July 6, 2022

Deconstructing the Juan Soto Horizon

June 6, 2022 by · Leave a Comment 

Driving up to Baltimore yesterday morning I enjoyed listening to Jim Duquette opine on Juan Soto, Joe Girardi and a host of other baseball issues that dominated the day. The consensus about whether or not Soto gets traded is now one of those vastly complex scattergrams, a worm hole in which one could get lost for days. And yet, the discussion informs so many other related threads of interest to Washington, DC baseball fans, that it becomes more like a black hole whose gravitational pull cannot be denied.

Duquette rested his assertion on Juan Soto’s status a financial asset positively affecting the valuation of the Nationals and their pending sale. Soto can not be moved–Duquette argued–because he is of such value to the organization moving forward. And then there is Duquette’s other point. Mike Rizzo says Soto will not be traded and he is the one who will make that decision. Boom!! Nuff said.

Let’s flip the rock over and see what is under the easy logic and simplistic assertions. There we will find, “Location, Location, Location,” writ large. Washington is the tenth or eleventh largest media market among Major League cities–depending on who is counting. That ranking, and that ranking alone, will determine the team’s sale price. Juan Soto is nothing more than a tiny blip on the screen, barely visible–like some comet coming in year 3077. Television revenues in the DC market area are the rest of the screen.

As to Mike Rizzo? Yes, he is the President of Baseball Operations in DC. But for how long? The time horizon for Soto and Rizzo does not stretch longer than the day of sale for the Nationals. And the minute the ink is dry on the sales contract, all bets are off on how long Soto and Rizzo will be a rhyming couplet in DC.

Rizzo has been an excellent baseball executive during his long tenure with the Washington Nationals, and no matter who pays the $2 billion dollars to buy the franchise in the next six months, they will give Rizzo a chance to bid to keep his job–if he wants it. For the new owners to do otherwise would be foolish, not to mention rude. And I doubt any new owner wants to poison the baseball waters right off the bat–so to speak.

What will Rizzo’s presentation to David Rubinstein or the other owners look like? And here is where Juan Soto becomes important. The person manning the projector will be Mike Rizzo, and he will be working hard to sell the organization he has built with a limited budget, provided by owners who refused to listen all too often. Rizzo has his long tenure with the team as both an important asset, and also as concrete galoshes. He has been with the Nationals almost since the beginning, hired by Jim Bowden in 2006 as an assistant GM. No one else knows where ALL the bodies are buried. But some of those bodies are ones he brought on board, and they will rise to the surface at all of the very worst times.

But he will lead with Soto, who was not supposed to be as good as he has become. Soto signed for $1.5 million as a sixteen-year old in 2015, but there were more than a dozen others who signed for more, including Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. Appropriately enough, the number one international signing in 2015 was Lucius Fox, who signed for $6 million. Fox is now a middle infield filler piece for the Nationals, bouncing between Rochester and Washington. Mike Rizzo will be able to talk proudly about his Dominican Baseball Academy, put in place after Jim Bowden’s fiasco there got him fired. It has been excellent in evaluating talent, far better than most. Rizzo can point to twenty-one year old shortstop Luis Garcia as the latest product from the Dominican. And there are many more that Rizzo will talk about as being the building blocks of a 2023 contender.

And that is what it will take for Rizzo to survive. He will have to promise that he can build a winner in Washington beginning next spring. He will have to convince David Rubenstein, or whomever else is the new owner, that no one else has comparable expertise to put a winning roster together for the 2023 season. So who other than Juan Soto will he be able to sell to the new owners?

One very recent move of note is the promotion of Cole Henry to Triple-A Rochester this weekend, where he started the game on Sunday. Henry was a second round draft pick of the Nationals in 2020, behind the team’s top pick, Cade Cavali. Interestingly enough, Cavali pitched on Saturday in Rochester, as though the two talents remain joined at the hip in the Washington organization. Cavali has, in the last few weeks, re-discovered the form that made him one of MLB’s top fifty prospects going into the 2022 season. Cole Henry is still there as number two, this time as the second best talent in an organization woefully thin in that regard.

