As if the idea of trading Juan Soto isn’t dubious enough from a baseball perspective, it’s difficult to believe Nationals’ ownership would part with the modern-day version of Ted Williams as one of their final acts before selling the team.
The Lerner family nixed a deal to send Bryce Harper to the Astros at the 2018 trade deadline, even though the Nationals were below .500 and Harper was two months away from free agency. If the Lerners were reluctant to trade a franchise player under those circumstances, why would they approve a trade of Soto before it is necessary?
Perhaps the Lerners will identify a buyer before this year’s deadline, which is more than 10 weeks away. Well, the new owner might want the chance to re-sign Soto, even though the slugger’s agent, Scott Boras, almost certainly would prefer to explore his full market value in free agency. At the very least, the new owner might want to build around Soto, who is under club control for the rest of this season and then two more.
Multiple baseball people familiar with ownership changes said Wednesday a team in the Nationals’ position generally should do what is best for the organization, as if a sale was not even taking place. Still, each situation is different. It’s not as if there is a clear blueprint for the Nationals to follow.
In 2011, former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt signed Matt Kemp to an eight-year, $160 million extension shortly after reaching an agreement with Major League Baseball to sell the club. More recently, the Guardians signed Jose Ramírez to a five-year, $124 million extension with the sale of a minority interest and path to full control of the club pending. But club officials were fully prepared to trade Ramírez if they could not come to an agreement on a contract.
Signing Soto, 23, to an extension is quite obviously what is best for the Nationals. A new owner might want to play hero, even if it would mean capitulating to Boras, who would be more than happy to “educate” a potential new “partner.” Surely, a new owner would not want to message to Nationals fans that the team is essentially cooked for the next several years, even though in actuality, the team’s rebuilding plan might take at least that long.
So, the idea of entertaining offers for Soto is not without logic, not when the player’s trade value will only diminish the closer he gets to free agency. The Nats’ farm system is the fourth-worst in baseball, according to The Athletic’s Keith Law. The team received little in return after losing two other Boras clients, Harper and Anthony Rendon, on the open market. They forfeited their compensation pick after the fourth round for Harper by signing Patrick Corbin; and drafted a high-school infielder, Sammy Infante, with the compensation pick between the second and third round they received for Rendon.
OK, but where exactly would the Nats be going with this?
Even if they retain their fearless general manager, Mike Rizzo — as first reported by the New York Post’s Jon Heyman, both he and manager Dave Martinez have 2023 options that must be exercised by July — good luck finding fair value for Soto. The Nats went through this last season when they traded two months of Max Scherzer and a year-plus of Trea Turner to the Dodgers for four prospects, including catcher Keibert Ruiz and right-hander Josiah Gray. Maybe the trade proves a bonanza, more likely not.
ESPN’s Buster Olney, in an article Wednesday raising the possibility of a Soto trade, suggested the Padres could dangle two top prospects, infielder C.J. Abrams and left-hander MacKenzie Gore. That would not be nearly enough. The website baseballtradevalues.com estimates Soto’s trade value to be about twice that of Abrams and Gore combined. So, add two more like ‘em, and maybe you have an equitable deal.
Two-plus years of Soto might be worth virtually any package, even though he is earning $17.1 million this season with salaries that will jump beyond $20 million and then closer to $30 million in his final two years of arbitration. But who’s to say the Nationals can’t return to contention in an expanded playoff format by 2024, Soto’s last year before he hits free agency? Why would the Lerners or the team’s next owners want to alienate Nationals fans by depriving them of one of the best, most exciting players in the sport more than two years before he is in position to depart on his own?
We all love trades. But now is not the time to trade Juan Soto.
Less heat from Hunter?
A scout mentioned to me recently that he did not think Reds hard-throwing rookie Hunter Greene could succeed as a full-time starting pitcher, saying Greene’s arm slot gives hitters great early looks at the ball.
Greene’s statistics would appear to support the scout’s contention. While his fastball averages 98.4 mph, hitters are batting .384 with an .808 slugging percentage against it in 87 plate appearances.
Reds director of pitching Derek Johnson said the scout’s question about Greene was fair, but said it’s too early to draw conclusions about a 22-year-old pitcher who is still developing.
“I don’t know if any of us can really define deception. We don’t know what it is one way or the other,” Johnson said. “But I think he has pretty good command. His fastball has gotten better, compared to what it was in the minor leagues.
“It’s a wait-and-see kind of thing, honestly. I don’t look at it like it’s definite. There have been a lot of kids, a lot of players in the past that scouts or coaches have said that about, and they’ve gone on to be fairly successful. I’m going to take the high road on that one and say I’m hopeful he can figure some things out.”
