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Seattle certainly has the player personnel and financial resources to broker a satisfactory deal from the Washington Nationals’ standpoint. But would forfeiting a potentially record-setting package of prospects for the two-time Silver Slugger make sense for the Mariners?
The answer depends on your perspective.
A contingent of Mariners fans want Soto no matter the cost. Another segment of the team’s followers is reluctant to dispatch a boatload of talent for one player. Both opinions are understandable, so let’s consider the pros and cons of acquiring the 2022 Home Run Derby champion.
First, reasons Dipoto should pursue Soto.
Only three players appearing for the Mariners in 2022 were born after the 23-year-old Soto – outfielders Julio Rodríguez (21) and Jarred Kelenic (22), plus reliever Andrés Muñoz (23). In fact, Soto is one of just 10 players, who are 23-or-younger and have appeared in at least 75 games this season. Rodríguez is another.
Not only that, Soto has already played in two All-Star games before turning 24. He’s one of seven position players to accomplish the feat since the beginning of the 2012 season. You’re probably familiar with them.
The chance to obtain a high-caliber performer at such a young age must be enticing to potential Soto suitors. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t happen often. The most recent example is Miguel Cabrera, traded by the then-Florida Marlins in 2007. The future Hall of Famer, who was 24 at the time, was shipped with pitcher Dontrelle Willis to the Detroit Tigers for Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Frankie De La Cruz, Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller and Mike Rabelo.
This package probably seemed like a good haul for Florida at the time.
A generational talent
A year ago, Mike Petriello of MLB.com highlighted interesting similarities between Soto and a young Ted Williams. Some fans may resist drawing comparisons between a then-22-year-old and one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. Still, Soto’s early-career productivity is on par with some of the game’s most recognizable names.
Note: All statistics are through July 25.
Only four hitters with 2,000-plus plate appearances by their age-23 season have recorded a better OPS+ than Soto. Other than Washington’s all-star outfielder, everyone listed below is a Hall of Famer or destined for Cooperstown once they retire.
Highest OPS+ Through Age-23 Season*
Ted Williams (190)
Ty Cobb (171)
Mike Trout (169)
Albert Pujols (165)
Juan Soto (158)
Eddie Mathews (157)
Mickey Mantle (156)
Jimmie Foxx (154)
Mel Ott (153)
Rogers Hornsby (150)
*2,000 PA minimum
Soto’s superpower is his elite-level on-base ability. Since debuting in 2018, he has the same 18.9% walk rate as Williams did through his age-23 campaign. Naturally, Teddy Ballgame is the only hitter with a better OBP (.481) than Soto’s .427.
Seattle’s offense is meh
Despite the addition of Eugenio Suárez, Jesse Winker, and Adam Frazier in the offseason, Seattle’s offense continues to be average-ish or slightly worse in multiple categories. Including baseball’s most important stat – runs scored.
Obviously, adding a hitter of Soto’s ilk immediately bolsters Seattle’s production and lengthens the lineup. Consider this: the 2020 NL batting champion’s home run total, OBP, SLG, and OPS+ this season are better than any of Seattle’s regulars.
He’ll be around for a few years
Soto isn’t a rental. He has two more years of arbitration eligibility prior to reaching free agency after the 2024 season. Therefore, the left-handed hitter will be available to help the Mariners make three postseason runs before leaving.
No one wants to come to here
This is certain to infuriate some Mariners fans, but it’s true. Whether it’s the travel associated with being based in the Pacific Northwest or the credibility of the front office and/or ownership, premium free agents have avoided coming to Seattle. There has been one notable exception in the last decade-plus and there was a catch.
Robinson Canó did agree to sign with the Mariners. But only after feeling slighted by his former team. The Yankees’ final offer to the multiple All-Star was reportedly seven years and $175 million. Conversely, Seattle’s former ownership group permitted former GM Jack Zduriencik to ink the then-31-year-old to a 10-year/$240 million contract. Essentially, the Mariners outbid themselves to land Canó.
