The Soto trade illustrates one of baseball’s biggest problems

Photo courtesy of Sophia Wood ’23.

Inside this Issue: Sports Editor Doug Cobb shares his thoughts about a controversial MLB trade.

On Aug. 2nd, the Washington Nationals sent waves throughout Major League Baseball (MLB) when the team traded superstar outfielder Juan Soto to the San Diego Padres for a large package of talented prospects, as reported by ESPN. Trades involving big stars happen every year at the trade deadline. Teams who know they won’t make the postseason trade away their best players who are on expiring contracts, in exchange for young minor league prospects who they hope will help them build toward future playoff runs. This system works pretty well and usually makes sense for both sides; the bad teams are likely to lose the player they are trading away in free agency at the end of the season anyways, so by trading them they get a potential future star for a season where they may actually have a shot at the playoffs. The good teams, on the other hand, are able to plug the holes in their rosters and bolster their lineup heading down the final stretch of the season and into the playoffs. But the Juan Soto trade is different.

Soto is arguably the best hitter in all of baseball, already having won a batting title, two silver sluggers, a world series ring, the home run derby and two All-Star appearances. Oh yeah, and he is only 23 years old. Since entering the league in 2018, Soto has tied with Mike Trout (currently his generation’s most accomplished player) for the highest on-base percentage (OBP) in baseball at .427 and has the most walks in the league by a large margin at 488. Soto has regularly been compared to all time great players such as Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, due to his impressive accomplishments achieved at such a young age. All of these factors, along with the fact that the Nationals had team control of Soto through the end of the 2024 season, make this trade truly unprecedented. The only trades that even remotely compare are the Miguel Cabrera trade and the Babe Ruth trade. 

At the time of the Cabrera trade in 2007, Cabrera was 24 years old and already a four time All-Star and two time silver slugger. He had also already won a World Series ring. In December of 2007, the Florida Marlins traded Cabrera to the Detroit Tigers for a package of prospects. None of the prospects would end up contributing much of anything to the Marlins, and Cabrera went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Tigers that included a world series appearance and a triple crown—when a player leads their league in home runs, batting average and runs batted in (RBI). According to the MLB website, Cabrera is one of just seven players in MLB history with both 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, a feat that even Babe Ruth didn’t accomplish. The main differences between this trade and the Soto trade are that Soto is slightly younger, has more team control than Cabrera did and is arguably better now than Cabrera was at the time of his trade. Then, Cabrera had an OBP of .388 and an on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of .929, along with 138 home runs. Soto, meanwhile, had slightly fewer home runs with 122, but both a much higher OBP (.427) and OPS (.966).

The Ruth trade is less similar but much more infamous. If the Soto trade turns out anything like the Ruth trade did, then the Nationals might as well never field a team for a Major League game again. Babe Ruth is considered by many to be the greatest baseball player of all time. In 1919, at the age of 24, Ruth had just entered the prime of his career when the Red Sox traded him to their most hated rival, the New York Yankees. Over the next 85 years, the Yankees went on to win 26 world series titles, while the Red Sox would win zero. The Ruth trade is a tough comparison because it was such a different era and because the owner of the Red Sox did it for money, not receiving any players in return, but it illustrates the dangers of trading away such a young superstar. 

In any case, these comparisons do not bode well for the Washington Nationals or their fans. Trades of superstars like this almost never benefit the team trading away the superstar. So why did the Nationals do it? The simple explanation is that they didn’t think they had a chance to re-sign Soto before he hit free agency in a few years, and they didn’t think they would be playoff contenders in the time frame they still had him under team control. They attempted to cut their losses and get some future value for him instead of letting him walk away for nothing in 2025. The reasons why they thought they couldn’t re-sign Soto are a little more complex, but in short, he turned down a 15-year $440 million contract extension from the Nationals, as the New York Times covered. That rejection, coupled with the predicted sale of the team to new owners and Soto’s established desire to play for a winning team (which the Nationals most certainly are not right now) all contributed to team ownership throwing up their hands and proclaiming, “Well, we can’t re-sign him!”

Some wondered why Soto rejected the offer, which was the biggest in the history of the sport in terms of total money. The average annual value was the key factor. Although the contract wasn’t lacking in total money, Soto’s average annual salary would not have even been in the top 15 in the MLB. Looking at it from Soto’s point of view, accepting the deal made no sense. He made the smart move by rejecting it, and he will almost certainly get a better deal when he hits free agency. 