As Greene showed last Sunday in his 7 1/3 no-hit innings against the Pirates, he might simply need to rely less on his heater. In that game, he made greater use of his slider (65 pitches, 11 whiffs on 30 swings) than his fastball (51 pitches, four whiffs on 18 swings), and also threw two changeups.
“He may have to pitch in different ways rather than be a pure fastball pitcher,” Johnson said. “But I think he can be successful and use his fastball. He still gets swing-and-miss on it. There is something good about it. Maybe just finding location, maybe finding how to make it spin better or more efficient. Those things all kind of add up to being something that helps it. We’ll keep searching.”
Rays springing another surprise
Don’t look now, but the Rays are at it again. Four years ago, they introduced the opener, essentially laying waste to pitching roles as we knew them. These days, they’re not doing anything revolutionary. Quite the contrary — they’re turning back the clock, mostly using an old-fashioned rotation.
The Rays were never opposed to traditional starters; they just didn’t have enough of them, so they had to do things differently. Now they’re in a stronger position. Drew Rasmussen and Shane McClanahan rank 10th and 11th in the majors in ERA. Free-agent addition Corey Kluber is pitching effectively. Shane Baz could return in June from arthroscopic surgery on his elbow. And the Rays are doing with left-hander Jeffrey Springs what they did with Rasmussen last season: transitioning him into a starter.
Springs, 29, is a typical Rays reclamation project, a classic rags-to-riches baseball story. He signed for all of $1,000 after the Rangers drafted him in the 30th round out of Appalachian State in 2015. The Rangers traded him to the Red Sox for Sam Travis in January 2020. And the Rays acquired him in a minor four-player trade in February 2021, thinking they probably were getting a reliever.
They were, at least at first. Springs performed reasonably well in 43 appearances out of the bullpen last season, then opened the current season with 10 1/3 scoreless innings of relief. At that point the Rays thought: Why couldn’t Springs start, just as he occasionally did in the minors? He commands his fastball. He has improved his changeup. And he also throws his slider for strikes.
So far, so good: In three starts, Springs has progressed from 3 1/3 to 4 to 4 2/3 innings, and produced a 3.18 ERA. His next outing is against the Orioles on Saturday.
The Fresno State connection
The Angels’ Taylor Ward and Yankees’ Aaron Judge, who rank third and fourth in the majors in fWAR, were teammates at Fresno State in 2013. The D-Backs’ Jordan Luplow and Phillies Triple-A catcher Austin Wynns also were on that club.
“We didn’t win it all?” Fresno State coach Mike Batesole cracked. “Must have been crappy coaching.”
Not exactly. Fresno State, in its first season in the Mountain West Conference, finished 23-33, including 14-16 in league competition. Prior to that, however, the team had won seven straight Western Athletic Conference titles. Judge and Wynns played for two of those teams, Luplow for one. Ward did not arrive until 2013.
Batesole, in his 29th year at Fresno State, is a fan of them all.
“There are two things that really separate those guys from other guys,” Batesole said. “One is their aptitude. They have tremendous feel. That comes from taking a billion swings. Everyone thinks Judge is this super-talented, super-human. … Nobody takes more swings than him. I mean, nobody. That’s how you get that aptitude.
“The other thing is that these guys have old-school character. I wish I could say it came from us. But it came from their parents. Loyalty, accountability, accepting responsibility, all those things help you in life. If you don’t have those on the baseball field and you’re pointing fingers, you’re in a lot of trouble. These guys are old-school, 1950s tough.”
Cardinals infusing youth
The Cardinals just keep developing talent. Juan Yepez, acquired from the Braves for Matt Adams in May 2017, has proven such an offensive threat that he cut into the playing time of slumping left fielder Tyler O’Neill, who last season finished eighth in the NL MVP voting and won a Gold Glove. Now O’Neill is hurt and will go on the IL Friday with a right shoulder impingement.
Brendan Donovan, a seventh-round pick out of South Alabama in 2018, is another newcomer in the Cardinals’ mix. He started at all four infield spots in his first eight major-league games, and also played left and right in the minors. In addition, he has batted in five different spots in the lineup — first, second, seventh, eighth and ninth. One team official says, “Donovan is Daniel Descalso,” referring to the former major-league utility man who spent 10 years in the majors, his first five with the Cardinals.
Meanwhile, two of the Cardinals’ top prospects are about to make their major-league debuts. Nolan Gorman, the 19th pick in 2018 who leads Triple A with 15 homers, will take over at second base on Friday, with Tommy Edman sliding over to shortstop. Left-hander Matthew Liberatore, acquired in January 2020 from the Rays in the Randy Arozarena trade, will make his first start Saturday.
