Shockwaves rippled across the baseball world last week when The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported not only that all-world phenom Juan Soto had rejected a 15 year, $440 million contract extension offered by the Washington Nationals, but also that the club would begin trade talks concerning the 23 year old outfielder.
While the first inclination may be to question the decision making of Soto and his representation (led by Scott Boras), the $440 million looks less impressive when you compare the average annual value of $29.3 million to other recent contracts; that number would be less than the average annual salary of Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, and Corey Seager among others. This triumvirate were all regarded as bona fide all star talents, but pale in comparison to the generational ability of Soto. As crazy as it may seem, his refusal to take the Nats’ offer can be justified.
Speculation around possible landing spots began immediately. Usual suspects like the Dodgers, Yankees, and Mets considered frontrunners due to a combination of the prospects each team possesses and, most importantly, their ostensible ability to afford a contract that could very well eclipse half a billion dollars. Hypothetical markets also list the Cardinals, Giants, and Mariners as frontrunners, but the team arguably best suited to meet the Nationals asking price for Juan Soto is sparingly mentioned.
That team? Our very own Baltimore Orioles.
The Orioles rebuild is beginning to show tangible results at the major league level and their 46-46 record (and their recent play) suggests that the O’s could be on the precipice of their competitive window. Their farm system is considered among the elite in baseball and has just been further bolstered by the incoming draft class, led by #1 overall pick Jackson Holliday.
Assuming the Orioles would extend Soto is counterintuitive given their track record but for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume they would. What exactly would it take to land this unicorn of a talent?
The Baltimore Orioles could afford to make a move for Juan Soto, but would it make sense?
Players of Soto’s age and talent profile almost never become available via trade; the last comparable instance from which we could get a sense of what Washington’s demands are was when the Marlins traded Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Detroit Tigers during the 2007 Winter Meetings for a package headlined by pitcher Andrew Miller and outfielder Cameron Maybin, both of whom considered top 20 prospects by MLB.com and Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus among others. While neither Miller nor Maybin panned out as Marlins, it was considered a massive haul at the time.
Given the historical context, one could assume the Nationals would demand the Orioles top two prospects, Grayson Rodriguez and Gunnar Henderson, as a starting point. Thanks to the wonderful people at Baseball Trade Values, I was able to put a hypothetical package together.
Rounding out the package is Cowser, the Orioles first round pick in 2021, who has been destroying Double-A pitching to the tune of a 1.125 OPS since being promoted from Aberdeen on June 27th. Mayo is a precocious power hitter who, despite being nearly three years younger than the average player in High-A, posted an .805 OPS in 270 plate appearances before joining Cowser in Bowie the same day (a back injury landed him on the IL just three games into his stay with the Baysox).
Seeing this potential deal may invoke sticker shock; it seems unwise to trade four top 100 prospects, two of which considered among the top five. Why deplete a farm system that was desolate for so long and took four years to restock?
Simply put, Juan Soto is different. He is a player that only comes around once in a generation, and I would argue that traditional logic does not apply in this scenario.
Per Baseball Reference, the ten most similar players to Soto through their age 22 seasons include Mike Trout, Frank Robinson, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Mickey Mantle. Nine of the ten are either currently in or eventually will be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Former Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro is the one outlier, however he may very well have had a Hall of Fame career had he not suffered a tragic eye injury after being hit by a pitch in 1967. Only Trout has a higher wOBA than Soto since 2018. He has the eighth most WAR of all hitters in the same timeframe.
Considering Soto’s immense talent, the Orioles would be imprudent not to explore this avenue. While the farm system would be weakened, the cupboard would be far from bare; DL Hall, Jordan Westburg, and the aforementioned Holliday would still be waiting in the wings and again, Soto is only 23!
Now, there is a giant elephant in the room in the way of the ongoing, acrimony-filled lawsuit between the two clubs regarding revenue from the Orioles-owned MASN network. It’s plausible if not probable that the Nationals would refuse to do business under these circumstances. If they are willing to take a seat at the table though, the Orioles should sit down with them and consider pushing their chips into the center and acquiring a player who could very well end up with a statue at Camden Yards.