Ever since it emerged that the Nationals are willing to entertain trade offers on Juan Soto, the whole baseball world has been obsessed with trying to figure out where he could go and what a fair trade would even look like. That likely won’t change, with Soto rumors sure to continue flying every day until the August 2 deadline, unless a trade is completed sooner.
MLBTR’s Steve Adams recently took a look at the situation, outlining how Soto is arguably the most attractive trade chip in recent memory or perhaps ever. Given his talent, youth and remaining years of control, just about every team is going to be calling the Nats and getting a feel for what kind of deal they’re looking to make.
Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports that the discussions have begun and, unsurprisingly, Soto is drawing widespread interest. He lists the Mariners, Padres, Giants, Dodgers, Cardinals, Yankees and Mets as seven teams that have already opened up the lines of communication with Washington.
None of those are particularly surprising, with all seven of them having been listed by Adams as being among the best fits. There is a potential complicating factor in the talks, as Jim Bowden of The Athletic reports that the Nationals want to combine Soto with Patrick Corbin in trades, in order to get Corbin’s contract off their books. As an additional detail, Jesse Dougherty of The Washington Post looks at the pros and cons of including Corbin in the deal, adding that Corbin has a partial no-trade clause. Despite that, Dougherty adds that this won’t prevent a deal from coming together, implying that either Corbin’s clause is minimal enough to not include the primary suitors, or perhaps that he would be willing to waive the clause and move to a new club with Soto.
While the Nationals are surely open to moving Corbin and getting out from under his contract, it’s unclear how important that is to them. Signed to a six-year, $140MM contract prior to 2019, the first season was a resounding success. Corbin threw 202 innings with a 3.25 ERA, then added another 23 1/3 frames in the postseason as the Nats won the first World Series title in the history of the franchise. It’s been essentially all downhill since then, however, with Corbin’s strikeouts disappearing and ERA escalating. After strikeout rates of 30.8% in 2018 and 28.5% in 2019, he’s been hovering around 20% in the three subsequent seasons. His ERA shot up to 4.66 in 2020, then 5.82 last year and 5.87 this year.
As for Corbin’s contract, it was heavily backloaded. His salary this year is $23.42MM, leaving approximately $8MM to be paid out from the deadline onwards. Then he’ll make $24.42MM next year and a big jump to $35.42 in 2024. That’s the last year of the deal, though there’s also $10MM in deferred money to be paid out from November of 2024 to January of 2026.
The combination of Corbin’s poor performance and hefty salary give him negative trade value. As such, any Corbin-Soto combo trade will lead to the Nationals recouping a lesser prospect package than a trade involving Soto alone. On the surface, it seems strange that the Nats would be strongly motivated towards such a scenario. Trading Soto means giving up on being competitive through 2024 anyhow, so getting Corbin’s contract off the books for that season shouldn’t be a high priority. With Soto out of the picture, the only other meaningful salary they will be paying in 2024 and beyond is going to Stephen Strasburg, who’s getting $35MM per year through 2026. Spending $70MM to Strasburg and Corbin in 2024 surely isn’t ideal, but the rest of the roster will likely be filled out with pre-arb players or those who have just qualified and earned minimal raises. The club ran a payroll of $183MM as recently as last year, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, and has already stripped it down to $135MM this year.
But if the Nats are indeed motivated to get that money off the ledger ahead of schedule, it will change the calculus of which teams make the most sense as trading partners. Teams on the receiving end will be taking on two meaningful salaries, as Soto is well-paid himself. He’s earning $17.1MM this year and will be due arbitration raises in the next two campaigns, possibly getting near the $25MM range next year and above $30MM for 2024, as long as he stays healthy. Even for the rest of this campaign, Soto will have about $6MM left to be paid out at the time of the deadline. Combined with the approximately $8MM owed to Corbin, that will add $14MM to this year’s payroll for any team acquiring both.
As Steve Adams highlighted in the piece linked above, all seven teams that Nightengale listed have marquee young players that could headline a return in a Soto deal. The prospect of taking Corbin in return might be more exciting to some than others, however. The Padres crossed the luxury tax line last year and have been right up against it this year, seemingly loath to cross it for a second straight season and therefore facing escalating penalties. They’ve been rumored to be trying to trade away one of their pitchers in order to create payroll space for additions elsewhere. Suddenly acquiring another expensive starter, and one who isn’t pitching well, would fly in the face of those plans. Although, perhaps Soto’s availability is such a unique situation that it makes them rethink everything.
The Cardinals had an Opening Day payroll of $155MM, per Cot’s, which is a bit shy of their $164MM record. Adding $14MM to get into record territory is likely an acceptable outcome this year, but would become complicated in the years to come. Adam Wainwright’s $17.5MM is the biggest contract coming off the books at the end of the year, but there would likely be mutual interest in another deal, based on precedent. He’s having another excellent season and would likely command a similar contract. Yadier Molina’s $10MM is coming off the books, though Soto and Corbin would add about $50MM onto it, and the Cards would still have to figure out a solution behind the plate.
The Mets already have a massive payroll but don’t seem to have any limitations in that regard. Owner Steve Cohen has expressed a willingness to spend beyond the fourth CBT barrier, which the club is already right on top of. Jason Martinez of Roster Resource calculates their CBT number as $290.1MM, a smidge over the $290MM barrier. Regardless of the financial picture, however, there’s the question of whether the Nats have any interest in trading Soto within the division. Andy Martino of SNY reports that Soto landing with the Mets is extremely unlikely, with the Nats not keen on seeing Soto return to Washington so frequently with a new uniform.
The Giants and Mariners might be in a better position than these other teams to take on meaningful salary in order to get Soto. The Giants had a payroll of $155MM on Opening Day, per Cot’s, but were up at $201MM a few years ago. They also have some decent money coming off the books this winter. Carlos Rodon is making $21.5MM and can opt out if he reaches 110 innings pitched. Given that he’s currently at 105 and having another excellent season, he’s a virtual lock to trigger that opt-out. Brandon Belt accepted the $18.4MM qualifying offer and will return to the open market in a few months. Brandon Crawford is making $16MM this year and next, but a free agent after that. The only guaranteed contract they have on the books for 2024 is the $12MM owed to Anthony DeSclafani. The Mariners opened the year at $104MM, per Cot’s, but have been in the $150-160 range in recent years.
As for the Yankees and Dodgers, they’re both running franchise-high payrolls but might still like the idea of Corbin’s contract being involved. Recent reporting has suggested both clubs are leery of decimating their farm systems in order to acquire Soto, despite his talents. Taking on Corbin and reducing the prospect hit should appeal to both clubs.
Of course, all this still seems to be exploratory on the part of the Nationals. Getting rid of Corbin’s money surely has appeal, but they will also have to weigh that against the offers they get that don’t involve Corbin. If one teams offers, say, six good prospects but doesn’t want Corbin, would the Nats really take a less package just to get Corbin out the door? There’s at least some precedent, given that the Red Sox included David Price in the Mookie Betts deal. However, the situations are not entirely analogous, as the Red Sox had gone over the luxury tax in the two previous seasons and were primarily interested in tearing down their roster for the cost savings. For the Nats, they are already operating with a budget well below previous seasons and should theoretically be more concerned with maximizing their prospect return in any Soto deal.