Image credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Washington Nationals trade RF Juan Soto and 1B Josh Bell to San Diego Padres for 1B Luke Voit, LHP MacKenzie Gore, SS CJ Abrams, OF Robert Hassell III, OF James Wood, and RHP Jarlin Susana.
Nearly a decade ago, the Astros popularized a particular type of resource accumulation, succinctly summarized in Sarah Gailey’s novel The Echo Wife:
It was one of the only truly useful things she ever taught me: Stress stimulates growth. Sometimes, in order to make something develop in the right direction, you have to hurt it.
Baseball fans have been learning this lesson as long as the sport’s been turned into a collection of businesses, but there is no becoming inured. The Nationals have been terrible for long years at various points, as have their trade partners; this isn’t the first time it’s felt less pruning than slash-and-burn. If this is the Padres’ moment of growth, they’ve certainly been stimulated by stress. On the other side of the paradigm, the Nationals put in something more than a token offer to keep Juan Soto—if maybe less than their best; had their new and final offer been substantially different than the one reported weeks ago, one senses it would have been disclosed—but the transaction for weeks seemed as inevitable as it was impossible. With Patrick Corbin plodding toward 20 losses for the first time in two decades, the farm system seasons away from substantial help a year into the rebuild, and the other extant franchise icon, Stephen Strasburg, seemingly fighting for his career, it’s obvious why there was pressure to trade Soto, and why it must have felt there was a clock. But even with the Nats at their nadir, some fortunes shift quickly, and there was no more concrete way to commit to the long game than by relinquishing two-and-a-half seasons of control over a 23-year-old with a résumé that takes most superstars another half–decade to author.
Extensions are de rigeur across the league, seemingly arrived at mostly by the offering team’s willingness to meet a particular number that is generally 20% under open-market value or more. It’s not hard to draw up the worst-case scenario for Washington because it’s the same concern that drags along the process of every trade, simply drawn out as far as it goes. If they’re erecting a statue of Soto in front of Petco Park in 20 years, this day will be remembered. The Rizzo front office didn’t appear to have much choice in the matter, except which offer they went with; like any triage situation, the best compliment that can be paid to the front office is that they did as much as they could. The four players who occupied the top of San Diego’s most recent BP Top 10 now wear Washington hats. That was about what they were publicly looking for, and in the same deal they got probably the Padres’ top rising minor leaguer this year, covering the addition of Bell. (He is taking home an identical $10 million this year to Kyle Schwarber’s 2021 salary, who in a similarly loud campaign last summer a half-season of his rights brought another emergent young pitcher to D.C.)
The Padres were already a good baseball team. Even without Soto, Josh Hader, and other new friends, they had one of the majors’ best rotations, several reliable late-innings options, and the possible NL MVP in Manny Machado. All that without Fernando Tatis Jr., now edging towards a season debut. It seemed unlikely they’d crash and burn as they did in the hottest part of last summer, even if they left a few notable blemishes stippling their lineup through trade season (never a likelihood with A.J. Preller guiding the front office). The time, though, has only more clearly become the present: as I pointed out in the Hader TA, the opt-out halfway through Machado’s 10-year deal seems at least even odds to be taken, the rotation has few options controlled long-term (now one less), and the budget will likely only flirt with the luxury tax for a few summers unless ownership digs into its money bag. You don’t burn half the Rubicon, so there was no reason not to fully exsanguinate the remainder of what had been the league’s best farm system. In BP’s organization prospect rankings in February, the Nationals ranked 24th and the Padres 26th. Suffice to say we know two movers for the next edition. For the trouble, San Diego appears at long last what it needs to be: a club to take on the Dodgers. Maybe not endlessly, as the Giants hope to, but for two-and-a-half years, at least.
It’s as unnecessary to say Soto fits into the Padres lineup as it would be to remark that Michaelango’s David fits on its earthquake-proof pedestal, and yet: here are the three players who have appeared in right field for the club at least 10 times this year.
