August 2, 2022. That day, one year ago, was the official end of the Nationals decade-spanning competitive window. While the team had missed the postseason in 2020 and 2021, and traded off key players before that date, the Juan Soto trade sealed the deal. There were no more thoughts of surprise contention or an immediate retool around their star outfielder. When Juan Soto was shipped to San Diego, the team fully embraced a rebuild. Soto and Josh Bell were traded for CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, James Wood, Robert Hassell III, and Jarlin Susana.
A year has passed, and Soto has played a season's worth of games as a Padre. The Nationals have enjoyed the first wave of young prospects from the trade in the major leagues, and the second wave has progressed in the minor leagues. Abrams and Gore have immediately become key players in Washington while Wood has emerged as one of baseball's premier prospects. Both teams have a losing record in 2023. There's one question: who won the trade?
Tallying The Score
The easiest way to answer is a direct comparison of performance from the traded players. Bell was a rental in the deal, as was fellow first baseman Luke Voit, and they each performed poorly in the final two months of 2022 and then landed elsewhere. Their production cancels each other out. The meat of the deal is Soto, for one stretch run and two full seasons, for a bushel of young players with team control in abundance.
Juan Soto has been worth 4.8 fWAR through his first 160 games in San Diego, while CJ Abrams and MacKenzie Gore have combined for 2.8 fWAR as Nationals. It's clear that Soto has improved the Padres, who made it all the way to the NLCS last year, and he still has another season of control. Even if Soto puts up a career-best season in 2024, it's nearly guaranteed that Abrams, Gore, Wood, and potentially Robert Hassell III and Jarlin Susana will combine for a comfortably greater WAR total over the next five or more seasons. In this simple measure of wins, the Nationals have acquired more.
If Abrams and Gore reach even 1.5-2.0 WAR each season in their years before free agency, that will easily add up to more than two-plus seasons of Soto. There are so, so many problems with simply adding up WAR like this, though, and many questions need to be asked. The value of additional WAR from a single player is not linear, as it is far easier to find a 2-WAR player than it is to find a 6-WAR player. If you're not a fan of WAR, think about the frequency of .700 OPS hitters against the rarity of .950 OPS hitters or better. To go fully retro, anyone can hit .240 but only a small number consistently reach .300 and 30 home runs. By necessity, only a couple elite players can exist at once, and Soto is firmly in that group.
The Hunt For October
In addition to the value of an elite performer like Soto, the trade calculus from the Nationals and the Padres is measured against their respective goals. The Padres are aggressively acquiring immediate reinforcements to propel one or more playoff pushes, while the Nationals are accumulating long-term organizational depth to put their chips in at a later date when they're ready to compete. The trade obviously matches both team's goals, so it's not fair to assume if one team loses the deal that the other must win. With a struggling squad unlikely to make the playoffs this year, the Padres certainly haven't accomplished their immediate goals. The Nationals are in limbo waiting for their player development system to catch up to other organizations, so they haven't exactly won either.
When you trade Juan Soto, in the final move of dismantling a World Series winning roster, you're seeking to find future talent. In the cold, calculating modern era of front offices focused on the bottom-line, trading Juan Soto for a package of top of the line prospects was the right thing to do, and the thing everybody would have done. On the other hand, the Padres selling most of their farm to put one of the league's top stars onto a star-studded team was also the right thing to do. Both teams made the chalk move, one that was always going to happen. Both teams assumed risk, and both teams have been mediocre in the twelve months since the movie. Baseball is measured by wins above all, and neither team looks great by that standard.
So, what's the verdict? Was the trade a win-win? A lose-lose? The Nationals probably would be in a far worse place without Abrams, Gore, and Wood in the organization right now. The Padres would be less threatening in their current playoff hunt and in next year's without Soto in the middle of their lineup. However, there is no World Series to answer this question for us. If the Padres win it all next year, they're winners in the trade by definition. There's no other way for them to win everyone's opinion, because that's the accomplishment that means everything.
I don't have an answer. Nationals fans who love MacKenzie Gore's and CJ Abrams' performances this year are going to love James Woods' Nationals career even more, so in that way they've won. The Padres have enjoyed Juan Soto in his prime years, but have nothing to show for it. Its easy to say the Nationals have won the trade, but they've also lost a generational player on their way to becoming a bottom-10 team in baseball.
Juan Soto's Odyssey
After the 2019 World Series, Juan Soto had one of the best small-sample seasons in baseball history. He slashed .351/.490/.695 in just 47 games in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and he looked absolutely unstoppable at the plate. After conquering the Astros in October and hitting like Barry Bonds in his brief 2020 season, the bar was set astronomically high for Soto. His 29 homers and .465 OBP in 2021 was sometimes called a "down season". His run in '22 was worse, especially down the stretch with the Padres. He managed just a .242 batting average, and he was criticized leaguewide for "slumping" when he still had a .401 OBP and 27 homers.
This year, Soto has again been thought to be underperforming, mostly early in the season, despite his rank as the 5th-best hitter in baseball. After breaking into the majors as a superstar at age 19, anything less than being literally Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. was not enough for Soto, who is still only 24 years old. Soto is so absurdly talented that he's easily one of the league's best players while performing significantly worse than his absolute peak.
It felt like Soto's Nationals career began and ended so quickly. After his World Series heroics it was easy to envision the next two decades with the 21-year-old Soto as a National. It was impossible to foresee his follow-up season being chopped to bits by a pandemic, and the team crumbling to pieces in 2021, and him walking right out the door at age 23. Did the team really win by losing him?
In a perfect world, Soto would have remained, would have been paid according to his otherworldly abilities, and would have spent the next decade in the form he showed in 2020. The current team would suffer without the talent it exchanged Soto for, but in a perfect world the Nationals could develop players as good as CJ Abrams and MacKenzie Gore. Those players are good, and James Wood is likely even better, but none of them are Hall of Fame worthy like Juan Soto.
Nationals fans will always remember Juan Soto's emergence. From his debut on a struggling 2018 team as a mostly unknown prospect, he hit the ground running from his first game. He ended his age-19 season as his teams best hitter and only improved from there. Every turn through the lineup, and every pitcher coming to DC, had to deal with Soto's unrivaled feel for the strike zone and burgeoning power. He shuffled, he spat on anything out of the strike zone, and he crushed everything inside it. He led his team to a Championship before turning 21, and he won the Home Run Derby in his final act as a National. He played with such enthusiasm and heart while being extremely composed and wise beyond his years. He was so much more than a great hitter. On August 2, 2022, it was over.
If Mike Rizzo had the option to undo the Juan Soto trade, he probably wouldn't. I don't think the Padres have been seriously regretting it either. The logic of the trade is evident. If James Wood becomes a huge superstar, or if the Padres win a championship, the question will be answered with more conviction. The cost of losing one of the most exciting players of the century is too high for it to be a big win. Maybe the Nationals think different, but as a fan of Soto and the Nats, that is the unconcealable, emotional truth.