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Examining a Juan Soto trade for the Mariners

The Mariners are one of a very few teams with the right conditions to trade for the superstar, so let’s look at that.

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Washington Nationals v. Miami Marlins Photo by Kelly Gavin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

We at Lookout Landing live under the banner of “service journalism.” Something I ask the staff to consider in writing their articles is “does this inform, enlighten, or entertain?” And “what is the value-add in asking people to spend time reading this article as opposed to doing something else?” And, crucially: “Who does this help, and how?”

Sometimes the answer to that is clear—recapping a day game on the east coast when many people are at work, for example—and many times, it feels good to provide this sort of service. Other times, though, it means “consider this question that most of the fanbase would like to think about, even if it’s not something you think is interesting, or possible, or helpful.” So that’s how we arrive at this article, about the possibility of the Mariners trading for Juan Soto.

For some background: it was reported on Saturday that Juan Soto has rejected a 15-year, $440M dollar contract extension offer from the Nationals, who will now theoretically explore trading their 23-year-old superstar outfielder. It was reportedly the third official offer made by the Nationals to Soto’s camp, headed by superagent Scott Boras, and although it likely won’t be the last, it sounds like Washington is running out of momentum in extension discussions. As recently as June 1, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo told the media the club would not be trading Soto, instead centering him in the team’s rebuild, but after turning down what would be a record-breaking deal, sources close to the team believe that Soto might prefer to move on from the Nationals entirely and test his value on the free agent market, something Boras clients do more often than not. Complicating the issue are the rumors that the Nationals might be up for sale soon, causing instability in the club’s long-term outlook.

If the Nationals do want to explore trading Soto, they are under no pressure to do so, as he’s under club control for another two seasons after this one; however, the prospect haul would be higher if they were to pull the trigger on a deal prior to this trade deadline so a contending club had the superstar slugger down the stretch. With the worst-ranked farm system in baseball to go along with its worst record, a Soto trade would kickstart the rebuild in Washington, shaving precious time off the slow struggle back to contention. It would also clear Soto’s salary—close to $20M/year—from the books for a potential buyer, offering more flexibility in roster construction, to say nothing of the financial pressure of a significant multi-year deal.

It’s difficult to figure out an appropriate return for Soto. 23-year-old phenoms aren’t supposed to be available on the trading block; it is a perversion of the sport, a dereliction of duty by the Washington ballclub. We throw a lot of (deserved) shade at the disgraced former California Angels around these parts, but to Arte Moreno’s credit, he has been struggling for years to put the proper pieces around first Trout, now Ohtani, unafraid of spending money to make the most of the generational talents he’s been gifted. The goal of any team—from the scouting department to the player development system to the analytic front-office types—is to find a single Juan Soto among thousands of other players and center their ballclub around that player, and the idea of a team throwing their hands up and quitting on a superstar in his prime ought to be recognized and reviled.

Every team needs and wants a Juan Soto. However, a perfect trade match is tricky. The first requirement is a strong farm system, strong enough that sending back key pieces won’t hobble the big-league club for years to come. There are only a few teams who are both contenders or contender-adjacent and prospect-rich enough to be considered. Baltimore is a fun idea, but couldn’t get there without dealing key pieces of their own rebuild. Arizona could easily do it on the prospect front (Corbin Carroll, Jordan Lawlar to start), but does adding Soto to their current squad push them ahead of the Dodgers/Padres? Probably not. The Yankees are actually an excellent fit; dealing for Soto solves their Joey Gallo problem, fits their competitive window, and they have the prospect capital to get a deal done (Anthony Volpe, Jasson Dominguez).

However, in order to make a trade work, there’s a second requirement at play: a team that has both roster and payroll space available, because in order to make a deal work without completely cleaning out a team’s farm system, a team most likely needs to eat a contract like Patrick Corbin’s or Stephen Strasburg’s, in addition to taking on Soto’s salary/offering a significant contract extension. That might eliminate the Yankees or any other high-payroll commitment team trying to stay under the luxury tax threshold, as arbitrary and meaningless as that artificial salary cap is. In this case, as staff member John proposes, the Giants might be one of the strongest fits; they could offer a package built around Top-100 prospects SS Marco Luciano (#9) and LHP Kyle Harrison (#25), and either Joey Bart or Patrick Bailey, as well as eating some salary for one of the Nationals’ heavy contracts. That’s if the Giants feel like acquiring Soto is enough to push them to compete with the powerhouse Dodgers and surging Padres in their division. If nothing else, Soto would give them the generational talent they currently lack, where the Padres have Tatís Jr. and the Dodgers have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of star-adjacent quality if not superstar quality players. It’s a hard thing, after all, to find a superstar, which is why this whole conversation is, in a sense, obscene.

The Mariners, of course, think they have found that superstar-quality player in Julio Rodríguez, who at 21, seems to be on pace in the “generational talent” department with his slightly-older countryman. But why have one cornerstone when you could have two? Is it greedy? Possibly. Do we, as Mariners fans, deserve a little greed? Definitely.

The Mariners, thanks to their penny-pinching ways this off-season, have plenty of salary cap space to bring over Soto and a pal from Washington; thanks to their strong player development system, they also have the prospect capital to spend. It would hurt: with recent graduations, the Mariners’ system isn’t as strong as it once was, and a slow start to the season for Noelvi Marte means the Mariners would be selling low-ish on him. The Nationals would likely ask for lower-level prospects to fit a deep rebuilding window, meaning MLB-adjacent players like Emerson Hancock or Zach DeLoach would be less desirable compared to someone like Marte or Edwin Arroyo, currently the most impressive prospect in the Mariners system. The Nationals could also ask for Seattle’s top international signing from last year, OF Lázaro Montes, who is currently lighting up the DSL, as a potential Soto replacement, or 2021 first-rounder Harry Ford, who’s been slowed by an early-season injury in Modesto but has steadily improved over the past month. Some combination of three of those four—Marte, Arroyo, Montes, and Ford—plus a mid-to-later-tier prospect like Jonatan Clase and assorted low-level arms is probably enough to seriously kickstart talks. With a weak system like Washington’s, it might be worth offering quantity over quality and seeing if they bite. Whatever it takes, the cost will be significant.

However, it doesn’t make any sense to trade for Soto unless you intend to try to extend him, and the Mariners will soon face several tough decisions in that department. First and foremost, their priority should be making sure Julio Rodríguez—their homegrown superstar, their Juan Soto—is signed to a contract that makes him a Mariner for a very long time. This isn’t to say both Julio and Soto can’t happen, but it is to say extending Julio should, and will be, the priority.

Ultimately, my feeling is Soto won’t be traded, at least not at this deadline. The potential list of perfect fits—a contending or contending-adjacent team with a strong farm system and ample payroll space—is just too small, and with the trade deadline looming, it seems like it would take more time to hammer out the details of what promises to be the blockbuster trade to end all blockbuster trades. In addition to that, the optics for the Nationals trading him in the first place are clearly terrible, and unless Soto directly tells the Nationals in the next week “I will not sign a long term contract with you,” I feel like Washington keeps trying to hold on to their generational talent. There just aren’t that many of them, you see. That’s why they’re generational talents.