The Padres lineup is as top-heavy as the David statue; even amid Jurickson Profar’s revival of a career-best form and Machado at the top of his game, with Ha-Seong Kim playing much more in line with expectations in his sophomore MLB season, and even Eric Hosmer contributing an above league-average line in what proved to be his final San Diego summer, the lineup presently ranks 17th by DRC+. Given the rotation ranking fifth and the bullpen 10th by DRA-, it’s unsurprising the team’s deadline played out this way. They traded from a strength in the rotation, supplemented the bullpen yesterday, and today turned to the lineup decisively. Between Soto, trade-mate Bell, and fellow deadline darling Brandon Drury, the lineup will have an entirely new complexion when the Padres continue their five-game set against the Rockies tomorrow. Factoring in that trio—the latter two potentially no minor additions themselves, in the midst of career years—plus Tatis, the daily lineup might look something like:
There are still a few moving pieces here for future seasons, and in this one it’s possible Drury or Bell, or both, revert to the replacement-level form they’ve shown at various other points. The Padres haven’t had especially encouraging performances from any bench players to this point, and aside from whoever gets the short stick at second base, the trio of right fielders highlighted before aren’t the most threatening pinch-hit options. But at the moment of playing their last, best hand from a once-stacked deck, they have two of the most talented ballplayers in the world in the lineup on the right end of 25, one signed for life and the other never having indicated he wouldn’t follow for the right number.
The club that didn’t get to that number has barely factored in this TA so far, for several reasons: a) I already wrote about why the Nationals shouldn’t have traded Soto, b) all five players headed to Washington were prospect-eligible entering the season, and four are discussed by members of our prospect team below, c) between the five, they’ve combined for 448 MLB plate appearances or batters faced, all this season. The pair responsible, Gore and Abrams, should stick with the big-league outfit immediately barring injury or performance so bad the 2018 Orioles wouldn’t have borne it. Even so, it’ll probably be several years before we have a concrete idea of who each is as a major leaguer, and Washington holds their rights through the penultimate season of the decade.
If Soto leaves in free agency in two-plus years, or in the worst case of a true Padres implosion, via another trade in two summers, calling this trade will take into the latter half of this decade, knowing a winner for certain will span into the next one. Of course, Nationals fans lose here no matter what; even if Abrams and Gore excite, they won’t salve the loss of Soto in this season or likely next. Whatever ownership group takes over for the Lerners in the offseason won’t want to own that, even if the fans still feel chagrined. But all they have is to hope something productive emerges from the pain, the same thing still being asked of Orioles fans after so many dismal years. Maybe it will, even with the Padres still chasing that same hope; it did in 2019, as far gone as that Nats banner now seems. That Washington squad proved the culmination of a half-decade of jittering progress, and also its denouement. For better or ill, most modern teams aren’t built for that long. The Padres will have to hope it’s for better.
The rotation will miss MacKenzie Gore—likely in this season and future ones as other trade additions head for free agency—and Luis Campusano and Kevin Merrill are suddenly the only notable prospects left in the San Diego system, but Soto gives this team three chances, at a minimum. The Padres are the talk of the league in a way they have been for maybe a month in franchise history, but there are many ways this moment produces like ones. San Diego’s all-in, but there’s a thing about going all-in. If you have the most chips, you can still weather a few hits. For the first time in their 60-year history, San Diego might finally be at the head of the table. —Ginny Searle
CJ Abrams, SS
Abrams always had a good shot to be moved from an aggressive organization that employs Fernando Tatis at shortstop. Heading to Washington helps him access his value, as he’s a quality defender who’ll be able to stick at the position. Abrams is an advanced hitter for a 21-year-old, though not yet quite advanced enough to handle the majors, excusing him somewhat from his struggles in a cup of coffee. Remaining concerns center around a low walk rate and his ability to access his raw power in-game. His numbers in Triple-A have been stronger in the latter category, but El Paso is a hitter’s paradise and skews the stats. He’s not Juan Soto—nobody is—so the Nationals have to hope to replace his value in the aggregate. Abrams fits that plan, projecting as an above-average player now that he has a pathway to play the 6. —Grant Schiller
