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Juan Soto Plays For The Hot Stove Now

Juan Soto is congratulated by Luis Garcia after hitting a triple
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

One of the great upsets of the MLB season happened at Dodger Stadium on Monday night. The Nationals, despite holding the worst record in baseball, took out the best team in the National League, 4-1, and tagged all-star pitcher Tony Gonsolin with his first loss of the season. This was just the Nats' fourth win since the start of July and the Dodgers' third loss in that same span. Still, nobody with any sense took this as a meaningful statement from the flailing side from D.C., or a sign that their second half could prove better than their first. Everyone was too busy picturing Juan Soto in Dodger blue.

After getting "Future Dodger!" chants from the fans in L.A. during last week's All-Star Game, Soto returned to collect his Home Run Derby trophy from the visitors' clubhouse as the Nats began a three-game set in California. Though the response from the Dodger crowd was a little more muted with Soto now on the opposing team in a game that counted, the fact that he was playing against the most ambitious team in baseball while his own club took offers for his services still dominated the headlines. And if you did view Monday's game like some kind of audition (as if Soto has anything more to prove), he passed with flying colors. After two unsuccessful at-bats, Soto came up in the fifth, with runners on the corners, two outs, and his team up a run. He watched the first two pitches go by, one ball and one strike, then pummeled a Gonsolin splitter into the ground and watched it bounce up and over the first baseman while managing to stay fair. The hit bopped into the right field corner, forced Mookie Betts to run a marathon to pick it up, and gave Soto a triple, to which he would add a single and a walk before the game was through.

This is more of what we've come to expect from Soto, who even at just 23 years old has seemingly mastered every aspect of hitting a baseball. Combining unparalleled plate discipline with the ability to smash pitches when he does decide to swing, Soto is yet again showing that he's one of the top sluggers in the game today even as he remains about as old as the average rookie. And now one can't help but wonder how much more potential he can unlock if he finds himself in a playoff-caliber lineup that prevents pitchers from making him by far the most-walked player in MLB.

The more pressing question goes something like, "Well, what can the Nationals even conceive of getting for him in a trade?" And the answers so far have been fairly unsatisfying, because the value of Soto is really without equal in the present and unprecedented in historical trade talks. Michael Baumann at The Ringer, writing about the possible impending separation, tries his best to construct a Herschel Walker/Wayne Gretzky-like package that could sway the Nationals, and even the theoretical return he settles on feels comically pointless:

If I were running the Nationals, that’s the kind of package I’d want: A young star position player with multiple years of team control left. Even if that player won’t be as good as Soto, he could still be a franchise player. After that, there’d need to be at least one other good prospect who’s close to MLB-ready, and a handful of others.

As funny as the "trade Juan Soto for worse players" strategy looks on paper, that's usually how these things go, as desperate and misguided franchises buy into the promise of prospects at the expense of what they already have. Chris Sale wins a World Series for the Red Sox while Yoán Moncada and Michael Kopech keep the White Sox firmly in the middle. Miguel Cabrera produces a decade of greatness for the Tigers while guys like Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin fail to save the Marlins from anonymity. What makes this even worse is that Soto is still so incredibly young, and is still under the Nationals' control for at least two-and-a-half more years, so if the team really wanted to he could still easily be the centerpiece of a revamped contender in 2024. Is that a bit of wishful thinking? Sure. But is it less realistic than believing some inferior big-leaguers and some AA magic beans are a fair replacement for Juan Soto?

That the Nationals, and more specifically acting team owner Mark Lerner, are willing to part with Soto at all is a tragedy of greed and complacency. A man for whom money has always been an abstract concept seems to have decided preemptively, years in advance, that he is yet again not going to participate seriously in a free-market competition for the services of another one of his team's most talented and beloved players, because that would make it harder for him to sell the team and buy ... what do you even buy with $2 billion?

The Nationals already looked like a lost cause, with so many of their key pieces from the 2019 World Series already gone or in decline. But there's something particularly sad about the way that every game Soto plays in their uniform, however many are left, has become about the rest of the league more than Washington itself. Starting with this Dodgers series, when he does something cool, the reaction is no longer "that's good for the Nats and their fans." It's now "I wonder how that plays into his imminent departure to a better-run team." Soto is still technically a National. But for all intents and purposes he stopped being one as soon as the owner decided that Soto was expendable.

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