Juan Soto could be on the move this off-season.
In a post this week, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal asserted that the Padres’ star left fielder and one of the great young offensive talents in baseball, is “almost certain” to be traded before the start of the 2024 season.
Unlike Bregman and Bichette, Juan Soto is almost certain to be traded, both to ease the Padres’ payroll burden and get them the pitching they desperately need….
The question is not whether Soto will be traded. The question is which team will acquire him.
The Yankees are pursuing superstar outfielder Juan Soto, and why not? He’s a top-five hitter in the game (which they need after a dreadful year at bat), he’s left-handed (which they also desperately need) and he’s eminently available, at least according to rival decisionmakers of Soto’s San Diego squad.
“They’ve got to trade him,” one rival exec said. “There’s no way they can afford him to keep him.”
A Soto-to-the-Yankees trade makes sense, and according to Andy Martino, the two sides have gotten as far as exchanging names, although a deal is reportedly not close. But it makes sense for any team willing to pay a player more than $30 million in his final year of arbitration and a World Series window propped open.
For the record, there are no rumors or even whispers of hints that the Phillies are interested in acquiring the 2019 World Series champion, but with Bryce Harper assuming duties at first base full time and Kyle Schwarber becoming the everyday DH next year, there is space available in left field for the Phils to make a real upgrade. Sure, they could add a veteran free agent like Tommy Pham, Adam Duvall or Joc Pederson and some combination of Christian Pache or Johan Rojas as part of a group effort to man the position. Certainly Pache and/or Rojas would provide outstanding run prevention, and any of Pham, Duvall or Pederson would be a reasonable add to the lineup.
That’s the most likely course, but given Soto appears to be available, could the Phillies make a play for him? What are the pros and cons?
- It’s Juan freakin’ Soto: He’s 24 years old, has played six years in the big leagues and has put up a career OPS of .946. He finished 6th in the MVP voting this year with a .275/.410/.519 season in which he blasted 35 home runs, knocked in 109 runs and led the league with 132 walks. He did this all in San Diego, a noted pitcher’s park. He also played all 162 games, won his fifth Silver Slugger and was worth 5.5 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. He is this generation’s Ted Williams, and this one pro is enough to supersede all the cons you’re going to see below.
- Plate Discipline: Soto is one of the most patient hitters in baseball, and when he gets his pitch, he usually doesn’t miss. He only struck out 129 times last season and has led the league in walks three times in his young career. For a team that has way too much swing-and-miss and exhibited awful plate discipline in the final five games of the NLCS (as well as most of the season), Soto’s consistency would be a welcome addition.
- Postseason Success: In 29 career playoff games, Soto has hit .261/.349/.495, good for an .845 OPS. In the 2019 World Series, he batted .333/.438/.471 with 3 homers and 7 RBIs in the Nationals’ 7-game upset of the Houston Astros, and delivered one of the biggest postseason hits in recent history off Josh Hader in the one-game, NL Wild Card Game that season.
- His contract status: Soto is entering his final year of team control before hitting free agency. For a team that will already be into the second luxury tax bracket in 2024, the Phillies may not want to push heading into the third tier by paying Soto a $30+ million deal this season. Would they be open to making him a long-term offer to help bring the AAV down? Sure, but remember just before he was dealt to San Diego last season, he turned down a 15-year, $440 million offer from Washington. His reasoning at the time was Washington’s penchant for offering backloaded deals and the fact it’s AAV would “only” be $29.3 million, which would still be the highest on the Phillies by a good $4+ million. Based on past statements, it’s likely he’s seeking a long-term offer greater than $500 million and won’t sign an extension unless it is something in that neighborhood. If the Phils, or any other team were to trade for him, he’d likely be a rental.
- The Prospect Cost: The Phillies benefitted greatly from having young players come up through the minors in recent years — Bryson Stott, Alec Bohm, Cristopher Sanchez, etc. — to supplement the high-priced talent. It’s unclear exactly what the Phils would have to, or be willing, to give up for one year of Soto, but I doubt Andrew Painter or Mick Abel would be made available for a rental. Certainly the Phils are open to dealing one of their young center fielders — Johan Rojas, Christian Pache, maybe even Justin Crawford — but there are real concerns about dealing away too many prospects from a farm system that is only ranked in the middle of the pack in MLB.
- Defense: He’s not a very good defender in left field, although he isn’t the albatross Kyle Schwarber was out there, and his run production far outpaces his run prevention. That said, among 25 players with at least 500 innings last season in left field, Soto’s -6 Defensive Runs Saved ranked 22nd (Schwarber was last at an incredible -21!). His -9 Outs Above Average also ranked 22nd. Having Pache in left field in the playoffs payed obvious dividends, and we saw teams like the Rangers and Diamondbacks advance all the way to the World Series thanks in part to their athleticism and excellent defense.
- Soto is a “clubhouse cancer”: This was a popular chestnut being floated at last year’s trade deadline and, to be sure, there sure seemed to be issues in San Diego’s clubhouse. Much of the blame in published reports seemed to fall at the feet of Manny Machado, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing to suggest Soto was in any way a “problem” in the clubhouse. Now, is he a born leader? Is he someone who’s going to rally the troops and take control of the clubhouse when the going gets tough? Probably not, but who cares? The Phils already have 5-10 guys who handle that, specifically Schwarber and Harper. They don’t need him to be a “team leader,” they just need him to hit and have a positive attitude, and if you’re worried Soto is going to come in an ruin the clubhouse chemistry, than the Phils leaders in the clubhouse weren’t as strong as we thought.
- He’s “not a winner”: The Padres absolutely disappointed this year, and he did not play well in San Diego after he was traded midway through the 2022 season. But he was great last year, and to say he’s not a winner belies the success he had in the 2019 playoffs, where he was integral in the Nats winning their first title. I’ve also seen the “he plays lazy” narrative, but again, there just doesn’t seem to be any proof of this and one needs to be very careful how and to whom we assign that label, because it’s usually reserved for players of a certain nationality.
- Too many lefties: With Schwarber and Harper, Soto would probably give the Phils three left-handed hitters in the top four or five of their lineup. The Phillies would probably love to add another big-time right-handed bat, but does handedness matter when Soto had an .813 OPS against lefties last season and has a career .836 OPS against them? Or that Harper’s was .884 in ‘23? Both those guys hit everybody, so one shouldn’t worry too much about Soto’s handedness.
The Phillies absolutely could make a push to trade for Soto and even sign him long-term, but it would be costly. For a team that has just a few prime years left from their core and a World Series window that is open right now, getting Soto for even a year could be the push they need to get over the hump and get that tantalizingly-close third championship.
If the Phillies could somehow pull off a trade for Juan Soto and sign him to a long-term extension, should they?
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