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Thinking through a possible Mariners trade for Juan Soto

The LL staff takes a look at whether a Soto trade makes sense (probably yes) and if the Mariners would do it (probably no)

San Diego Padres v Philadelphia Phillies - Game Two
yeah we don’t really think so either, but we’d sure love to have ya, Juan
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Simmering along beneath the fevered pitch of the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes this off-season has been the lingering question of the suddenly cost-conscious Padres trading Juan Soto. If it happens, it would be the second time Soto, one of the game’s brightest young stars, had been shipped out for reasons beyond his performance on the field, which is a sad commentary on the state of baseball and the teams who have been lucky enough to employ Soto. It would also raise an interesting question: what are teams willing to sacrifice for one year of Soto’s services: a rental player, but maybe the best rental player that’s been available...ever? And if Soto was available, would the Mariners be willing to sacrifice the resources necessary to put in the winning bid? And should they? Our staffers put our heads together to talk it over.

The player:

You can skip this section if you already know Juan Soto’s whole deal, but we recommend you don’t, because sometimes it’s fun to dwell on greatness

I’m like hey what’s up hello, seen you dominate the sport, soon as you came in the door, I just wanna chill, watched you OPS .950 thru the age of 24, gonna make that money so let’s trade for Juan Soto.

It’s 25-year-old Juan Soto, that’s who would be playing for the Seattle Mariners. The guy whose career line thus far is “if Edgar Martinez had more power,” Soto’s most common comp historically is Ted Williams, without a hint of irony or exaggeration. He boasts a .284/.421/.524 slash line, good for a 154 career wRC+ in 3375 plate appearances, with a .275/.410/.519 line and a 155 wRC+ in 2023. Not only does Soto rarely whiff, he walks (19.0%) more than he strikes out (17.1%). Adding Soto (even if it requires subtracting one of the M’s young pitchers) immediately improves the 2024 club more dramatically than any other one player in the sport save for Ronald Acuña Jr. (yes, including that other name that’s being closely watched this off-season). Soto immediately transforms the top of the Mariners’ lineup into the kind Mariners fans have watched with dread over the years as the 1-2-3 punch of the Astros’ Altuve-Bregman-Álvarez, or more recently, the Rangers’ Semien-Seager-[insert whatever Ranger is hitting hottest here]. He could lead off or hit second or third, likely alongside J.P. Crawford and Julio Rodríguez.

Bringing in Soto not only improves the Seattle Mariners immediately, he also completely shifts the paradigm for a club dogged internally and externally by criticism for half-measures, a troubling narrative that appears well-accepted by the baseball world in Seattle and beyond. Adding what would likely be the American League’s best player would help with that, and aid any immediate or future recruitment efforts. Moreover, his one-year deal affords the M’s greater flexibility to operate. A qualifying offer is a guarantee at the end of the season, as will be a massive FA deal, meaning Seattle will yield a pick in the back of the first round. Alternatively, should Seattle flounder, they can flip Soto at the deadline for imminent prospects, as they did with Cliff Lee back in 2010. No other single move would bring the M’s closer to an AL West title.

The catch:

Of course there’s a catch; actually, there are two. The first one you probably know: Juan Soto is set to become a free agent at the end of 2024, if no long-term deal with the Padres is reached first. How much would you pay for the world’s best rental player? That’s the question 29 teams have to puzzle over should the Padres make Soto available in trade talks. Heavy on the should conditional, there.

The second part of that catch, then: The instant the last piece of confetti fell at the close of the World Series, the Padres started dialing up Soto’s camp, and they won’t stop until a deal is reached or Soto makes it absolutely clear he has no interest playing in San Diego in the future. So this thought-experiment relies on the assumption that Soto does not want to return to the Padres, or at least is interested in exploring some different avenues in free agency. The Padres have made it clear they want to shed salary, but Soto is the kind of player you shed salary for in order to be able to pay. So this also relies on the Padres not seeing a strong path forward for both a long-term deal with Soto and a return to contention in 2024, and a desire to capitalize on Soto’s walk year and cash in some chips while they can. Feels like some desperate thinking, but then look at where San Diego stands in the NL West: perpetually lagging behind the Dodgers, the favorites to win the Ohtani sweepstakes, with the Diamondbacks leapfrogging them with a younger and more cost-controlled core, and San Francisco hovering around the margins. (And then the Rockies. Poor Rockies.)

