If you asked me entering this season who the Nationals were likely to trade at this year’s deadline, I would’ve spewed off a somewhat extensive list of names. Some of them materialized, while many of them did not.
I would’ve never included Juan Soto, though.
Yet here we are, with Soto and Josh Bell both heading out west to San Diego, adding to a lineup that already includes Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr.
The struggles of the team, combined with Scott Boras once again puffing out his chest in contract negotiations, arguably severed the long-term relationship between Soto and the Nationals. After their camp rejected a 15-year, $440 million new contract, it became clear that reaching free agency was inevitable and a priority for Soto and Boras – and we’ve all seen how risky that game is.
Given these financial demands and poor overall outlook for the franchise, it wasn’t too difficult to understand that the Nationals should start fielding offers on Soto – mostly to just do their due diligence.
But to pull the trigger still sounded far-fetched.
As is the case at every Trade Deadline, the debate over the value of prospects arose. It seemed from the onset that most teams – regardless of their roster needs – were unwilling to offload their best young asset or two. That sounds ridiculous, right? Teams were willing to pass on acquiring Juan Soto – a young, generational hitter – because they were enamored with someone who hadn’t proven anything at the big league level.
Once the dust began to settle and we wound down to the final 72 hours ahead of the deadline, three frontrunners for Soto emerged: the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.
Having watched the Cardinals live at Nationals Park on Saturday night, however, I was underwhelmed by the young big leaguers they might include, namely Dylan Carlson and Nolan Gorman. Over the next 24 hours, the major reports began to align with my observation.
With the Cardinals seemingly unwilling to part with top prospect Jordan Walker or the combination of Carlson and Gorman, and the Dodgers equally hesitant to part with infielder Gavin Lux or other major league-ready talent, San Diego became the only possible non-Washington destination for Soto. The only question: would the Nationals be able to get the precise chips they wanted from the Padres?
Outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood and shortstop C.J. Abrams felt like essential inclusions, but more would also be required. It wasn’t clear, however, if they could get what they wanted without attaching another player.
On deadline day, reports ran rampant that the Nationals would package fellow star hitter Josh Bell with Soto. With Bell to boost the value on their end, the Nationals began demanding players such as former No. 1 overall pitching prospect MacKenzie Gore and quickly-ascending right-hander Jarlin Susana in the trade.
Where things got weird was in finalizing the last piece. Initially, the trade was proposed to include first baseman Eric Hosmer, who has underperformed on a large contract. The plan was to pay his salary for the rest of this year, with San Diego on the hook for his deal’s final three seasons. However, Washington was included on Hosmer’s no-trade list, and he chose to reject his inclusion.
The Nationals pivoted to first baseman/designated hitter Luke Voit, who’s hit better than Hosmer recently and is under cheap club control through 2024. I’m not sure why they thought that was equal value to Hosmer, but it’s impossible to complain about from a Nationals perspective.
With this deal signed, sealed and delivered, it became a higher-profile trade in the history of these franchises than the one that netted the Nationals Trea Turner and Joe Ross, during general manager A.J. Preller’s early days in San Diego. Although it’s once again part of a series of major moves (including acquiring closer Josh Hader from the Brewers), it doesn’t look like Preller got “fleeced” this time.
All told, the Nationals added five of the Padres top young assets, none of whom have more than half a season of major league experience. Abrams (shortstop) entered the year as a top 10 prospect in the league and should be a staple in the middle infield and potentially top of the lineup. Hassell (center fielder) is a consensus top 25 prospect who profiles as a potential five-tool player. Gore (left-handed starter) is a former top pitching prospect who’s on an innings limit but has graduated from the minor leagues. Wood (outfielder) has an Aaron Judge-like frame and similar tools to recent draftee Elijah Green – who was a high school teammate of Wood. Susana (right-handed starter) is equally large (6-foot-6 and 235 pounds) with a triple-digits fastball, although he’s still pitching at the Rookie level, below A-ball. And of course, Voit is a pure slugger who projects as Washington’s new starting first baseman and could potentially be flipped at next year’s deadline, when he’ll still be under contract for another year.
Everyone’s said this, but I’ll say it again: This is a historic haul. I can’t think of an instance when a team drained someone’s farm system to this extent. However, that doesn’t mean they’ll all be immediate contributors.