A’s paying $2 million a month? Here’s how
In a story I co-wrote with Eno Sarris about the Athletics’ attendance woes earlier this week, we quoted team president Dave Kaval as saying the team, “wouldn’t be spending $2 million a month trying to get our waterfront ballpark approved if we weren’t serious about staying in Oakland.”
A few readers questioned how that figure could actually be so high, so I followed up with the Athletics asking for an explanation. A team official responded that the A’s pay for:
• “Salaries of city and county employees working on the project on behalf of those entities. The city hired numerous staff that are dedicated to the project on behalf of the city (overseeing community benefits process, reports, etc.).”
• “Consultants for every report. Every study that is requested by the various parties, we pay for that.”
• “All work requested by the city, county or port of Oakland.”
• “Internal staff who solely work on this project (i.e. a real estate team)”
• “External partners working with us on the project.”
In conclusion, the official said, “We cover every expense as the sponsoring party of this project.”
Around the horn
Information from major-league sources:
• Matt Carpenter requested his release from the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate Thursday after the team activated Mitch Garver, who currently is unable to catch because of a flexor strain in his right forearm and will serve as a first baseman/DH. Nathaniel Lowe, another left-handed hitter, will get many of the reps at first, so that left virtually no opportunity for Carpenter.
Carpenter, who remade his swing in the offseason, started slowly, but since April 17 had batted .310 with six homers and a 1.173 OPS in 68 plate appearances. On Tuesday, he hit a home run at 109 mph, his hardest exit velocity since 2018.
• Four-fifths of the Tigers’ Opening Day starting rotation is injured, and that’s not including Michael Pineda, who entered the mix late after signing as a free agent on March 19, then fractured his right middle finger Saturday. Injuries, however, do not fully explain the Tigers’ 13-25 start.
The Tigers’ offense is averaging a major-league worst 2.76 runs per game, more than a half-run per game lower than the next-worst team, the Orioles. Only two Tigers hitters, Miguel Cabrera and the injured Austin Meadows, are above league-average in OPS+. Javier Báez, the team’s $140 million free-agent shortstop, is 34 percent below.
• Báez isn’t the only struggling member of the Great Free-Agent Infield Class of 2021-22. Rangers second baseman Marcus Semien, after hitting 45 home runs last season, has zero homers in his first 153 plate appearances, the longest season-opening drought of his career. His OPS+, 62 percent below league average, is the lowest in the majors.
Trevor Story was 27 percent below league average in OPS+ before hitting three homers on Thursday night. Corey Seager and Carlos Correa were 24 percent and 18 percent above league average, respectively, but below their career norms. None of these developments is exactly a shock — the transition of players who join new teams on big-money contracts often does not go smoothly.
• Through April 20, Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson was batting only .143 with 22 strikeouts in 49 at-bats. Then, after an off-day before the Braves started a homestand against the Marlins, Swanson made an adjustment that turned his season around.
Swanson had been waiting too long to begin his load, forcing him to be late on pitches, to rush his swing or both. Normally he gets started when a pitcher’s hands break, but he was waiting until the pitcher was practically showing him the ball. Once he reverted to his previous timing mechanism, his results improved dramatically.
From April 21 to May 13, Swanson batted .311 with a .927 OPS. He has since fallen back into a bit of a rut, going 2-for-18 with nine strikeouts.
• The Padres’ 11:30 a.m. ET start on Peacock against the Braves last Sunday seemed an excessive imposition, considering the team had just flown cross-country to the eastern time zone a few days before. But a limited number of early start times are permitted under the collective-bargaining agreement.
Previous CBAs had allowed the league to schedule up to four games per league per year between 10:30 and noon. The provision did not change in the new agreement, enabling Peacock to set its early start times.
Only the first six Peacock broadcasts on Sundays will begin at 11:30 a.m. The rest start at noon. (The annual Patriot’s Day game in Boston, coinciding with the running of the Boston Marathon, begins at 11).
• Major League Baseball experimented with umpires wearing mask cameras in spring training, but will not begin using them this season except perhaps in a one-off such as the All-Star Game.
About a third of the umpires tested the cameras, which MLB envisions as an enhancement for broadcasts. The league had spent years waiting for the development of a camera strong enough to withstand impact testing. That camera finally is available, but the umpires’ union must approve any extensive usage.
• And finally, we leave you with the misleading stat of the day: The Cubs’ plus-4 run differential. If not for 21-0, 9-0 and 7-0 victories over the Pirates, the differential might look a little, uh, different.
(Top photo of Juan Soto: G Fiume / Getty Images)
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