Nationals superstar Juan Soto was the talk of the All-Star Game festivities, but it wasn’t because the 23-year-old won the Home Run Derby by walking off every round. No, it’s because of rampant trade rumors in the wake of him turning down a 15-year, $440 million extension to remain in Washington for what would ostensibly be the remainder of his career. Some even believe Soto will be moved ahead of this year’s deadline in a move that would reshape at least two teams.
Ed. note: This one runs even longer than usual for me, so prepare accordingly.
First things first, because I want to make sure we’re all on the same page here when it comes to discussing the root issue of that massive extension. While the total value of the deal creates a hook that is going to snag a good number of people, it’s important to contextualize it in order to understand why Soto declined it. Even though the gross figure would be the highest in MLB history, the long duration means its $29 million average annual value would be just 20th all-time and 16th among active deals.
The contract offer contained no deferrals, something the Nats have been famous for with other large contracts, but Bob Nightengale reported that it was “heavily backloaded” over the last six years. That would serve the same purpose as a deferral, decreasing the overall value due to inflation and the time value of money. Though the Nationals have denied the report, it’s hard to believe them given their history and the desire of ownership to pretty up the books prior to a potential sale.
It stands to reason that any extension is going to have to exceed either $500 million in total value or $40 million AAV for 10+ years. That’s the kind of deep water only a few teams might be willing to swim in, but it’s not the only cost involved because a trade would mean parting with a significant haul of what Jed Hoyer refers to as prospect currency. Maybe MLB player currency as well.
I’m going to let you know right up front that I don’t believe such a trade would be worth it for the Cubs at this point in their competitive process. That said, I do want to explore the other side of it because the potential to acquire a 23-year-old superstar is something that never happens. We often speak with reverence about having a player as young as 27 hitting the market as a free agent, but Soto debuted at 19 and won’t turn 24 until around the end of the league championship series.
He has never put up less than 2.5 fWAR, and that was during the 2020 season, and it’s reasonable to believe his best years are still ahead of him. It’s not a stretch to say he could be a 6-7 WAR player every season for the next decade, production that would be valued at something like $50 million annually. That alone is worth any number of good players, particularly if you’re talking prospects in the lower levels of the system who are two years away from the majors and may not pan out at all.
A team that acquires Soto is almost certainly committing to the idea of extending him immediately and then building around him, or so the popular thinking goes. I mean, not locking him down would be like someone in a cold-weather city buying a Lamborghini they can only drive half the year and that is relegated to city streets the other half. It makes no sense unless you’re also stocking up on high-end daily drivers to supplement the Lambo, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
I applaud the faith of those in favor of the Cubs acquiring Soto because they believe the team would have both the desire and ability to add the requisite talent around him. They believe in the depth of the farm system to remain fertile even after the topsoil has been stripped away by a hypothetical trade. What’s more, they believe the Cubs will avoid the pitfalls experienced by the Tigers, Angels, and Nationals when it comes to the failure to create and sustain a winning team centered around a generational talent.
The thing is, I can’t quite bring myself to believe any of those things at this point.
According to Jon Heyman of the New York Post, the initial speculation is that the Nats will want “a team’s top four prospects and/or young major leaguers and perhaps a willingness to take Patrick Corbin’s bloated contract.” That’s a spicy meatball. There’s a lot of wiggle room in there, some of which is no doubt tied to a sliding scale with Corbin’s remaining $59 million over the next two seasons, so it’s hard to nail down anything specific.
For the sake of argument, let’s say it means the Cubs would have to part with something like Brennen Davis, Pete Crow-Armstrong, Cristian Hernandez, Kevin Alcantara, Justin Steele, and Christopher Morel. Maybe it’s Caleb Kilian instead of one of the position players just to balance things out. Though it’s highly unlikely any one of those players, and maybe not two of them combined, will produce even one season like what Soto will be capable of every single year, the sheer volume of potential makes this hard to fathom.
What concerns me more than just giving these players up, however, is that we’re already talking about a Cubs team that has the fourth-worst record in baseball…before possibly trading away its two All-Stars and a chunk of the pitching staff. Now you’ve stripped the MLB roster bare and have at least one more year before any replacements from minors are even close to ready.
Except for Matt Mervis, that is.
So unless they’re willing to bet just as heavily on the farm to produce the requisite supporting cast for Soto, the Cubs would have to spend big in free agency during the offseason following the trade just to have a mediocre team. I’m skeptical of their desire to commit half a billion dollars to one player, let alone putting at least $200 million or so into much-needed roster upgrades elsewhere. As good as Soto is, the Nats — who have the worst record in baseball — are living proof that one player can’t do it alone.
The Angels have arguably the two best players in the world right now and they’re only four games better than the Cubs. As was clarified through a little Twitter back-and-forth Tuesday night, that is not a matter of superstars themselves being a bad thing, but of those front offices’ abject failure to build proper lineups. Gee, when have we ever seen something like that in Chicago?
The Cubs traded away three stars — with more likely — and are starting over from scratch because they lacked either the wherewithal or the foresight to balance the MLB roster with adequate role-players. Even if Hoyer has learned his lesson from that and is confident he can atone for sins of the past, he’s going to need a massive budget to make it work. He says he’ll have the resources when the time is right to be aggressive again, so maybe things will indeed be different this time.
I need to circle back to the Tigers here because they actually present a much better comp to this situation than either the Nationals or Angels, neither of whom had to trade for their foundational players. Detroit acquired 25-year-old Miguel Cabrera and the washed version of Dontrelle Willis from the Marlins back in the winter of 2007 for a six-player haul that included Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin, along with four other players who combined to produce next to nothing in the majors.
It was a no-brainer for the Tigers, who got nine incredible years from one of the best hitters on the planet. After finishing fifth in the AL Central that first season, they jumped to second and then third before winning the division title four years in a row and appearing in the ALCS three straight seasons with a trip to the 2012 World Series highlighting the run.
A sweep in the 2014 ALDS ended their competitive window and they finished fifth in two of the next three campaigns before settling into their current blah phase. Can you think of another team that has fallen on hard times after a run of three consecutive championship series appearances and a World Series berth (though the Cubs actually won in 2016, people forget that)? Shoot, I guess the parenthetical gave it away.
Even if things worked out really, really well, you could be looking at a repeat of the last “window” in which the Cubs are good for a few seasons and then have to rebuild all over again. Maybe that’s enough for you and the prospect of cycling through the process every decade is an acceptable sacrifice.
What it all comes down to for me is that, while it makes complete sense to trade several unproven players for one bona fide generational talent, the reality of constructing and maintaining a consistent winner around that player is very difficult. I’m not at all sold on the idea that the Cubs, or any team, can make that work given the combination of costs in terms of players and money it would take to pry Soto free.
And that’s the last thing I want to discuss here, because this all presupposes that Soto will sign an extension at all. I’ve often fought against the notion that Scott Boras clients don’t do early deals because it’s simply not true, but Soto will become a free agent at 26 and could very well command a deal of $400 million or more for 10+ years at that point. It would be easier and less costly to get him that way, though there would also be less certainty because of the open market.
Look, I totally understand why a lot of very smart people believe trading for Soto would accelerate the Cubs’ competitive timeline. I just don’t agree with them, though I’ll gladly admit I was wrong if Hoyer swings a trade and works out an extension before adding free agents and winning several World Series titles in the next 10 years. I’d also be in favor of acquiring Soto, regardless of the outcome, if it means the Cardinals don’t get him.