Sport: After Soto Trade, Crushed Nats Clubhouse Left to Root for Padres

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Soto’s now-former Nationals teammates were sad to see him go. They’re also elated to see him play in games that matter.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With four hours to go before Tuesday’s 6 p.m. trade deadline, the Padres added right fielder Juan Soto, first baseman Josh Bell—and some two dozen San Diego fans in the Nationals’ clubhouse.

Soto, 23, spent an hour exchanging tears and goodbyes with members of the only organization he has ever known, the organization to which he helped bring a championship in 2019 and the organization that two months ago announced it would not trade him. One person after another delivered the same message: Go win the World Series.

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Catcher Tres Barrera, who was drafted a year after Soto signed as a 16-year-old from the Dominican Republic and interpreted for him at restaurants until Soto taught himself English, told him to “win another ring.”

Righty Erick Fedde, who chuckled as a 19-year-old Soto, who had not quite grown into his body, began to learn how good he was, said, “Go ring chasing.” He added, “If I pitch against you, don’t hit me around too hard. Singles, no homers.”

Manager Davey Martinez, who has spent weeks imagining life without the prodigy he considers “my son,” told him, “You go over there and you make that team play up to you.”

Nationals manager Davey Martinez is left to pick up the pieces of a team that’s lost its World Series-winning starpower over the last few years. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Nationals manager Davey Martinez is left to pick up the pieces of a team that’s lost its World Series-winning starpower over the last few years. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

They were all crushed to see Soto go. They were also elated to see him play in games that matter.

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Fans of the sport should be, too. It’s fun to see a superstar spend his whole career in one uniform. But how’s that going for Mike Trout, who has appeared in exactly three playoff games, all losses, in 12 years with the Angels, and was just diagnosed with a rare spine injury?

The remaining Nationals understand this. Since that reality-defying sprint to the 2019 World Series title, Washington has not recorded a winning season. It entered the season with the 23rd-ranked farm system, according to MLB.com. The team is for sale. Soto can be a free agent after the ’24 season and last month turned down a $440 million, 15-year extension offer.

So, some six weeks after GM Mike Rizzo told WJFK radio that he would not trade Soto, he changed his mind.

“We did feel that we were not going to be able to extend him,” Rizzo said Tuesday, his voice catching at times. “And we felt that, at this time, with two and a half years remaining, three playoff runs available to Juan Soto, he would never be more at value than he is today.”

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Rizzo wore his 2019 World Series ring to his press conference, he said, as a reminder of “what [the Nationals] did in the past and what we're going to do in the future.”

That day is surely years away. The Nationals received shortstop C.J. Abrams, lefty MacKenzie Gore, first baseman Luke Voit and three top prospects, seen around the industry as an extremely strong return. But on Tuesday, Martinez joked he was not sure he could field a team.

Juan Soto leaves behind a clubhouse full of ex-teammates who will be rooting for him from across the country. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Juan Soto leaves behind a clubhouse full of ex-teammates who will be rooting for him from across the country. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, Soto and Bell will join a team with, according to FanGraphs, an 86% chance of making the playoffs. That figure must have improved Tuesday, when the Padres also acquired solid utilityman Brandon Drury from the Reds and jettisoned first baseman Eric Hosmer to the Red Sox, a day after nabbing closer Josh Hader from the Brewers. The Dodgers are still the overwhelming favorite to win the division, and San Diego’s minor league teams may need to recruit fans from the stands, but the Padres should be fun to watch.

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As should Soto. He seems to thrive during the biggest moments. Four innings after Astros third baseman Alex Bregman hit a home run and carried his bat to first base during Game 6 of the 2019 World Series, Soto did the same thing. Afterward, he laughed. “It's pretty cool. I want to do it, too,” Soto said. “That's what I think when I saw that. I get the opportunity and do the same thing.”

He recently eliminated the crotch grab from the dance he does after close pitches, but the gesture remains enough of a trademark that he now wears a necklace with a diamond-encrusted version of the Soto Shuffle. There have been few such opportunities for relevance in Washington recently. A year ago at this time, the Nationals traded righty Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner to the Dodgers. That October, with Washington long eliminated from contention, Soto appeared at the wild-card game at Dodger Stadium, wearing a Turner Nationals jersey and rooting for L.A.

He makes even more of a statement with his play. He has clobbered 119 home runs in five seasons and has a career OPS+ of 160. Only four players have been better through their age-23 season: Ted Williams (190), Ty Cobb (171), Trout (169) and Albert Pujols (165). Twenty players named to the Futures Game roster are older than he is.

“His comps are Hall of Famers,” said reliever Sean Doolittle. “Like, there’s no comps for him. He’s on a whole [different] level. I feel really lucky to have been his teammate for a few years. Like, he’s that good. I feel lucky to have watched him play on a daily basis.”

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But the last few weeks have worn on Soto. After The Athletic reported that Soto had declined the extension offer, reliever Sean Doolittle said, “You could see that he was carrying it around a little bit.” Soto usually bounds into the clubhouse, beaming and chattering with anyone in sight. But that day, Doolittle said, Soto sat stonefaced at his locker. DH Nelson Cruz said that Soto had begun to wonder what to do about the house he bought in Washington. Barrera said he seemed tired. So as happy as they are that Soto gets to join a contender, teammates said, they were even happier that he gets to stop thinking about where he will live.

At times the people close to Soto spoke as if he had died. “The toughest thing with Juan is he was just so young,” Martinez said.

An air of finality pervaded Nationals Park on Tuesday as the team prepared to face the Mets. Soto and Bell said their goodbyes around 1 p.m. and headed home to pack. Clubhouse attendants boxed up their belongings. “You’re too late,” said center fielder Victor Robles when the locker room opened to reporters shortly after 3. “They’re gone.”

Indeed, only Soto’s likeness remained, on the banner staring into center field, on the mural in the clubhouse hallway celebrating the 2019 World Series win and on the Star Wars–themed JUAN SOLO bobbleheads in his teammates’ lockers. His former teammates will see him play again in person in 10 days, when the Nationals host the Padres, and again a week later, when they visit Petco Park. After that, they’ll have to buy tickets for games in October.

More MLB Coverage:

  • Grading the Juan Soto Trade
  • MLB Trade Deadline Live Blog
  • Making Sense of the Puzzling Josh Hader Trade

Padres trade for Soto, then rout Rockies 13-5 in 1st game .
SAN DIEGO (AP) — The San Diego Padres rallied to beat the Colorado Rockies 13-5 in the first game of a doubleheader Tuesday, hours after obtaining superstar Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals in one of the biggest trades in baseball history. The trade was announced a few minutes before first pitch. The crowd of 23,828 at Petco Park applauded loudly when an image of Soto and Josh Bell, who also came from the Nats, was shown on the video board early in the game. An offense that will benefit greatly from the addition of Soto, a generational talent who is only 23, came to life after the Padres fell behind 3-0.

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