diligence for the next competitive Nationals teams in 2025 and beyond.

A poll as suggested/requested by Veejh. While an RCV (Ranked Choice Voting) option would be nice, that is not available. Ranking the choices based on how many folks pick each one is an (inexact) approximation.

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