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Washington Nationals Mailbag No. 1: Say it Ain’t Soto!

I’ve decided to let our loyal audience call the shots, and you all didn’t disappoint! Unsurprisingly, everyone wants to hear about Juan Soto from the perspective of a non-credentialed reporter or national talking head.

I want to lay out some context here, because I want everyone to realize that I’m just like you. I’ve followed this team since it returned to DC. I was there for the highs of Alfonso Soriano in 2006, for example, but man, those weren’t pretty seasons!

The team got much better, beginning in 2012. But looking back, it’s almost all forgettable for me. Maybe it’s a product of being a prisoner of the moment, but much of what’s happened during the last three seasons feels all too familiar.

We’ve seen the Washington Nationals let star after star slip away. We’ve heard the – in hindsight – empty promises that the next guy would be handled differently.

I used to believe them. Heck, I got a Juan Soto shirsey in 2019, and my parents bought me a Soto jersey for my birthday in April. The Nationals told us Soto, much like stars past, would be different. They had me hook, line and sinker.

Guess what? For better or worse, this time is different! Rather than waiting until his contract is almost up, the Nationals are actively negotiating with Soto. It’s convoluted by numerous factors, though, from a transfer in team ownership to an on-field product that’s regressed further and quicker than anyone could’ve expected, with a splash of a greedy agent holding the organization hostage.

With that, here’s my best, hopefully not too somber effort at answering a handful of your questions:

You’re a prospective new Nats owner. Do you want 1) a shot to sign or trade Soto with the team under your ownership or 2) for the Lerners & Rizzo to resolve the matter before you buy the franchise? In either case, why and how clear cut is the answer here? – David V. (@DvdBmDdC on Twitter)

Nothing like starting my first mailbag with a hard-hitting question! My initial instinct is to say that a new owner deserves the right to call their own shots, but is that fair to the Lerners?

To be quite honest, I think the ideal answer is that it should be collaborative between the Lerners, Rizzo, and the applicants to purchase the franchise – keep in mind, it’s not as if there’s only one prospective buyer. The team will presumably be awarded to the highest bidder, but knowing what each desired-purchasing party wants will drive up the Lerner’s bargaining power, and in turn the asking price.

My understanding of franchise valuation is that there’s a direct correlation between control of superstar talent and market value of the organization. In other words, regardless of how much Soto is paid, it’s more valuable on the open market to have him for a decade-plus than for two years, and the club is least valuable without him – regardless of what the team might recoup in a trade for him.

Therefore, the Lerners are best served financially – not to mention emotionally – if they keep and ideally extend Soto.

From a buyer’s perspective, it depends. Some would prefer to know what they’re walking into, and others would want to make an immediate splash. One thing that does seem clear, though, is that a richer owner is more likely to want Soto for the long haul, and is obviously better equipped to make that happen.

I can’t tell you who’s in the lead to buy the team, nor their net worth – which I believe should play a notable role in the direction taken with Soto. Any sort of pecking order might be completely unknown internally at this point, anyway.

Do you think a new ownership group would be able to extend Juan Soto, or is Soto hitting free agency just an inevitability? – Minor League Sports Town (@DCSportsCast on Twitter)

I think it’s open season. I tend to believe that the Nationals will make another offer to Soto, and I think they’d prefer to drag out any trade negotiations until closer to the sale of the team – which Barry Svrluga of the Washington Posthas speculated should happen by the Winter Meetings in December.

Still, barring a sale of the team to the proverbial Steve Cohen type, I think Soto’s next contract will either come from another organization in the next couple seasons or in free agency. Without a preposterously rich owner, or perhaps Ted Leonsis, the odds of an extension from the Nationals to Soto seem slim.

I wouldn’t say any relationships are damaged, but Soto’s super-agent Scott Boras seems unwilling to back down from his demands: an earth-shattering new contract. That’s not a lane I currently expect the Nationals to go any further down. But again, if the new owner’s pockets are deeper than I expect, that changes this equation completely.

Where do we draw the line for a “fair handling of Soto?” …I understand the financial implications that come with [signing players to long, expensive contracts] and honestly, from an analytical perspective, paying guys massive contracts isn’t the smartest. Do we really trust the team to get an appropriate haul for him? Especially while they still have team control on his contract? If we get X number of top 100 prospects, is that enough? – Geoffrey B.

Geoffrey noted some of the recent events that cast more than a shadow of doubt, in terms of Washington’s ability to extend or re-sign Juan Soto. There have been rumors (although unconfirmed) that the Nationals leaked the terms of the two offers they’ve made to Soto – most recently 15 years for $440 million. They also didn’t provide him a charter flight to the All-Star Game. Everywhere he’s been throughout the past couple weeks, including the All-Star festivities, he’s been met with a bevy of questions about his future, what he wants, and how we’ve gotten to this point.

Soto seems to want to stay in Washington, but he’s also stated that he wants to win, and Scott Boras… well, let’s just say I think he wants Juan Soto to be his new Alex Rodriguez. For context, A-Rod skewed the market off its axis with a 10 year, $252 million – estimated present day equivalent of $397 million – contract he signed in December of 2000.

There are multiple questions worth taking into account here that have nothing to do with Washington’s ability to hand out the required sum of money, and Geoffrey did a good job laying them out. Is signing Soto to the deal he likely commands a smart baseball decision, especially when it comes to constructing a complete roster, and if not, can they realistically receive commensurate value back in a trade?

