There is no conceivable version of a Juan Soto trade that should not make you feel worse about Major League Baseball. Soto is good and fun and promising beyond the wildest dreams of any team for any prospect; dealing him at this stage of his career for future prospects, in order to avoid paying him what the market determines is his worth, is declaring to your fans and to those future prospects and to the rest of the baseball world that there is a level of excellence that a baseball player can attain that is simply too much for the people in charge of the Washington Nationals to tolerate on their roster. That yet another baseball team is prepared to make this declaration—joining approximately 25 other teams that have now made this declaration in one form or another—sucks mondo ass and affirms all of the worst and direst concerns about the health of the sport.
But there is one potential version of a Juan Soto trade that sucks the most. Jim Bowden of The Athletic reported last week that the Nationals would make an effort to offload Patrick Corbin in any Soto deal. “Rival front offices” told CBS Sports last week that they expect the Nationals to foist Corbin’s $70 million contract on whoever ultimately lands their generational slugger. Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat cited sources Wednesday morning in a new report that the Nationals have nudged Corbin onto the table in negotiations on a potential Soto-for-prospects deal. I am making an effort to tamp down the hyperbole, but I am left with no choice but to announce that this is the worst possible thing on the planet. Please, I am begging the Nationals, please do not do this.
Not because Corbin is good. He is extremely not good. By several perfectly respectable measures he is in fact the worst starting pitcher in all of baseball. He is allowing an appalling 12.2 hits per nine innings pitched this season, more than two hits higher than the poor fellow in second place. His pitches are so hittable that despite allowing fewer walks per nine innings than league average, Corbin still leads all qualified pitchers in WHIP. If you subtracted all 36 of his walks, Corbin would still have a higher WHIP than all but five teams in baseball. Frankly, he should issue more walks, if only so that batters would have fewer chances to crank his sorry pitches for extra base hits. The average exit velocity on all of Patrick Corbin’s 355 batted ball events, per Statcast, is 91 miles per hour. In terms of barrels, a stat which measures how many times a pitcher allows contact with “a perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle,” Corbin is in the first percentile. He stinks. Davey Martinez pounds his sweaty hand down on the LOSE button every time he sends Corbin out to start a baseball game.
Nevertheless I, a Nationals fan, am pleading with the Nationals not to add him to any Soto trade.
Not because Corbin is beloved. He is also not that. World Series heroics aside, he has never in particular endeared himself to Nationals fans as a character. Personality wise he is simply there, dishing boilerplate and looking like a generic create-a-player in a baseball video game before you start going sicko mode with the sliders. Back in 2020 he soured quite a lot of goodwill by posting smiling photos from a golf outing with then-President Donald Trump, and twisted the knife by having a red “Keep America Great” Trump campaign hat autographed by the dumpy old idiot himself. I will go ahead and grant that my feelings about this are not entirely pure: Trea Turner also attended this golf outing, and I was crushed when the Nationals traded Turner to kick off last season’s roster teardown. But I cannot tell you with any real confidence how I would feel about Corbin as a dude if he were performing today like Alek Manoah. I can only tell you how I feel about him and his choice of golf buddies while he performs like Patrick Corbin: I would not be too troubled if a raccoon pooped on his dinner plate every evening for the remainder of his life.
Still the thought of the Nationals sending Corbin off in a Soto deal fills me with even more dread and disgust than I feel each time that Corbin takes the mound in a Nationals uniform. The only even semi-credible baseball reward for trading away Juan Soto is a mighty haul of players and prospects who can help the team become as good, one day, as they were at the height of the Soto era. The baseball justification, however flimsy, for pivoting from trying to keep Soto to trying to trade Soto is that the Nationals are not positioned to contend again between now and the end of Soto’s existing contract, and that there’s nothing they can realistically do to their roster in the meantime to meaningfully change that set of circumstances. If they keep Soto for another two seasons without gaining any real tools for significant improvement, they stand to lose him in free agency with nothing, either in realized rewards or in future prospects, to show for it. Obviously they could just commit themselves today to outbidding Soto’s other suitors in free agency, but that of course would require a commitment from ownership to spend money on baseball players, and that’s a luxury enjoyed by approximately three MLB franchises. The Lerner family, engaged in selling the Nationals, cannot be counted upon for such a commitment, and general manager Mike Rizzo obviously does not feel confident waiting around to see if whoever buys the team would reward his patience.