The cost:

We had to, in order to set a baseline for this discussion, set a trade parameter. Every one of us on staff would trade Emerson Hancock for one year of Juan Soto in a heartbeat. But clearly, that’s not what it would cost, and almost any other team would outbid it easily. So the cost here is tricky to measure because it’s what the market is willing to surrender, and it’s tough to guess at how aggressive-slash-desperate some teams (cough cough YANKEES) will be in vying for Soto’s services. What we agreed upon, what we see as fair, is a trade that brings back some major-league ready talent and a future piece for the Padres’ rotation, which stands to lose Blake Snell this off-season as well. You can flex in some different names here, but the return we’re working with is:

Juan Soto for Bryan Woo + Cade Marlowe + Prelander Berroa

Note that this return isn’t what it would actually take to get Soto. Certainly those in San Diego want to see a blockbuster trade, a return of equal prospective talent for the year of Soto’s services. Here’s an article from the NBC affiliate in San Diego that proposes Jasson Dominguez as a return from the Yankees, for example. And it’s possible, even likely, that the Padres could hold Soto, hoping a team does blow them away with a blockbuster offer, or wait it out and swap him at the trade deadline. To really be in the conversation, the Mariners would likely have to start adding some heft from their farm system.

But, in order to have a similar baseline to work off of, this is the return we agreed on: one of the young pitchers, plus some auxiliary pieces, for a year of Soto. Some of us would give more, and happily so, weighing down those scales to outbid anyone else, and you could add marginal pieces around the deal or swap Marlowe for another of Seattle’s lefty-hitting outfielders or swap Woo for Bryce Miller. But this is the median we’re working with, predicated on the widespread reports of San Diego likely needing to cut payroll at least down to merely in the range of $200 million, while still hoping to compete around a core that is mostly under long-term team control and several top-tier prospects.

Making dozens of trades that deal away cost control for short-term talent is a recipe for creating a cliff for the Mariners organization. But an occasional trade like this, sending three players who would likely be part of the 26-man roster for San Diego but could potentially all be Tacoma Rainiers come Spring is a soft-launch off said cliff, which might be less of a freefall than initially thought. Sometimes Mariners fans can have a trade that’s not ruthlessly focused on long-term efficiency, as a treat.

The reactions: Should the Mariners do this?

Anders: I was in the “no” camp for a long time. Let’s face it — Juan Soto is not signing a contract extension. Not with the Mariners or with anyone else. His agent is Scott Boras, and a bidding war behooves them since the age and talent combo could lead to a $500M+ contract guarantee from someone. They’ll want to test those free agent waters.

So, yes, he’s a rental. But he’s also a likely future Hall of Famer who can be acquired for a very reasonable cost. The return outlined above does not seriously damage the future of the franchise and it immensely boosts the present value of the roster. Can you imagine a Kelenic-Julio-Soto outfield for 162 games? Add Soto to this team and you have a potential division contender no matter what else you do this winter.

Plus, as it pertains to the free agency sweepstakes, while he might not sign an extension with the Mariners, there is value to bringing him to Seattle for a year. If he likes it here, the Mariners jump up the list of potential landing spots for him next winter and maybe woo their way into something of a hometown discount. It’s not a slam dunk, but it’s not nothing either. Especially if he loves playing with Julio and his other teammates.

John: Yes, please, I be out here seeching. No, you can never have enough pitching. Yes, this puts the M’s in a position to need to add to their starting rotation as well. But for the next 3+ years Seattle has at least five starting pitchers of quality under contract, plus whatever Marco Gonzales can provide. Can they develop or acquire another pitcher or two in the next 3 years? I believe they can, at a far greater rate than I expect them to create a player of Soto’s caliber for even a single season. Any iota of opportunity to improve the odds of Soto signing in Seattle (presently near-zero) is good, though I realistically would expect this to be a true rental that merely yields the M’s an extra first round pick in the 30-40 range, valued at roughly $7-10 million by FanGraphs by itself. Also, it’d be awesome to win the AL West.

Kate: If you can get a Juan Soto, you get a Juan Soto. There’s no way a Juan Soto should ever be available outside of free agency (and maybe not even then), so it’s bonkers to think he might be available twice (and I don’t feel like he’s going to be, because the Padres are wild, but they are not stupid). That being said, I question how much Soto actually moves the needle for the Mariners, who have so far spent this off-season actively getting worse. Soto would be a big swing in the offensively-positive direction, but then I think about Soto, with two outs, getting intentionally walked to bring up the middle of the Mariners’ lineup that day, consisting of Josh Rojas, Luis Urías, and Seby Zavala because it’s an off-day for Cal, and ouch. Also, remember that it took Soto a while to hit his stride as a Padre. He lost a hundred points of slugging moving from Nationals Park to the more-spacious Petco Park, which ranks just under T-Mobile in terms of hostility towards hitters. It’d suck for Soto to have a Teo-like year before hightailing it for friendlier confines, with the difference of course being Soto would at least bring his superior plate discipline (T-Mobile didn’t make you strike out all the time, Teo!) - but that’s an awfully high price to pay for a contact hitter/high on-base guy, as much as the Mariners say they want to solve their strikeout issues.