Workload monitoring aside, Gore will play an immediate role for the Nationals. Abrams has been optioned to Triple-A Rochester, but will be back up very soon – similarly to how Washington handled Keibert Ruiz last year. Hassell likely debuts in the majors in the second half of next season, and Woods and Susana are longer-term projections with high ceilings. I’d expect Hassell to report to High-A Wilmington (although Double-A Harrisburg is a possibility), Wood to Low-A Fredericksburg, and Susana to the Florida Complex League.
Is This Fair Value?
Everyone needs to understand that it’s highly unlikely that any of these players become as productive as Juan Soto. However, whenever you’re dealt this many prospects that are held in such high regard, the odds of one or multiple of them becoming very successful players increases significantly.
The realistic hope is that most of these prospects – Voit doesn’t count in this discussion – become fixtures on the roster in a meaningful role, and that two of them become at least borderline All Stars during their rookie deals – in essence, their first six seasons.
More likely than not, one of these players will flame out and provide very little –if anything – of consequence. Another will probably be a marginal big leaguer, perhaps a bench player. It’s important that two of them become highly impactful, though. If I was a betting man, I’d say you’re probably banking on Hassell and one of Abrams, Gore and Wood.
With that said, I think this group has pretty favorable odds of producing to the extent it needs to. But even if it doesn’t, they’re additions to the overall prospect pool.
The Farm Is For Real Now
At the beginning of last season, credible outlets viewed Washington’s farm system as the worst in the sport. That improved significantly with the additions of Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz last season. Of course, they naturally graduated from prospect status, and the farm dropped down to No. 24 according to Fangraphs ahead of this year’s deadline.
With the additions made in the Soto-Bell blockbuster trade, Fangraphs boosted the Nationals prospect pool to No. 8 in the league. They also noted that if Gore – who graduated less than two weeks ago – was still rated as a prospect, that ranking would improve to No. 5.
What About Everyone Else?
The first trade the Nationals made came the day before the deadline, when they shipped utilityman Ehire Adrianza to the Atlanta Braves. This returns Adrianza to his 2021 home, where he had substantially more success, to presumably fill a bench role. In return, the Nationals received outfielder Trey Harris, Atlanta’s No. 29 prospect per MLB Pipeline. Harris was the Braves’ minor league offensive player of the year in 2019, but has slowed down since the pandemic. He’s beginning his tenure with the Nationals organization in Double-A.
Other than that, nothing happened. Washington decided to keep veteran slugger Nelson Cruz; journeyman infielders Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco; outfielders Victor Robles and Yadiel Hernandez; and the entire pitching staff, including starter Patrick Corbin and relievers Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., and Steve Cishek.
Mike Rizzo and company should’ve been able to do more. Frankly, it’s pretty inexcusable that many of these players whose contracts expire this offseason are still on this team – there was no reason to keep them, and they could’ve added to their minor league system by dumping them. Maybe the San Diego deal exhausted the front office, considering its impact. Nonetheless, the Nationals made a decision on their two most important pieces, which is ultimately what’s the most important.
The Rest Of This Season
I’d imagine we start seeing some new young players debut in Washington soon. In addition to Abrams and Gore, starting pitchers Cade Cavalli and Cole Henry should probably get a taste of the big leagues entering 2023. The team didn’t exactly open up space for them, though – not that the current starting rotation is much of a roadblock.
First base and an outfield spot obviously opened up. The former will go to Luke Voit, but the latter is more open. Triple-A journeyman Joey Meneses made his big league debut prior to Voit’s roster activation – and hit his first home run. Josh Palacios made his Nationals debut as the starting right fielder, but that spot will more commonly go to the remaining of Washington’s three veterans – in this case, it was Lane Thomas who sat on the bench until entering as a defensive sub in the eighth inning.
Aside from that, nothing has truly changed. That wasn’t supposed to be the case, but that’s the result of a largely inactive deadline.
But of course, that’s glossing over the most important point. The Nationals will have to find a way to rally the troops without their two best players. With more opportunity, some players are able to show their true potential. It’ll take plenty of guys like that to offset Soto and Bell down the stretch of this season. Beyond that, the fate of the team will be decided once an ownership change comes.
Until then, enjoy the team the best you can. Maybe go to one of the games against the Padres next weekend, if you can stomach it. That’s what I’ll be doing!