Cole Henry threw five innings of shutout baseball on Sunday for the Red Wings. Cavali pitched seven on Saturday, allowing only a single run while striking out ten and walking only a pair. He has won his last three outings and allowed only two runs over nineteen innings. He is back!

Those two players are the best arrows in Mike Rizzo’s quiver of arrows. There are Soto. Josiah Gray, and Keibert Ruiz, of course. But it is Gray, Cavali and Henry who are all important. They are the threesome that will determine how far Washington goes in 2023 and beyond. It could be appropriate to mention “the Orchid,” Stephen Strasburg. Like his namesake, Strasburg has been largely dormant since 2019, but buds are appearing and he may be back sometime this summer. With Strasburg pitching every fifth day, Mike Rizzo can roll out a competitive rotation if the new owners are willing to give him the chance.

Regardless how brimming with false optimism one might want to be, it is still a very tall mountain Rizzo has to climb. Juan Soto may be one of his key assets, but there is just so little there beside him to make a believer of the new owners. It is those concrete galoshes that will start to weigh down his chances as Rizzo tries to explain who signed those awful long-term contracts to Patrick Corbin and Strasburg. Even if it was the Lerners, Rizzo has other questions to answer, like what were his scouts thinking when they signed Carter Kieboom, Seth Romero, Mason Denanburg, and Jackson Rutledge as the team’s round draft picks from 2016 and through 2019. And where are the second rounders from those drafts? Into what hole have they fallen? Rizzo cannot blame anyone else for the mess that is the Washington Nationals minor league organization. He may not have had the money to spend, but other organizations have far more to show with similar budget constraints as Rizzo may have had.

Juan Soto is only a blip on the screen. And there beside him, as I said once before, is Scott Boras. Do the new owners want Boras blowing smoke rings round their ears as he did with the Lerners? Does the team’s ability to spend $400+ million on one player matter when the rest of the organization lies in ruins? Or does the future lie with a new approach, driven not only by scouting, but by analytics? The answer is above my pay grade, but I believe the new owners will be smart enough to want more than what Rizzo is selling and that will mean a trade of  Juan Soto will happen at some point before the trading deadline in 2023.

The chances he will retire in a Washington jersey, enticing though that might be, are slim and none. Not because he is too old, nor because he is incapable of playing a huge role in the middle of any lineup Washington can put together. But why would new owners, looking over the books and seeing the disastrous contracts handed to Corbin and Strasburg, be inclined to sign another one with the same guy–Scott Boras–holding the pen, and asking for even more money?

If the new owners give Rizzo a fine letter of recommendation and wish him luck, then a new President of Baseball Operations will have far fewer reasons to keep Juan Soto. That new regime will be laser focused on building a near term competitor, and Soto might contribute to that, but not past 2023. At that point his imminent departure is only a year in the future and by then he is going to be getting on a plane heading for a long-term future in Los Angeles or New York. The new president of baseball operations can get a bundle of talent for Soto, even at that point. And all of those young players will help complement Cade Cavali, Cole Henry, Brady House, and the other talents that Rizzo began to assemble in the last year or so.

Smart, savvy owners are more likely to hire someone with a broader background than Rizzo’s. He cannot explain away all of the bad decisions, and he will join Strasburg, Howie Kendrick, and yes, Juan Soto, as part of a wonderful tradition of winning baseball in DC, but one whose time has come and gone. Despite the warm memories, there will be a whole new set of faces to begin 2023, and hopefully there will be exciting days ahead, as fulsome as anything the old regime was able to pull off. DC fans understand that there is a new future unfolding; one that will start soon. And unless Juan Soto begins singing a tune unknown to Scott Boras, he will not be part of any of it. Full Stop.

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