Nicky V: I wish I could be the voice of reason here and give a nuanced take about why maybe I don’t think this is the right move for the Mariners. But hell yeah, absolutely, no doubt, slam dunk, 360 no-scope, double back handspring into a double-turn half pike for gold at the 2024 Paris Olympics. So much so that I wonder if we need to change the discussion. Getting a future Hall of Famer in the door getting to play next to Julio Rodríguez all season? Take my baby Prelander. Take my Woo gifs. And definitely take Cade Marlowe.

Ezra: Yes. The Mariners struggled a lot last year, with strikeouts going up and walks going way down. Soto offers the inverse in spades. In thinking about this move, I think back to the trade for Cliff Lee. Was it worth it long term? No, but for one glorious moment, the Mariners had the best 1-2 punch in baseball, and for me, rooting for a team that was finally getting attention, admiration, and respect was the greatest feeling in the world. Years from now, it’s unlikely we’ll even remember who we traded, but we will always remember the summer Juan Soto and Julio Rodríguez played side by side.

Isabelle: To quote one of our greatest baseball minds, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single team in possession of no World Series rings, must be in want of a star.” I don’t know, y’all. Baseball discourse has gotten weird. It’s literally Juan Soto. Your best case scenario? Seattle Mariner Juan Soto is the 2024 World Series MVP. Your worst case scenario? Juan Soto plays for your Seattle Mariners in 2024.

Evan: Juan Soto is the right player for the Mariners at the wrong price and the wrong time. They don’t acquire players with less cost control than they are trading away. They don’t invest high dollar amounts in free agents. They especially don’t trade talent in both quantity and quality for someone who costs over $30 million. Oh and his agent is Scott Boras so if you say the word “extension” too loudly, you might get hit with a chloroform rag and shoved in a locker. I’d trade Miller or Woo straight up and likely so would the Mariners, but some of the proposals I’ve seen on Twitter and elsewhere seem to be valuing Soto as if he is essentially free. Now more than ever he is not free to the Mariners.

Grant: Trading for Juan Soto is the kind of move that works if you’re going all-in through other means. Getting Soto at the expense of upgrading the roster elsewhere doesn’t make sense; dealing from your prospects to get Soto while simultaneously making a big splash in free agency is a great idea. As Isabelle said above, what fan would complain about rooting for Juan Soto on their favorite team?

Jacob:

Zach: A thousand times yes. The future isn’t promised. We’ve already seen the Mariners make one mega-trade in the past couple of seasons (for Luis Castillo). At the time, some lamented that the Mariners had to give up acclaimed prospects Noelvi Marte and Edwin Arroyo. While Marte acquitted himself well in his September call up last season, both prospects have seen their stock drop since the trade. Woo, Marlowe, and Berroa are further along, but all are far from sure things. Even if they do end up reaching their potential, it’s undeniable that this trade would make the Mariners better right now. Their window is shorter than we think.

Bee: I’m just here so I don’t get fined. Not only is Juan Soto good, actually, and acquiring him would make the Mariners Good, (but) Actually™, but also it is the type of move the front office needs to signal to the fan base that their money supporting the team is worth it. I’m not saying anything new here that hasn’t been said by others, but that is part of the point. Too long, even during a record breaking drought, has Mariners ownership operated on residual good faith earned by mediocre accomplishments. The see-saw from last year’s playoff appearance to this year’s complete lack of hope (and literal shipping off of Good Vibes), represent well the ability for this front office to survive on that barely earned good faith, and how that ability has reached a nadir it may not survive. Last year around this time I wrote an article titled something to the effect of 12 Reasons to be Excited about the 2023 Mariners, and this off-season I would settle for 1 ½ reasons.

The reality: would the Mariners do this?

Kate: The organization that basically took themselves out of the running for the Ohtani sweepstakes, the easiest slam-dunk win for improving both the on-field product and gate receipts? I just don’t see it happening. The messaging from the Mariners this off-season has been consistent: this is an organization that is focused on ruthless efficiency and carving costs down to the bone in service of capital-S Sustainability. It’s not off the mark to say the Mariners are vying with the Rays as the poster children for worshiping at the altar of Sustainability, thanks in part to their GM’s affection for saying the quiet parts out loud. Sacrificing part of their young pitching core–plus whatever else it takes to get Soto, which, in trying to outbid the field, would likely take a larger bite out of the Mariners’ farm system than we’ve portrayed here for the sake of having a similar jumping-off point–is anathema to everything we’ve heard from this front office so far, a pitch that’s been dialed up as the pressure of spending in the off-season once again rears its head. Soto will look nifty in pinstripes, though.