To the former, it seems that the proof may be in the pudding. The Nationals have posted among the worst win/loss records in the league each of the last three seasons with Soto on the roster, and this year’s product has bottomed out to historically poor proportions in the franchise’s history since relocating to DC. Also, look at the Angels. They have arguably the two best players in the sport plus an additional gifted hitter. Yet year in and year out, the team stinks. It’s because they have no depth. A mega-contract for Soto could do the same to the Nationals.

Regarding whether they can put together a fair trade, I think the answer is more favorable – although it’s far from simple and will force the acquiring team to give up considerably more than they’d prefer. In my estimation, it will likely require (although somewhat flexible) two highly-controllable contributors that are already in the majors; three top 100 prospects, two in the top 50, and/or one of the top 20 league-wide; and a total of at least four prospects in an organization’s top 10, three of which should be in the club’s top five – at worst.

Although I’m skeptical about the ramifications of retaining Soto long-term, and in spite of the fact that I think a trade is possible to make, they shouldn’t rush this. There’s no need to make a trade now. The Nats should only accept an offer that they feel good about.

Verdugo, Houck, Bello, Downs, Mata, and Jordan for Soto as long as he’s got an extension signed in Boston. Sign me up. – Rafael Devers Fan Account (@FanAccountSzn on Twitter)

This admittedly wasn’t a direct response to my mailbag. However, I received it at approximately the same time, and it riled up the Nats Twittersphere.

I don’t think this is a trade worth accepting, but I’d allow it to start a conversation with Boston.

Outfielder Alex Verdugo is having somewhat of a down season, but was an above average hitter each year from 2019-21 and is under club control through 2024. Right-handed pitcher Tanner Houck is controllable through 2027 and already has proven starter and closer capability. Fellow righty Brayan Bello is Boston’s No. 3 prospect and No. 44 overall (per MLB Pipeline) who has split this season between three levels (Double-A through the majors). Infielder Jeter Downs has similarly gotten some time in the big leagues this season and is a borderline top 100 prospect. Bryan Mata, another right-hander, has pitched as high as Double-A this season and is Boston’s No. 7 prospect, but he missed last season following Tommy John surgery. Lastly, No. 6 prospect Blaze Jordan is a hard-hitting third baseman (for now) in Low-A.

In other words, that’s a solid veteran (but young) outfielder who should be re-signable, a young relatively high-upside pitcher who could fill multiple roles, two big league-ready top 100 prospects, and two more prospects clearly within a team’s top 10.

It’s a decent package, but I don’t think it’s quite fair value, and there will be better options out there from other teams. I’d imagine the Nationals would target one of shortstop Marcelo Mayer and first baseman Tristan Casas (two prospects in the No. 10-15 range league-wide), and perhaps drop one or two of the guys in this proposed package.

Mike McDaniel of brought up a great point in reply, though. The Red Sox might not even be major buyers at the Trade Deadline – they could turn into sellers and begin a retool this offseason. With that in mind, they probably wouldn’t part with an elite prospect. If anything, they seem like suitors for Josh Bell, given their largely ineffective patchwork solution at first base.

Some of the teams that seem like cleaner trade partners for Soto include the Yankees, Mets, Cardinals, Dodgers, Padres and Giants. They all have at least two of the following three traits: money, a strong farm system/young big leaguers with upside, and desperation to win now.

Where does Papelbon rank in worst Nats eras? – Alex Y. (@0Simalex2 on Twitter)

I acknowledge that these mailbag articles can get heavy and deep into the weeds analytically, so I’d like to close them with a lighthearted question. In this case, we’ll transition from a Boston trade proposal to a discussion surrounding legendary former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Remember that year he spent in Washington? Stretching across two seasons from 2015-16 after acquiring him from the Phillies via a midseason trade, Papelbon was a closer/”persona non grata” for the Nationals. Once a postseason hero and six-time All-Star, he perhaps became better known as the “D.C. Strangler” for seemingly choking out Bryce Harper after the outfielder didn’t run out a pop-up to first base.

Funny enough, he’s returned to the news – and once again, it’s not for good reasons. First, he voiced his opinions about Harper and the Phillies. Then a few days later, he decided to rip the Red Sox, taking aim at general manager Chaim Bloom .

As for the era in itself, it’s difficult to define. The 2015 season with Matt Williams was ugly, but the following year behind Dusty Baker was a 95-67 season, which could only be described as a success. Still, that was obviously no thanks to Papelbon, who was released in August with more than $3 million remaining on his contract. He never took a major league mound again. In spite of his great years, the MLB effectively said “goodbye, and good riddance.”

Nonetheless, I wonder whether the Nationals have been chasing their next – and perhaps a better version of – Papelbon in recent seasons. From a physical perspective, and in terms of the role they want him to fill, Tanner Rainey draws some natural comparisons. Much like Papelbon, however, these efforts have been primarily unsuccessful – despite the sporadically impressive flashes that he’s shown.

So to answer your question, Alex, maybe the era isn’t over.

What’s On Tap

I would’ve written about the MLB Draft, but I already discussed my thoughts on – and correctly predicted – Washington’s No. 5 overall selection (18-year-old outfielder Elijah Green) in my last article.

I intend to offer a preview story on this year’s Trade Deadline, in which I’ll focus on more players than just Soto – and perhaps more extensive insight on those others.

Down the line, I’ll also continue these mailbag-style articles. There are a couple questions I received that I’m saving for later editions of the mailbag. However, I’m open to and encourage more submissions. You can email us, comment on this story, or tweet me @stephen_newman1 with any Nationals-related questions you have. I fully intend to answer any reasonable question we receive.


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Tuesday, 07 February 2023

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