The jury is still out on how good the Nationals’ return from the trade was (and it will be another few years before we get a good idea of the value they got back for Soto). Two things are certain, though: The trade was a disaster for Nationals fans (of which I am one), and it illustrates a huge problem the MLB has with competitiveness.

Am I just a Nationals fan who is infuriated and depressed by my team trading away my all-time favorite player, the likes of which the franchise will likely never see again? Yes. Is the trade objectively bad for the city, its fans and Major League Baseball as a whole? Also yes. Multiple things can be true at the same time. 

Soto was more than just a great player in Washington D.C. He was quite literally the face of the franchise. He was totally beloved by everyone in the area. He came off as a smart, genuine person in interviews and always played his heart out for the city. He played a key role in securing the World Series title the Nationals won in 2019 (the city’s first since 1924), and he had a game-winning hit in the wild card game that season that will forever go down as one of the greatest moments in D.C. sports history. Despite the team being in last place every year since that championship season, Soto was a reason to pay attention to the team and buy a ticket to a game. Even if the Nationals benefit from the prospects they acquired in the trade, they have robbed their fans of the opportunity to see a true star at the ballpark every year. Never again will the Nationals have a player like Juan Soto, because there will never be another player like Juan Soto. This is the heartbreak that baseball fans must endure when their favorite player gets traded or leaves in free agency. And therein lies a problem that is unique to baseball. 

Teams lose their star players in every sport, but it’s different in the MLB. Baseball is in many ways a more local sport than say the NFL or NBA. MLB games are not as big of a draw nationally as NBA or NFL games, but rather locals watch their favorite teams many, many times each season and form a special connection and fondness for their stars. So why is this such an issue? Because the MLB is not a level playing field. The financials of the game are set up in such a way that only a small handful of teams get to sign whatever players they like. A majority of teams have to work within a restricted budget, either because their owners can’t afford to pay big salaries to players or because they are unwilling to. This is really bad for the competitiveness of baseball, and it hurts the product of the league. One of the reasons the NFL is so popular is that it truly has achieved relative parity in its league. Almost every season, a team or two who finished last place in its division the previous year moves up into first place and makes the playoffs. There are ample opportunities for a terrible team to turn things around if it makes the right decisions. In baseball though, rebuilding is agonizingly slow. Teams like the Nationals or small market Kansas City Royals can win the world series but then completely crater because they either weren’t able or weren’t willing to re-sign any of the players that won them their championship.

The Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays are two other teams famous for finding success despite a small payroll, but neither the “moneyball” Athletics nor the Rays have won a world series in the last 30 years. This problem also extends past just the small market teams. Even teams in big markets like the aforementioned Washington Nationals or the Chicago Cubs don’t make enough money to keep the payroll high every year. They both had a couple of seasons where they were able to pay big money, but then that window closed and they were forced to sell off everything. The finances of baseball are complicated, but essentially only two or three teams have owners who are able and willing to spend enough to be competitive every year. All the other teams are either in a small market or don’t take in enough of a profit for the owners to see spending big on players as worthwhile. It doesn’t matter how well run an organization is; eventually it will succumb to the few big spenders in the league. If a franchise is lucky, it might capture a championship or two during its window, but eventually the best players will leave for a richer team like the Yankees or Dodgers.

In 2022, the top payrolls in baseball are as follows: the Los Angeles Dodgers ($265m), the New York Mets ($262m) and the New York Yankees ($253m). All three of these teams lead their divisions and are comfortably in the playoffs. Only three of the 12 teams currently in a playoff position have a payroll in the bottom half of the MLB. Since 1988 (the earliest I was able to find payroll records from), only two teams won the World Series with a payroll in the bottom third of the league: the 1990 Cincinnati Reds and the 2003 Florida Marlins. That means that a team with a payroll in the bottom third of the league only wins the World Series 5.9% of the time. Basically, if your team can’t pay a lot of money, they don’t have a fair shot. CBS Sports notes the salary caps or rules that leagues like the NBA have that give a team a fair shot at re-signing their own players. Not baseball. Is it really good for baseball if Juan Soto signs with the Dodgers in 2025? Or the Yankees? It seems almost certain that he will sign with one of the few richest teams out there who already get all the free agents, and when he does it will be just another reason to change the channel.

 

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