Anders: While I think the answer is no, it’s not as out of character for Dipoto as you may initially feel. Last year both of his major trades were for rental players (Teoscar Hernández and Kolten Wong) and it wasn’t long ago that he surrendered two Baseball America top 100 prospects for just 18 months of Luis Castillo! Ultimately, I think he would rather trade Woo and/or Miller for a very good player with multiple years of control than for a great player with one year of control. Maybe he makes this move if he feels desperate to save his job or wipe off the stain of the 54% comment.

John: I don’t think the Seattle Mariners will get Juan Soto. The field has good odds. However, I do think Seattle would do this, and that Woo would be a worthy headliner. The abject terror of trading prospects for established stars is simply overblown. Do the Dodgers regret dealing for Manny Machado or Mookie Betts? Would the Cardinals want back trading for an expiring Paul Goldschmidt for three players no longer in the Diamondbacks organization and a low-ceiling bullpen prospect? Despite years of top prospectdom for the players they moved and intriguing debuts, do the Red Sox regret dealing Yoán Moncada, Michael Kopech, and others for Chris Sale, or the Tigers bringing in Miguel Cabrera? Hell, do the Mariners regret trading for Cliff Lee? Baseball America’s research on trading for star level position players is thorough and compelling on this subject: trading for the star almost always works out better for the acquiring team, even if the star leaves in free agency afterwards. I like Bryan Woo a lot, as do the Mariners, but they know what Soto would do for their lineup. If their front office cannot convince John Stanton and co. to up the budget for Juan Soto, they might as well pack up their oft-accused snake oil shop. What good is all that salesmanship if you can’t sell the boss on genuine ambrosia?

Nicky V: Above, Kate says that the organization is focused on capital-S Sustainability. While I think there is merit to that, I would use a different set of punctuation to describe their approach: “sustainability.” The organization’s main goal, in my analysis, is to present a somewhat-reasonably convincing argument that they are trying to win, just in a “different way”, a la the Rays. However, I do not believe that is the truth. I believe they are focused on financials, first, foremost and exclusively. They have shareholders to answer to, and the shareholders would rather never make the playoffs again if it meant they would net one single dollar more than winning the World Series would.

Rant aside, would they make this trade? I think Dipoto makes this trade, because they have shown that this is their preferred method to acquire talent. I was going to write up a list of similar trades, but it appears that Ders beat me to it above. I also believe that he would give up more for Soto than described I believe they would throw in someone more major League ready than Marlowe, or perhaps someone with a higher ceiling, because that’s what he’l be worth in this relatively thin FA market. I don’t think they would, or should, throw in Harry Ford as an ESPN article suggested.

Could they make this trade, at this price or a higher one? I don’t think so. I think they get beat by someone else, and Stanton and Co. don’t greenlight a higher cost. They will leave Mariners fans out to dry, like grapes turning to raisins in an at-home dehydrator.

Ezra: Yeah, the only thing Jerry loves more than making trades is fleecing the Padres. This may just be a perfect storm for this move to happen when it otherwise might not have. Giving up some middling prospects for a future Hall of Famer is the kind of move that most GMs dream of making, I don’t think Jerry will be able to fight the urge. Jerry, if you’re reading this, do it. You know you want to. What have you got to lose?

Isabelle: From the front office that brought you 54% and Doing the Fanbase a Favor, iiiiiiiit’s “NO.”

Evan: If the Padres hang on to Soto, which I seem to think is more likely than most, I could see the Mariners having the most interesting deal at the deadline, but right now? I think not. The Padres will want more than the Mariners should give. Someone else should offer worse prospects (read: not as currently valuable as Miller or Woo) but more of them and the Mariners should walk away from that table.

Grant: This deal is so out of keeping with Jerry Dipoto that I cannot imagine it happens. Anders makes the point that Dipoto has traded for rental players before, but the cost for both Teo and for Wong pales in comparison to a Soto deal. it’s one thing to deal from our prospect stash at midseason, when the wins are already banked and you know you’re in playoff position, to get someone like Luis Castillo. It’s one thing when, like Castillo, you’re getting multiple years of club control. But giving up a present (or recent) top 100 prospect and then some, just for one year of one player? Hard to fathom.

Zach: This trade would be somewhat risky and would send an unmistakable message to the fanbase and the rest of MLB that their goal is to win now. As such, I can’t see it happening.