In 2019, Juan Soto finished ninth in National League MVP voting and was, conservatively, one of the two best position players on the World Series champion Washington Nationals. This happened during a season where he couldn’t legally drink until the World Series. And, heading into the All-Star Break of 2022, that season in which Juan Soto hit 34 home runs and combined a .401 on-base percentage and a .548 slugging percentage was, by wRC+, the worst season of Soto’s career so far offensively.
As a pure offensive force, Juan Soto is arguably the best hitter in baseball, and given that he is still just 23 years old, he may be the finest offensive force in baseball going forward. Soto is armed with a 152 wRC+ despite a .244 batting average on balls in play, and given Soto’s general profile, as a hitter with extraordinary plate discipline and a player whose value is not predicated on elite defensive speed, he is widely believed to be the type of baseball superstar who should age gracefully. And when it was reported on Saturday that Soto, who will become a free agent following the 2024 season, rejected a fifteen-year, $440 million contract extension which would have obliterated the existing highs for total guaranteed money in a baseball contract from the Washington Nationals, the sweepstakes unofficially began for arguably the best player in baseball.
Any team that is not at least thinking about how to acquire Juan Soto is committing malpractice–Soto would easily slot into a corner outfield spot or designated hitter for literally any team in baseball, and I doubt there is a single organization that believes otherwise. But there is inevitably variance in what a team would be willing to give up based on their immediate need. The New York Yankees, for instance, have a massive lead in the American League East, so Soto would be of minimal use for the remainder of the 2022 season, and arguably of diminished use for subsequent regular seasons where the Yankees already have a reasonably strong position. Likewise, beyond the possible assistance of helping them field a complete roster for trips to Toronto, Juan Soto would likely turn the Kansas City Royals from a bad, non-playoff team to a somewhat better, non-playoff team.
But for a team like the St. Louis Cardinals, Juan Soto would make a ton of sense. They are competitive but not overwhelming candidates for both the National League Central title and a Wild Card position. Although the Cardinals have a decent outfield, injuries have meant playing a lot of rookies Brendan Donovan and Juan Yepez in corner spots; while both have been productive, neither is the consistent superstar that Soto is. And the Cardinals have seven Top 100 prospects according to the latest rankings from Baseball America, suggesting that they have an abundance of the types of low-cost future pieces that a rebuilding team like the Washington Nationals would covet.
In the literal years of anticipation of a prospective trade of Nolan Arenado to the St. Louis Cardinals, rumors typically suggested that star third baseman would require the Cardinals to send major prospects and/or MLB-ready pieces to acquire the then-Colorado Rockies star. But in 2021, when the Cardinals acquired Arenado, the ultimate cost was middling MLB swingman Austin Gomber, competent but hardly sterling prospect Elehuris Montero, and a host of marginal-at-best prospects; the Rockies even gave the Cardinals some money to take Arenado off their hands. And while the immediate response from most fans was something with the approximate nuance of “LMAO ROCKIES”, the reality of Nolan Arenado’s situation impacted the return he commanded. He was under a contract widely viewed as approximately what he could command on the open market. The terms of the trade required a second player-initiated opt-out to be placed into the contract, thus allowing Nolan Arenado to void his contract after either 2021 or 2022 if he wanted to leave St. Louis (or, practically speaking, if he believes somebody would pay him more than his existing contract). It would be one thing for a team acquiring Arenado was acquiring the previous eight years of his MLB career and had an infinite lock on his services going forward–Arenado, nearly 30, was likely (slightly) beyond his absolute peak of talent and he was being paid quite well. Trading super-prospects for Arenado never would have made sense, so the Cardinals didn’t.
To be clear, Juan Soto on July 18, 2022 is a considerably stronger trade target than Nolan Arenado ever was, much less ever was during the time when the Cardinals were publicly linked to him. While I would hesitate to suggest that any player of Soto’s caliber has yet to reach the full heights of his powers, it would be reasonable to suggest that a 23 year-old likely is not on the decline. Soto is under club control for the next two seasons after this one, meaning that a team can retain him at a one-year cost far below what he could command as a true free agent on an open market. There simply aren’t players of Soto’s potential regularly available for acquisition. But I also do not expect Juan Soto to be acquired for the mid-2022 equivalent of the Arenado package. The package is going to probably hurt.
