WASHINGTON — It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
The Nationals put an end to the Juan Soto era in D.C. on Tuesday, trading him and Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres in an eight-player blockbuster deal. Three years after Soto led them to their first World Series title, he’s headed west to join up with Fernando Tatís Jr. and Manny Machado to help their franchise do the same.
Only 23 years old, Soto is exactly the type of player teams build their franchises around. He has an unmatched eye for the strike zone, power to all fields, an engaging personality endearing to fans and leadership qualities far beyond his years. The Home Run Derby title he claimed in July is a mere footnote on the list of all his accomplishments in just four and a half seasons.
The Nationals hoped to lock him up, making three extension offers this season including one for 15 years and $440 million. However, Soto and his agent Scott Boras set a high price tag and Washington wasn’t willing to meet it — with the club’s potential ownership change playing a role in Soto’s hesitancy as well. So they moved on, putting Soto on the block and ultimately trading him for a historic package that provides an immediate boost to their farm system.
But as much as baseball is a business, that didn’t make it any easier for those in the Nationals’ organization to say goodbye.
“For him and I, it was about that special bond,” Martinez said. “We’ve had that relationship where…I can push him a little bit when I needed to and he can come talk to me about anything, family, whatever. It was definitely a special relationship I had with the kid. I talked to his dad a lot. I said, ‘I know by birth, he’s your son. On the field…,’”
Martinez paused, full of emotion.
“He’s my son.”
Martinez is the only big-league manager Soto has ever known, just as the Nationals are the only franchise he’s ever played for. Washington signed him as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2015, giving him a then-franchise record $1.5 million bonus. He spent two and a half years working through their system, an experience he still cherishes today.
“Since I start here, I saw it was a pretty good organization,” Soto said Monday after his final game with the Nationals. “Through the minor leagues, there were really good persons down there. There were really good coaches that would help me out go through the minor leagues. I wouldn’t have done it without them.”
When Soto did reach the majors in 2018, the Nationals were still in the middle of their competitive window. His play during those first two years was complemented by a winning product on the field, culminating with a World Series title. But in the three years since, the team has played a very different brand of baseball.
Since 2020, the Nationals’ 126-200 record entering play Tuesday ranked third worst in MLB just ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates (120-204) and Arizona Diamondbacks (122-202). Even as Soto developed into a perennial MVP candidate, the Nationals’ quality of play deteriorated to the point where the club held a fire sale at last year’s trade deadline that was highlighted by the trade that sent Trea Turner and Max Scherzer to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Nationals President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo made an even bigger trade Tuesday, one that will be forever tied to his legacy. Though, as he pointed out in his press conference, so will the decision to sign Soto in the first place.
“I’ll remember Juan as the guy who was with me when I won my first World Series as a general manager,” Rizzo said. “He is a generational player, he’s a wonderful person and a true gentleman of the game. What can you say about Juan Soto that hasn’t already been said? He’s the MVP of the playoffs in 2019 as a 20-year-old. He came into the league as a 19-year-old, and when he left today with tears in our eyes, he thanked me for it.”