The Nationals Made the Most of the Juan Soto Trade

There's no winning when you trade a talent like Juan Soto, but the Washington Nationals got a pretty fantastic return for their former star.

CJ Abrams #5 and MacKenzie Gore #1 of the Washington Nationals look on against the Miami Marlins during the fourth inning at loanDepot Park.
MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 17: CJ Abrams #5 and MacKenzie Gore #1 of the Washington Nationals look on against the Miami Marlins during the fourth inning at loanDepot park on May 17, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Did the Washington Nationals fumble the bag with Juan Soto? It’s a great question.

On the one hand, Soto helped the Nationals to their first World Series title in franchise history. He played an integral role for a team that won 93 games in the regular season, and he continued to produce throughout the playoffs, leading the team in homers and runs scored.

On the other hand, the Nationals quickly became so bad that they felt their best course of action was to trade a 23-year-old future Hall of Famer with two and half seasons of team control remaining on his contract.

Does winning a title overshadow everything that comes next? Some would say yes; a player’s tenure with a team can’t be a “failure” if he helped the team win a World Series.

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That said, the Nationals fell so far so fast. They were gifted with a face-of-the-franchise-type generational talent, and they couldn’t even hold on to him into his mid-twenties. The impact of a player like Juan Soto can go far beyond a single World Series title. He’s the kind of superstar fans will remember for generations to come – and they could have remembered him as a Washington National. But the Nationals blew it.

Ultimately, the book is not yet closed on the Juan Soto trade between Washington and San Diego. If you’re anything like me, perhaps you think there’s no justification strong enough for letting a player like Soto slip away. Even so, it’s starting to look like the Nationals will be quite pleased with the players they got back in that deal.

The Biggest MLB Trade in Recent Memory

PHILADELPHIA, PA – JULY 07: Washington Nationals right fielder Juan Soto (22) and Washington Nationals first baseman Josh Bell (19) during the Major League Baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals on July 7, 2022 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On August 2, the Nationals and Padres finalized a trade that sent shockwaves across Major League Baseball. Washington would send Soto and Josh Bell to San Diego, in exchange for rookies MacKenzie Gore and CJ Abrams, prospects James Wood, Robert Hassell III, Jarlin Susana, and veteran first baseman Luke Voit.

The Major Leaguers

Even at the time, it was an impressive haul. Gore, then 23, was once the top pitching prospect in baseball. While his stock had fallen in recent years, he still looked like a capable big league starter, with a 4.27 ERA (3.98 FIP) through his first 13 MLB starts.

Abrams, then 21, was struggling in his first MLB season, but he was widely considered one of the top infield prospects in the game. Blessed with tremendous speed and a plus hit tool, he also had the potential to grow into more power. If he could stick at shortstop, it was easy to see Abrams becoming a star.

The Prospects

At the time, Hassell was the tertiary piece in the deal (if not the secondary piece, depending on your feelings about Gore). Traded two weeks before his 21st birthday, the 2020 first-round pick was demolishing the low minors, hitting .301 with an .856 OPS over 185 games in the Padres organization. He looked like a future five-tool talent, with good speed, a strong arm, and power to grow into.

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Wood, drafted the previous summer, had not yet turned 20. He was absolutely destroying low-level pitching, with a .336/.447/.556 slash line (1.003 OPS) and 26 stolen bases through 81 games. Although he had not yet proven himself quite as much as Abrams or Hassell, some talent evaluators already considered him the true prize of the Padres system.

Finally (sorry Luke Voit), Susana was an 18-year-old Complex League pitcher with a ton of upside but, needless to say, a tremendous amount of risk. His stuff looked phenomenal, but he had a long way to go before proving he could stay healthy and put it all together.

Two Years Later

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 20: CJ Abrams #5 of the Washington Nationals rounds the bases after hitting a home run in the first inning against the Houston Astros at Nationals Park on April 20, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

Washington got back four of San Diego’s top five prospects (entering the season), plus a highly talented wild card. That’s pretty much an unprecedented trade package. And somehow, the Nationals’ return is looking even more promising nearly two years later.

Gore has taken a big step forward in his age-25 season, increasing his velocity while significantly decreasing the hard contact he allows. His strikeout rate is up, his walk rate is down, and he’s given up just four home runs over his first nine starts. He has a 3.30 ERA and 3.16 FIP in 46.1 innings pitched.

Meanwhile, Abrams has taken a similar step forward on the other side of the ball. He’s swinging with authority, and by making more contact in the air, he’s hitting for significantly more power. With nine doubles, four triples, and seven home runs, he has a 121 wRC+ and 1.1 FanGraphs WAR. If he stays healthy and plays every day for the rest of the season, the shortstop is on pace for a four-win campaign.

Checking In on the Prospects

On the prospect side, Hassell’s stock has fallen, but James Wood’s has risen through the roof. Wood came in at No. 6 on Just Baseball’s preseason Top 100 Prospects list, and he is now our top prospect who has yet to make his MLB debut.

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Wood is currently batting .348 with a 1.028 OPS at Triple-A, leading the International League with 56 hits and 37 runs in 43 games. As our own Jack McMullen put it on the Just Baseball Show yesterday, “James Wood should be in the major leagues right now.”

Unfortunately, Hassell and Susana have struggled in their new organization. Hassell tumbled down prospect lists after hitting .220 with a .663 OPS over his first two seasons in the Nationals system. On the bright side, he’s off to a solid start in 2024, but he needs to hit for at least some power if he’s going to have a future in the major leagues.

Meanwhile, Susana remains a wild card in his third season at Single-A. However, he is still just 20 years old; he isn’t in any rush to develop. The same is true for Hassell. At 22 years old, he has time to figure things out.

More to the point, it’s looking like the Nationals have already gotten three potential All-Stars out of the Soto trade. Anything they get from Hassell and Susana will be icing on top of a very sweet cake.

The Nationals Are Getting What They Wanted

Does all this mean trading Juan Soto was worth it? That remains a point of contention.

Hindsight is 20/20, and we now know the Nationals wouldn’t have been competitive again before Soto reached free agency. They maximized their return by cashing in early.

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Still, the Nationals sacrificed a lot when they traded Soto. Perhaps he was never going to accept an extension, but they could have kept him around through 2024 and made a strong effort to re-sign him in free agency. If he stuck around in Washington long-term, he certainly could have been the greatest player in franchise history. He might have been the first Hall of Famer to wear a Nationals cap.

Was trading Juan Soto worth it? There’s no easy answer.

However, at the end of the day, it’s clear the Nationals have gotten exactly what they wanted out of the trade so far. That’s not to say they were right to trade Soto, but it’s hard to deny that Mike Rizzo and co. made the best deal they could.

Stats updated prior to game time on May 22.