Short of overpaying a free agent to a ridiculous level, a trade may be the only way the Mariners can land someone with Soto’s credentials.
Okay, we’ve run through rationale supporting Dipoto pursuing Soto. Now, let’s consider factors fueling angst among some Mariners fans. Perhaps you won’t agree, but their concerns merit consideration.
Dollars and sense
It’s plausible the winner of the Soto sweepstakes will be required to take on one of the Nationals’ big contracts along with parting with prospects. That said, Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post suggested via Twitter that it’s unlikely the team would take this approach.
This, I must say, has been the most confusing part of some of this speculation. You don’t trade a generational talent to save $50M on Patrick Corbin if it costs you talent. https://t.co/KxtaVqr1su
— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) July 27, 2022
Considering Janes’ extensive knowledge on how the Nationals franchise operates, her rationale makes complete sense to me. You can find her follow-up column on the topic here.
Having said that, let’s assume the Nationals zig when everyone thought they’d zag. If the team insisted on including a high-cost player in a Soto deal, the best candidate would be starting pitcher Patrick Corbin, who Janes mentioned in her Twitter thread. Some may suggest Stephen Strasburg, who’s currently on the IL with a rib injury and isn’t expected to pitch again this year. But this seems even less likely than Corbin being dealt.
Health issues aside, Strasburg is owed approximately $153 million through the end of the 2026 season, when he’s 37-years-old. Furthermore, the right-hander has full no-trade protection and shares the same agent as Soto – Scott Boras. It’s inconceivable to me that the Nationals would include Strasburg in a deal and essentially give Boras some form of influence over Soto’s destination.
As for Corbin, he’s owed roughly $8.2 million for the remainder of 2022. The 33-year-old is then set to earn about $59.8 million for the next two seasons. This includes a $10 million deferred payment due in 2025, the year after his contract expires. All told, Corbin’s cost is in the neighborhood of $68 million. This doesn’t sound so bad until you look at his recent record.
Normally, I’m quick to point out ERA isn’t necessarily the best indicator of pitcher performance. But Corbin’s poor ERA aligns with a multitude of conventional and advanced metrics. All suggest the two-time All-Star isn’t the same pitcher who finished fifth in 2018 NL Cy Young Award voting with Arizona.
Among 101 pitchers facing 500-plus hitters since the beginning of the 2021 campaign, Corbin places in the bottom-10% of multiple old school and nerd categories.
Corbin’s stats and MLB rankings (since 2021)
5.82 ERA (98th)
5.41 FIP (97th)
1.47 WHIP (90th)
.345 OBP (89th)
.510 SLG (99th)
.362 wOBA (98th)
.360 xwOBA (100th)
19.4 SO% (82nd)
8.0 BB% (68th)
Clearly, Corbin has struggled with Washington, particularly over the past two years. But it’s worth noting he rarely misses a turn in the rotation. During four turbulent seasons as a National, only two pitchers have made more starts than his 95 – Aaron Nola (97) and Seattle’s Robbie Ray (96). Gerrit Cole and Jose Berrios have also started 95 games.
Okay, you get the picture. Corbin posts, but hasn’t been effective for quite some time. Perhaps a Soto suitor believes they can help Corbin recapture the form he displayed as a Diamondback. Or maybe clubs so intent on getting Soto are fine with eating the southpaw’s salary to get their man. Will the Mariners fall into either or both categories?
In the end, this question may not matter because Janes is probably correct. Trying to dump salary in a deal shipping out a generational talent seems inane. Still, MLB owners have been known to occasionally make decisions counter to the best interest of the on-field product.
Soto isn’t staying in Seattle
It’s highly unlikely Soto would remain a Mariner past the term of his current contract. Don’t take it personally Seattle fans. The native of the Dominican Republic probably wouldn’t sign with any team before he’s free agent eligible.