This all sucks insanely hard, but constraints are constraints, even if they’re completely artificial. If Rizzo isn’t allowed to pay Soto what he’s worth, and can’t wait around to see if the next owner—some levered-up ghoul or combination of ghouls who only “have” enough “money” to “own” and “operate” a “sports franchise” in the sense that they can rustle up enough borrowed cash to shovel a handsome profit into the pockets of the outgoing “owner,” who also resolutely spent as close to zero of their own dollars to operate a baseball team as the rules permit—will let him pay Soto what he’s worth, the absolute least he can do is flip Soto for some tools that can be used to make the Nationals good again.
But spending some significant portion of Soto’s value on subtracting Corbin’s contract from the books is extremely not that. For one thing, the Nationals, even with the gruesome contracts belonging to Corbin and Stephen Strasburg weighing down their finances, have just $64 million of salary on the books for 2023, or less than a third of the projected Competitive Balance Tax threshold, and will lose another $15 million off their books before the following summer, dropping them to less than a quarter of the threshold for 2024. Without even getting into the part where the CBT is not supposed to be a salary cap, the Nationals are an incredibly long way from having to worry about Corbin’s salary affecting their ability to pay for good players. They could keep Corbin on the books, give Soto that half-a-billion-dollar contract everyone dreads so much, and still spend lavishly on free agents, without coming within shouting distance of the $310 million the Dodgers had on the books at the start of this regular season.
For another thing, by putting Soto on the market, the Nationals have already signaled that they cannot hope to build a contender over the two remaining years on Corbin’s contract. If Rizzo thought the Nationals could scrap together a credible push for the summit, trading away one of the two or three best hitters in baseball while he is cheaper than he will ever be again would be a non-starter, no matter how loaded with future prospects the potential return. Soto’s enormous trade value at this moment reflects entirely his present-day value to teams who consider themselves anywhere near the championship hunt—if the Nationals thought they could contend, even at the fringes, they would presumably be among the teams hoping to trade for a player in Soto’s position.
Instead they are attempting to trade Soto away. If they can’t contend between now and the end of Soto’s contract, why bother getting rid of Corbin’s salary? Clearly they do not expect to spend an additional $169 million next season in salary on players who cannot help them win games. The Nationals will fall below the CBT no matter what, and it’s not even a salary cap to begin with. A cheap team with no use for Juan freaking Soto will gain nothing by ridding its books of an albatross contract over two non-competitive seasons, and accepting a downgraded haul in a Soto trade would work opposite any organizational goals that can be understood in pure baseball terms. One hundred percent of what would be accomplished by attaching Corbin to Soto would be protecting the cash of ownership, prioritized either because the Lerners want to soak up as much profit as possible between now and when they sell, or because offloading expensive contracts will make a lousy baseball operation cheaper and therefore more attractive to whatever billionaire freak pulls together soaring mountains of debt in order to purchase the team. In all cases, it will make it one million times harder to convince yourself that the Nationals view themselves as a baseball team, and not simply as a cash funnel for investor parasites.
Rizzo said Wednesday morning that the Nationals would not “dilute the return for any player by adding a bad contract,” which so long as you believe he’s the one calling the shots should provide some hope that the Nationals will continue at least pretending to give a rip about the health of their baseball operation. On the other hand, Rizzo said on that same radio show less than two months ago that the Nationals “are not trading Juan Soto,” and that was after Soto had made it known that he was interested in exploring free agency. “We made it clear to him that we’re not interested in trading him and I guess the rest of the world just doesn’t believe it,” said Rizzo back in June, approximately 37 days before telling the world that the Nationals are, in fact, interested in trading Soto. That’s something to keep in mind when the person nominally in charge of Washington’s baseball operation says the Nationals will not use Juan Actual Soto to unload Patrick Damn Corbin. Rizzo’s declaration tracks by baseball logic, but in Washington and elsewhere baseball logic is never more than a secondary concern, and when it troubles a shifting and elusive bottom line, it can simply mean nothing at all.