Robert Hassell III, OF
Selected eighth overall in 2020, Hassell has become one of the top young hitters in Minor League Baseball, posting a .301/.387/.469 slash line over his two professional seasons. He possesses elite barrel control and an excellent command of the strike zone. The approach is advanced: He’ll work the count, looking to drive in hitter’s counts and willing to go opposite field when needed. The swing is not geared for over-the-fence power, but there’s enough bat speed to produce plenty of doubles and average home run totals. He’s a smooth and athletic runner, which allows him to swipe his share of bags and cover plenty of ground in the outfield. The profile is that of a player that does everything well, and with continued growth and development should make the occasional all-star team and contend for a few batting titles. —Nathan Graham
James Wood, OF
The 62nd-overall pick in the 2021 amateur draft, Wood is a 19-year-old outfielder who generates exceptional power with his 6-foot-7, 240-pound frame. A complete hitter, Wood is slashing .337/.453/.601 with 30 extra-base hits in 50 games at Low-A, swiping 15 bases along the way. He’s been hampered by a wrist injury at times this year, but it hasn’t slowed him down when he’s been on the field. Wood demonstrates advanced plate awareness and pitch selection, with the ability to drive the ball to all fields. He has the chance for a plus hit/plus power combination that could push him into the rarified air of all-star caliber major leaguer.—Brandon Williams
Jarlin Susana, RHP
Susana was one of the top pitching prospects in the 2022 IFA class, signing for $1.7 million out of the Dominican Republic this past January. Instead of going to the DSL, he was promoted straight to the American complex and has pitched his age-18 season in the Arizona Complex League, where he’s been completely dominant (44 strikeouts in 29-1/3 innings). He’s a huge kid, listed at 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds already, and he throws corresponding gas, touching triple-digit heat out in the desert. He also has a very promising slider and some feel for a changeup. He’s one of the best 18-or-under pitching prospects in the world, with the very big caveat about very young high arm speed pitching prospects being the single highest-delta group of prospects in the minors. —Jarrett Seidler
Juan Soto (↑)
That should be a little arrow for Soto, but a stronger supporting cast should give him more RBI opportunities and runs, and it’s possible moving from the moribund Nationals to the contending Padres gives Soto a short-term performance jolt. If you’re looking for nits to pick, the NL West is lefty-heavy and Soto’s power this season has played much better against right-handed pitching. OK, you can stop laughing now. If you’re in a keeper or dynasty league, Soto remains a centerpiece for any current or future title run.
Josh Bell (–)
As is the case with Soto, a stronger supporting cast should help Bell with runs and RBI, although he was already the beneficiary of Soto’s lineup placement. Unlike Soto, he is a two-month rental, so don’t base your redraft or dynasty projections/plans on what he might do playing half his games in San Diego.
CJ Abrams (↑)
Abrams goes from being a part-timer and potential demotion candidate on a contender to a viable starting middle infielder on a team that should play him every day. None of the power/speed package has translated to the majors yet, but the talent remains and getting regular reps can’t hurt. If someone dropped him in your 15-team mixed league it’s time to scoop him up, particularly if you’re deficient in steals and need to take chances.
MacKenzie Gore (↓)
Gore was tentatively due to return in September, but the Nationals have no reason to rush the prized pitcher back to big league action next month. If you’re hanging to Gore in a redraft league and reserve or IL slots are at a premium, it’s OK to drop him now.
Lane Thomas (↑)
Thomas had slipped into a part-time/platoon role, but could get a chance at full-time action again down the stretch. He was an exciting mid-to-late round sleeper entering 2022.
Cesar Hernandez (↓)
Unless the Nationals can find a taker for Hernandez, he will at best fall into a part-time role and at worst get benched. He was already nothing more than a borderline NL-only bat.
Wil Myers, Nomar Mazara (↓)
Neither Mazara nor Myers was helping very much anyway. If you have either in an NL-only, feel free to cut them loose. —Mike Gianella
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