Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto is making headlines. He won the 2022 Home Run Derby, and he also might not be National much longer.
With news dropping just before the All-Star break that there was an impasse in contract extension negotiations with the Nationals, who were now willing to discuss possible trade scenarios for Soto. This comes only weeks after their General Manager Mike Rizzo said he would not consider trading the Nationals’ star outfielder. In light of all of this, what could the Juan Soto trade sweepstakes represent for the Toronto Blue Jays?
We can start with a fairly simple, but quite important question, what does Juan Soto represent? Well, since breaking into the major leagues in 2018 at the age of 19 he has experienced the highs of winning a world series in 2019 and the lows of the Nationals’ residence in the basement of the National League East in each season since. Throughout all of this, he has been one the better hitters in all of major league baseball and inspired comparisons to Red Sox great Ted Williams due to his elite on-base skills.
Now those comparisons to Ted Williams may be a bit much. He certainly had a Williams-esque season during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, slashing (BA/OBP/SLG) .351/.490/.695 all of which led the league, as did his 217 OPS+ (which takes on-base and slugging percentage and adjusts them for league conditions, with a score of 100 representing league average). This compares quite well to Williams’ 1942 season, his last before leaving to serve in world war two, where he had an OPS+ of 216. Despite Soto’s bid taking place over 47 games, he was still able to match Williams at just 21 years old, making it quite the accomplishment regardless of the pandemic-related caveats.
The thing is, Williams consistently and repeatedly put together full seasons like the one Soto had in 2020 and Soto has not exactly replicated that level of production since then. At the all-star break in 2022, Soto is sitting with a .250/.405/.497 slash line and an OPS+ of 162. Still elite, but not at the best in the game level he hit in 2020. It should be noted he has remained elite despite playing on a floundering Nationals team that may suppress some of his offensive production, most teams looking to acquire Soto could provide him with a more potent offensive environment to play within. However, Soto put together his historic 2020 campaign on a similarly bad Nationals team. If anything, he is better protected in the Nationals’ 2022 lineup, hitting second with Nelson Cruz and Josh Bell hitting behind him, as opposed to hitting clean-up in front of Howie Kendrick in 2020.
Even noting these caveats about comparisons, Soto is still an elite talent who any team would be foolish not to pursue if they think they can acquire him. The most similar comparisons for his career to date from baseball reference include Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Giancarlo Stanton, and Miguel Cabrera. Early career Miguel Cabrera may be the best comparison for Soto. As a well-rounded hitter who combines elite contact and on-base skills with strong power at the dish, which combine to make the case for their star status. Just do not expect much from them on the defense. Altogether, a left-handed hitting companion for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. atop American League leaderboards and the Blue Jays lineup would be a monumental addition for the Blue Jays.
Kaitlyn McGrath of the Athletic proposed a trade package of major leaguers Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Cavan Biggio, plus top prospects Gabriel Moreno, Jordan Groshans, Orelvis Martinez, and Ricky Tiedeman, with Nate Pearson also thrown in. This is a good starting point when thinking about the colossal package it could take to acquire Soto. This feels like it could be worth it for the Blue Jays, even operating under the assumption that there is no extension in place. Given that Soto plays right field one of Teoscar Hernandez or Gurriel Jr. would likely make sense to part with. The prospect haul does seem like a lot, but the likelihood any one of those players becomes as valuable to Blue Jays as Soto would be over the next two seasons is really quite small. Just look at the case of Nate Pearson if you are overly concerned with giving up a top prospect. Really any deal that does not include Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and maybe Alek Manoah is probably palatable for the Blue Jays.
You may be wondering why I did not include shortstop Bo Bichette in that last point. I think there is a scenario where you can trade for Juan Soto with an extension in place and in that case including Bichette becomes more reasonable. Bichette has been struggling at the plate in 2022 and is by no means an elite defender at shortstop, despite his penchant for dazzling plays.
But his standout 2021 season gives him staying power as a star young player. If you include Bichette but are able to hold onto Biggio and Groshans for example you could have a middle infield with Santiago Espinal at shortstop and Biggio/Groshans (who has played shortstop in the minors) at second base. Swapping out Bichette for Soto at the top of the order improves the Blue Jays’ offence right now, while Espinal could give you better defence at shortstop and is a good enough hitter for that everyday role. At a minimum, this could improve the Blue Jays during this period of contention over the next two years, even if without an extension in place it represents a much bigger risk.
Also, a package with Gurriel Jr. and Bichette as the headlining major league players could also be more attractive to the Nationals. As Bichette is the kind of young major league talent that is prized above just a collection of prospects. Mind you this scenario only makes complete sense for the Blue Jays if you can trade for and extend Soto in one fell swoop, which seems unlikely in the case of him coming to Toronto and with his free agency just two seasons away. Otherwise, you are taking a pretty big risk of narrowing your contending window, even if you improve your outlook for the next two and a half seasons. But if a trade and extend scenario were to transpire, Bichette may make a fair bit of sense to include in the deal for financial reasons, as the prospect of having to contend with extending Soto, Guerrero Jr. and Bichette may prove too rich for Rogers’ books in the long run.
This is not true in a strictly financial sense for Rogers, as money problems for a company like Rogers are honestly hard to comprehend. To put it into perspective, even two record-breaking $500 million dollar plus extensions totaling over $1 billion dollars for Guerrero Jr. and Soto would be a relatively small deal for a company that has been embroiled in a $26 billion dollar merger with Shaw Communications. Put this way the Blue Jays are a relatively small part of Rogers’ operating expenses and extending all three is feasible.
But given MLB’s competitive balance tax and de-facto salary cap sits at $230 million and only rises to $244 million by 2026, it becomes more tricky. If Soto and Guerrero Jr. were making a combined $90 million per season, a roughly $30 million a year extension for Bichette would make things quite tight for the Blue Jays with existing commitments to George Springer, Kevin Gausman, and Jose Berrios, and this is before considering what Alek Manoah may eventually be entitled to make in the future. In my opinion, there is no issue with these players striving to make the most money they can during their careers, and in a world where MLB teams could spend with complete freedom, Rogers could theoretically afford to run a big market payroll. But given current market conditions, in the perhaps idealistic scenario where the Blue Jays trade for and extend Juan Soto, it begins to make more sense to include Bo Bichette in the deal. Ultimately, the ideal scenario may be to trade for Soto and keep Bichette, as that is likely the locks in the strongest Blue Jays roster from 2022 onwards. But the wider implications of a Juan Soto trade bring up interesting scenarios involving Bichette.
Overall, the possible effects of the Juan Soto trade, whether it happens over the next two weeks or two years, do not only pertain to the Blue Jays if they are his eventual destination. The deal could be particularly impactful for the Blue Jays because other destinations like the New York Yankees pose immediate threats. Whereas a destination like the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Mets could make it more likely that Aaron Judge extends his stay with the Yankees after this season.
Wherever Soto ends up, for pretty much every team in MLB, the eventual trade is sure to have knock-on effects. So it will be interesting to see how it may affect the Blue Jays whether they are directly involved or not.
(All stats are taken from Baseball Reference, unless otherwise indicated.)