Boras is a strong proponent of his clients reaching free agency to maximize their market value. This philosophy helps explain a Ken Rosenthal report that Soto recently turned down a 14-year/$440 million extension offer made by Washington. It’s the reason Nationals management is reportedly ready to deal him before next week’s deadline.
So many prospects
The prospect price tag for Soto will be steep, perhaps historical. The Nationals will likely prefer some of these young players have experience in the majors or be close to MLB-ready. Some Seattle fans dread the notion of their favorite prospects or young major-leaguers leave the organization.
Who might the Mariners make available in a Soto trade proposal?
Hard to know about the big-leaguers. That said, there are no untouchable prospects in Seattle’s farm system. Names bandied about by various outlets include several players with MLB service time – starters Logan Gilbert and George Kirby, reliever Matt Brash, and Kelenic. Farmhands receiving mention are shortstops Noelvi Marte and Edwin Arroyo, catcher Harry Ford, and starters Emerson Hancock, Taylor Dollard, and Bryce Miller.
Regardless of how many players get moved, there will be consternation within the Mariners fan base. Remember, there’s a contingent worried the team will trade away the next Adam Jones. It’s certainly a possibility, but dealing prospects with potential for major leaguers with elite-level credentials is worth the risk.
For all the praise Soto receives for his offensive prowess, advanced metrics suggest he’s delivered less-than-ideal defense lately. His -3 defensive runs saved (DRS) ranks 12th among 16 right fielders with 400-plus innings at the position this season. For further context, the Mariners have two players with +3 DRS in right field in less than 200 frames – Kelenic and Dylan Moore.
The Baseball Savant metric outs above average (OAA) portrays Soto’s glove work in an even dimmer light. His -9 OOA ranks last among 123 outfielders on the Statcast leaderboard. A recent series of tweets from Petriello attempted to decode Soto’s defensive issues using stats and video examples. It’s worth checking out.
Since we’re all-Soto-all-the-time .. I haven’t the slightest idea what to make of his defense. (These are 0-100 percentiles.) Matches eye test, so not just single-year weirdness. DRS largely agrees. Aside from 18, there’s some speed/OAA correlation here. What .. even is this? pic.twitter.com/apvf9PVW1W
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) July 22, 2022
Not so fast, my friend
Soto isn’t a speedster. His 26.1 ft/sec sprint speed this season is just below the MLB-average. Similarly, FanGraphs’ base running metric (BsR), which the site uses in its WAR computations, ranks him 145th of 155 qualified MLB hitters.
In the grand scheme of things, Soto’s speed may seem irrelevant to fans wanting the Mariners to acquire him. Maybe it is. Then again, he’s only 23.
What will that sprint speed look like by his late-twenties?
When I set out to write this piece, ambivalence would best describe my sentiment regarding a pursuit of Soto. If the Mariners landed him, great. If the team whiffed or passed on the opportunity to trade for baseball’s hottest commodity, fine. To a degree, those feelings remain unchanged.
Still, I do believe the Mariners should take the plunge and go after Soto. Dipoto is probably already doing so.
The Mariners’ struggles to attract elite free agents may not change in the short-term. Therefore, getting an exceptional player like Soto, who could potentially help the club reach the postseason three times is wonderfully enticing.
Sure, the price for Soto will be steep. Whether it includes an exorbitant contract or the Mariners forking over a very significant package of prospect equity, that’s the cost of doing business. Especially when a generational talent is involved.
Yes, Soto likely walks at the end of his contract. So what? If his already substandard speed and defense are signs of what’s to come, the Mariners won’t have to worry about it. He’s a goner after his age-25 season.
And about those prospects. If acquiring Soto somehow helps usher in a championship era for the Mariners, the sorrow felt from losing a few popular minor-leaguers will be swept away by jubilation in the Emerald City.
Yep, the Mariners trading for Soto is a no-brainer.
My Oh My…
Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up as a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home.
In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team. During baseball season, he can often be found observing the local team at T-Mobile Park.
You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins