How Does Juan Soto Keep Getting Traded?

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This story was originally published at Baseball Prospectus on December 7.

On opening day 2024, Juan Soto is going to be on his third team within the last three seasons.

Think about that. Like, really think about it, because it comes close to defying the laws of nature. Juan Soto is as close to a unicorn as you get in Major League Baseball and somehow two different organizations have capitulated to external forces to such a degree that they made their unicorn available to the highest bidder.

Soto deservedly earns comparisons to Ted Williams. He’s not yet 25 (in baseball age) and is (somewhat literally) walking not just a Hall of Fame path, but a relatively inner circle one. In the post-integration era, no current Hall of Famer played for three different organizations through their age-25 season. None. Gary Sheffield and Sammy Sosa would qualify, if elected. The difference? Sheffield and Sosa barely cleared 9.0 rWAR through their age-25 seasons; Soto is at 28.6, and hasn’t started his. It’s not that there haven’t been players this good or better this early in their careers. It’s that their original team (or even one other one) knew exactly what they had and that it was worth holding onto.

Soto is the epitome, the apex, the zenith, the … whatever word you like for tippy-top guy when it comes to executing the modern offensive strategies of the game. Just last week Robert Orr took a look at the Padres and Astros 2023 offense through the lens of the selective-aggression metric he created named SEAGER. Let’s take a gander at where Soto checked in:

A chart plotting various players on Baseball Prospectus's SEAGER metric, which measures hitters' selectivity. Soto is way on the right, far ahead of any other player on the chart.

Hahahaha. I mean! Soto manages to blend the transcendent patience of a monk with the violent aggression of John Wick. And while there have been minor undulations to his production, he’s remarkably steady in his elite performance. It cannot be said enough that this is the type of player that teams should be planning to put a statue of outside the stadium. He is a franchise anchor, and I don’t mean one that resides on the neck of any club or front office. That he’s going to land in his third organization before his age-25 season is a bit of bizarre happenstance but also an ugly reflection on the priorities of the two teams that have opted to ship him out. And we should note that it’s possible he finds a fourth organization after the season, as he’s a pending free agent.

That last bit is, of course, crucial. Pair that with an estimated $30+ million arbitration figure and suddenly the picture comes a bit more into focus, if not more excusable. The Padres are feeling a budget pinch due to the triple-whammy of missing the playoffs, their TV deal falling through (and MLB not backstopping it at 80 percent going forward), and the recent death of owner Peter Seidler, who was the driving force in their willingness to push the budget into the upper echelons of the league.

The long-term nature of the Padres’ other commitments (Machado, Bogaerts, Tatis Jr., Cronenworth) and minor salaries of the remaining players make up a hedge maze out of their current (self-imposed) budget crunch, essentially leaving Soto and his short-term large salary as the most direct way out. Note that I didn’t say “the only way out,” because there are almost always other options, just as there were for Boston when they decided moving Mookie Betts’ big salary and short-term commitment as a means to get under the luxury tax.

The other part of this is that it leaves the Padres with a lot of work to do. With no shade meant to any of the arms they received in this deal, the shoes they have to fill are quite large as they lost four starting pitchers to free agency. As Daniel Epstein noted in his recent article, pitching was actually the Padres’ strength in 2023, with big hits on mid-level free agent signings like Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha, paired with a Cy Young season from Blake Snell. All three, plus closer Josh Hader and swingman Nick Martinez, hit free agency, with the latter already signing in Cincinnati. Those five pitchers accounted for 627 ⅓ innings and 46% of their overall pitching WARP (and that accounts for how much our DRA-based WARP doesn’t care for Snell). Overall the Padres’ pitching staff allowed the second-fewest runs in all of MLB, trailing the Brewers by a mere run.

While their tepid results on the season were a result of some historically bad luck/performance in one-run and extra-inning games, it was also because the offense was merely mediocre despite the Fearsome Four at the top (plus a nice season from Kim Ha-seong).

Somehow the Padres are going to remedy their wins and losses problem by taking away their best offensive performer, backfilling with someone worse, and then “solving” their pitching vacancies with arms that probably won’t replicate the success of the guys they’re replacing. It reminds me a bit of a classic Bart Simpson line.

The Baseball Prospectus logo, horizontally presented.

Of course the goal isn’t precisely to solve for the wins and losses situation. It’s to solve for a budget problem while causing the least damage to the wins and losses situation. We all are well aware by now that baseball is a business and that external forces avail themselves in such a way that they impact the on-field product. It’s not that we cannot comprehend why the Padres (or Nationals) would trade Soto—the elements and justifications are laid out in front of us quite clearly—but to moderate our shock or bewilderment is a concession to a line of reasoning that just doesn’t fly.

That star players leave their clubs and go elsewhere is part of the game, both in free agency and trade. But star player undersells Soto. He is an anchor player. A number on the walls sort of player. And treating someone of his exceedingly rare caliber as just another line item on a balance sheet is not only a mistake, it’s an affront. That it’s happened twice now is not bewildering nor a headscratcher. It’s a damn disgrace.

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