Consider for a moment the following St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famers: Bruce Sutter, Vince Coleman, Jason Isringhausen, Tom Herr, John Tudor, Julián Javier. Consider still this handful of non-Hall of Famers: J.D. Drew, Edgar Rentería, José Oquendo, Lee Smith, Darrell Porter, Orlando Cepeda. Juan Soto is projected to be more valuable by Wins Above Replacement in accordance with the ZiPS projected system between today and the end of the 2024 season, when he will reach free agency, than any of the preceding players were in a Cardinals uniform.
Look, for instance, at Edgar Rentería, a player who spent the functional equivalent of a player’s cost-controlled seasons as a St. Louis Cardinal–six years, starting when he was 22 years old and extending into his athletic prime. Rentería was a three-time All-Star with three Silver Slugger Awards and two Gold Gloves in St. Louis, and he now makes regular appearances on the St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall of Fame ballot. He was less valuable as a Cardinal, at least according to WAR, than Juan Soto projects to be for the next less-than-two-and-a-half seasons. And this isn’t an indictment of Rentería–Juan Soto is straight up that good. Over the next 373 games, Juan Soto projects to be as good as George Hendrick, a perennial Cardinals Hall of Fame candidate, was in 893 games as a Cardinal.
Juan Soto will still be just 23 years old by the end of the 2022 regular season, and if projections hold true, he is expected to be the 17th most valuable position player in the history of baseball through that age. He is already tied for 24th with Manny Machado, a player who is on a Hall of Fame trajectory; the next several players Soto is in line to pass are Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, and Frank Robinson, with future Hall of Famers Bryce Harper and Albert Pujols next in line before reaching another Hall of Famer in Cal Ripken. Juan Soto is the functional modern equivalent to Ted Williams–he has 118 career home runs, 12th all-time already through the age of 23 (ZiPS projects he will get to sixth), and power isn’t even Soto’s greatest skill. What really separates Juan Soto from the pack is his prodigious batting eye–he is in the midst of his third consecutive season with a walk rate over 20% and a strikeout rate under 15%. For the remainder of 2022, he projects for an OPS of 1.000, the highest mark in baseball.
Gushing over Juan Soto and how great he is may seem a bit redundant–if you are bothering to read this, you are probably aware of who Juan Soto is and that he is great, but I want to emphasize the matter of scale. If the Cardinals were to acquire Juan Soto, he wouldn’t simply be an even more impactful acquisition than recent big ticket gets such as Marcell Ozuna, Paul Goldschmidt, or Nolan Arenado, but he would arguably be the greatest established Major League player the Cardinals have ever acquired.
When evaluating Jordan Walker, the Cardinals super-prospect, would you accept a world in which he becomes Edgar Rentería or J.D. Drew? Walker has prospect pedigree similar to that of Dylan Carlson, who has been a perfectly nice Cardinals outfielder but whom the Cardinals would immediately trade for Juan Soto if the opportunity presented itself. For some more perspective, the #7 prospect in baseball a decade ago was Jurickson Profar, who eventually crafted a perfectly decent career as a Major Leaguer but certainly did not reach the heights many expected of him. Admittedly, one of my pet peeves is those who say that the Cardinals should trade Jordan Walker because his best-case scenario is Juan Soto anyway, since his best-case scenario would actually be Juan Soto for six years rather than two-plus years. But most prospects don’t turn into Juan Soto, and that’s the key there.
Frankly, for an organization such as the Cardinals, a true superstar like Soto should have more value than his mere WAR totals. This isn’t a flaw of WAR–it’s a flaw of assuming that the alternative is actually a Replacement Level player for a team as consistently competitive as the Cardinals; say what you will about the Cardinals, but they aren’t exactly making a habit of giving regular playing time to players who perform that poorly (in the twenty-first century, only 2010 Skip Schumaker, who barely qualified, had a sub-Replacement Level season as a position player qualified for league leaderboards). Consider that Juan Soto is projected for 15.6 WAR over 2023 and 2024 and say that, for instance, Dylan Carlson is projected for 18 WAR over the next five seasons (which seems reasonable, though given that he projects for just 5.8 over the next two years, is probably a touch optimistic). You should much rather have Soto than Carlson because it’s not as though the Cardinals are likely to settle for less than 2.4 WAR over a three-year stretch, and furthermore, if they were settling for that, it’s a sign the Cardinals aren’t being particularly competitive from 2025 through 2027, at which point Carlson’s production is going to waste, much as Juan Soto’s production is going to waste with the Washington Nationals, which brings us back to the whole reason he is being put into trade rumors in the first place.
The reason I am hyper-focused on Juan Soto’s career through 2024 is because I believe that whether a team intends to make a serious run at extending Soto beyond then should be completely irrelevant to whether a team should trade for him now. Juan Soto isn’t, nor will he be in two years, Paul Goldschmidt, who was a guy in his thirties looking to secure his last big contract while he still could when the Cardinals traded for, and later extended, him. Juan Soto, a client of Scott Boras (who is famous for guiding his clients to free agency), is, barring catastrophe, in line to make half a billion dollars in 2024 if he wants it. Would Soto consider re-signing in St. Louis in free agency? If the price is right and the team is competitive, I don’t see why not, but if the reason to trade for Juan Soto were for the 2025 season onward, the Cardinals could just hold on to their prospect stash and sign Soto without giving up any prospects at all in the 2024-25 off-season. But then they would be foregoing the tremendous value he could provide through the 2024 season.
The Cardinals currently sit half a game behind the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the National League Central. Assuming it didn’t require truly substantial MLB pieces to do so (and given that the Washington Nationals aren’t competing for a playoff spot in 2022, it likely wouldn’t), acquiring Juan Soto would make the Cardinals instant division favorites, and independent of future moves around the division over the next couple years, it would make them long-term favorites to win the division in 2023 and 2024, as well. And beyond that, the Cardinals might only have a compensatory pick to show for the trade (not that free agent compensation picks haven’t worked out for the Cardinals–they acquired the likes of Michael Wacha, Stephen Piscotty, Jack Flaherty, Dylan Carlson, Dakota Hudson, and Alec Burleson via them). But the potential production of Juan Soto for two-plus years is, itself, an enormous prize.