The obvious name cited in Juan Soto trade talks is Jordan Walker, and while a top prospect for Arenado felt steep, the idea of dealing Walker, whose prospect stature is even higher than that of Dylan Carlson, Nolan Gorman, or any of the several names suggested as the return to the Colorado Rockies, seems considerably more palatable. In some ways, it’s a perfect fit because while Jordan Walker is a superior prospect, he arguably doesn’t fit in as well with the Cardinals as with most teams, as Walker plays the same position as the repeatedly aforementioned Nolan Arenado. If Walker is worthy of the hype, the Cardinals will certainly find a spot for him, but if the third baseman moves to first base (post-Paul Goldschmidt), desginated hitter, or a corner outfield spot, his value to the Cardinals would suddenly be lower than to another organization.
For me, and admittedly I say this as a person whose knowledge of Jordan Walker is almost exclusively second-hand, Jordan Walker is worth it for Juan Soto. Soto is a superstar right now who would immediately make the Cardinals favorites in the National League Central in 2022 and, with diminishing certainty, the next two seasons after that. But there is a risk here. The obvious line here is that a team should be willing to give up Jordan Walker, a player whose absolute best case scenario career projection is Juan Soto, for a player who is already Juan Soto, but the acquisition would not be for the totality of Juan Soto–it would be for two-plus years of Juan Soto, whereas the Nationals would get Jordan Walker for six years prior to his reaching free agency. This complicates the math a little bit. Even if Walker is merely an average Major Leaguer, it is reasonable to think that he could have as much raw productivity in six years as Soto in two-and-a-third or so.
Again, premium talents such as Soto are much harder to find than average players, so if the Cardinals believed Jordan Walker merely projected to be fine, they should happily part with him for Soto. And I would make the trade, even in the likely reality of Jordan Walker being a potential star. But it isn’t as simple as acquiring a player’s best-case scenario and somehow holding onto that in perpetuity. Maybe Juan Soto would fall in love with St. Louis and sign a team-favorable long-term extension with the Cardinals, but given that Soto just rejected a nearly half-billion dollar extension with the team with whom he won a World Series, this is hardly a certainty.
The Cardinals have applied the logic of inking new acquisitions who are nearing free agency to long-term extensions before, and ultimately it’s not as though not extending Jason Heyward or Marcell Ozuna turned out to be problems, but if anything, this is simply a reminder that a ton of free agent signings don’t work out very well (and also a reminder that today’s prospects turn into tomorrow’s Sandys Alcantara, and keep in mind that Alcantara was a middling prospect at the time and that no headliner for Juan Soto would be). The Cardinals traded for Matt Holliday for a two-plus month run (and he was very productive while the prospect haul wasn’t, so it still worked out), but the left fielder tested free agency all the way into January and signed a decidedly market-value contract at a time when he could have signed with anybody. The one major case in recent years of an acquired player signing an extension while within the Cardinals’ exclusive negotiating window was Paul Goldschmidt, and this extension worked out somewhat accidentally–Goldschmidt signed a contract that, by the time his theoretical free agency came around, looked unfavorable to the team following a down 2019.
While noting that the Cardinals aren’t trading for the next 15-20 years of a probable Hall of Fame career may seem like a dig at Juan Soto’s trade value, and by definition it is, Juan Soto is also incredible. And his trade value is very high; particularly, being able to add him to the 2022 roster would be extremely useful. We aren’t talking about Pablo Lopez, the quite good but decidedly not Juan Soto Miami Marlins pitcher who was recently suggested as a potential trade target in exchange for Alec Burleson and Gordon Graceffo (to be clear, I would do this particular trade in a heartbeat). Juan Soto would be both an immaculate 2022 rental and a potential franchise-altering contributor in 2023 and 2024, and if the Cardinals don’t at least call Mike Rizzo to see what the going rate for Juan Soto is, that is a massive oversight by the most generous interpretation. Noting what Soto could do through the end of 2024 is hardly underselling him; his potential contributions could still be massive.