The logical place to start in the midst of the All-Star break is with a first half report card. The St. Louis Cardinals were fine, adequate, B-.
Now, about Juan Soto.
The Washington Nationals outfielder has suddenly become the center of the baseball world’s storm, with reporting over the weekend which has since been confirmed that Soto and his club were unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension, and the club will now seek to trade him , potentially before this year’s Aug. 2 deadlines.
There will be no shortage of interest. Any team acquiring Soto would receive his services for the remainder of this season as well as two more, potentially providing three runs at a championship with one of the game’s greatest players in the heart of the lineup.
When it comes to the Cardinals, they’ll have to answer the same two core questions as everyone else — should they attempt a trade for Soto, and what would it cost?
As to the first: Yes, of course, with all possible haste. Despite entering this season with an established cadre of starting outfielders for the first time in five years, there is no coherent argument against at least exploring the possibility. Harrison Bader is two years from free agency, and Tyler O’Neill has followed a top-10 MVP performance with a half season defined by injuries and underperformance.
Soto, 23, is in the midst of arguably his worst full season in the Majors, and is 62% better than a league average hitter, as measured by OPS+. His on-base percentage is down 60 points from 2021, and is still better than .400.
Baseball Reference lists the five batters most similar to Soto through age 22 thusly: Mike Trout, Frank Robinson, Bryce Harper, Miguel Cabrera, Mickey Mantle. Soto has been fairly and favorably compared to Ted Williams.
A baseball executive who does not pick up the phone is derelict in their duty.
The second question, the cost, is where the rub lies.
Perhaps the most pressing challenge of any deal with the Nationals is navigating their uncertain ownership landscape. With the team for sale to the highest bidder, it’s difficult if not impossible to know what the franchise’s goals are. If it’s simply maximizing the return for Soto, then the price tag will be difficult to fathom. If, instead, it’s creating a leaner and meaner operation, then creative solutions might be possible.
Determining value for a player like Soto is a nearly impossible task. He is in many ways a unicorn — so young he’s still getting better, guaranteed to reach free agency at the peak of his peak, and yet already a World Series champion with the battle-tested resolve of a player who’s also been the centerpiece of a tanking team.
His trade will be without comparison, since he’s also not a pure salary dump in the way other generational talents like Alex Rodríguez or Mike Piazza may have been.
Cardinals have the capital
BaseballTradeValues.com is a website whose function is exactly as advertised — by evaluating years of control, projected value using wins above replacement, and dollars owed to a player, the user can generate a (very) rough sketch of what teams may look at internally when considering swapping one player for another.
The Cardinals, with seven players in Baseball America’s just-released Top 100 Prospects list, have more than enough player capital to complete a deal. Third baseman Jordan Walker, ranked eighth, would be a headline piece in any package.
Selecting among pitcher Matt Liberatore (No. 36), shortstop Masyn Winn (67), outfielder Alec Burleson (75), pitcher Gordon Graceffo (76), catcher Iván Herrera (90) and pitcher Tink Hence (95) to fill out the package — in addition to perhaps an outfielder from the Major League roster and lower-level pitching — forms firm bones for a deal.
Still, it’s probably not reassuring that, when trying to assemble a trade between the clubs that includes just Soto leaving Washington, the simulation tool spits out an error message.
“Whoa! It’s not realistic to add this many players to a trade. Let’s cut it back a bit.”
Imagine Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak reading that sentence to his DC counterpart, Mike Rizzo, verbatim. That’s the point at which Rizzo might actually start paying attention.
That, ultimately, is why an offset is important.
Starter Patrick Corbin, owed nearly $70 million on his current contract which runs for the same length as Soto’s team control, has been one of the least valuable pitchers in baseball since being pushed during Washington’s run to a championship in 2019. Still, he is healthy , and at one point possessed the talent to make him worthy of that contract. His value is inevitably negative. If absorbing it brings Soto, though, it turns a great deal more positive.
For Washington to attach its most problematic contract (outside of Stephen Strasburg’s unmovable millstone) to potentially the highest return in the history of baseball trades seems like a ludicrous notion without also figuring in the context of a team for sale. After all, if not for that landscape, perhaps the extension offer to Soto would’ve been north of $500 million, and the trade conversation would be for naught.
None of the above?
Would potential buyers find the club more valuable for a lack of money on the books? Does a buyer care more about financial flexibility because the Nationals don’t come attached to a massive real estate bundle (the District of Columbia owns Nationals Park)?
Perhaps the answer is none of the above. Maybe, with two more full seasons of control after this one, Washington is content simply to wait, bring in new bosses, and let them sort out the mess.
Soto, though, is the kind of player upon whom teams pin dreams. If the iron is truly as hot as has been reported, there will never be a better time to strike.
For the Cardinals, whose last two championship teams were each built around a troika of superstar hitters, very little matters past the next three years, and perhaps no potential move would matter more.