When he found the table with his nameplate and a sea of sportswriters and cameramen baking in the heat, he stepped behind the backdrop, away from the group, for a conversation with the other man everyone wanted to hear from: his agent Scott Boras. It was time for a quick final prep session.
“How we doing?” Soto said to the media as he took his seat after the chat.
Then came the barrage from all angles, in English and Spanish, about his future for the next 45 minutes, with Boras hovering a few feet away.
On Saturday, news surfaced that the Washington Nationals were open to trading Soto, their superstar outfielder, by the Aug. 2 trade deadline after he rejected a 15-year, $440 million contract extension. The development, a month after Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo declared he wouldn’t trade Soto, sent shockwaves across the majors. On Monday, it dominated the discourse.
Soto, 23, remained polished and undaunted, effortlessly bouncing between the two languages. Reporters asked Soto, the last-place Nationals’ only All-Star, if he would welcome playing for the Dodgers or the San Diego Padres or either team in New York. He didn’t bite. He toed the company line. But he did express disappointment with his club.
“A couple of weeks ago they were saying they would never trade me and now all these things came out,” Soto said hours before becoming the second-youngest winner in home run derby history. “It feels really uncomfortable. You don’t know what to trust, but at the end of the day, it’s out of my hands, what decision they make.”
Soto, who is making $17 million this season, declared he would rather not negotiate an extension during the season. He maintained he was 100% invested in the Nationals and their rebuild but admitted the idea of free agency after the 2024 season appealed to him.
“Yeah, why not?” Soto said. “At the end of the day, we want to see how the market’s going to be for everybody.”
Further complicating the situation is the uncertainty surrounding Nationals ownership after the team was put up for sale in April. Boras hinted that Soto won’t entertain signing a contract extension until the situation is settled.
“I don’t think any player is going to sign with an owner he doesn’t know,” Boras said.
Soto isn’t the first star to deal with midseason trade rumors. He’s not even the first to confront speculation at an All-Star Game in recent history. Manny Machado knew the Baltimore Orioles were going to trade him when he traveled to Washington, D.C., for the All-Star Game in 2018. Days later, the Dodgers acquired him to replace an injured Corey Seager at shortstop for the remainder of the season.
But the Soto sweepstakes reside on another level. He is a superior hitter, considered one of the best in the world at just 23, and is 2½ seasons from free agency. Machado was a half-season rental. Soto could help a team for three pennant races before chasing a record contract on the market.
The haul to acquire him would be unprecedented. The Dodgers, Padres, Mets and Yankees are seen as possible landing spots with the necessary prospect capital, but almost every team in the majors could justify selling the farm for Soto. He’s that good, that young, that coveted. This year, for example, has been described as a “down season” for Soto even though he’s hit 20 home runs with a .901 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
“You have to explain how four people who obviously are not Juan Soto can in a collaborative way create the value of Juan Soto,” Boras said. “I personally would not like to make that argument.”
Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner knows the stakes better than anyone. He was incredulous when he saw the news Saturday.
“I texted him saying, ‘What the heck’s going on over there?’” Turner said.
Turner watched Soto burst onto the scene in 2018 and establish himself into one of the world’s best players as a teammate in Washington, winning a World Series together in 2019, until he was traded to the Dodgers last summer. They remain close friends. In October, Soto attended the wild card Game at Dodger Stadium wearing a Turner Nationals jersey in support.
“I think he’s the ultimate competitor while being nice about it, for the most part,” Turner said. “I know he gets in tiffs with people or don’t like him from the other side. He’s just competing and he loves competing.”
Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Kyle Schwarber was one of those people on the other side. Soto’s cockiness, accentuated by his hallmark “Soto Shuffle” in the batter’s box, annoyed Schwarber.
“I was like, ‘Man, screw this guy,’” Schwarber said.
Then they became teammates in Washington last season.
“Getting to know him as a person just completely changed what I thought,” Schwarber said. “I love this kid. He’s the kindest person you’ll ever meet.”
Schwarber called Soto “the most mature 23-year-old” you’ll ever see. Other All-Stars echoed the compliments Monday, a few openly talked about wanting to see their franchises pull off the trade. Atlanta Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said Soto is the most difficult batter to call a game against in the majors. Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman described Soto as a “generational talent.”
“For someone to be able to control the strike zone that early in their career is unheard of,” Freeman said. “You don’t see it. The way he carries himself, the joy he has for this game, it’s special.”
It’s why the possibility of Soto getting traded in the next two weeks has rattled the industry. A trade could alter the Major League Baseball landscape for the next three seasons. It could change a franchise’s trajectory. It’ll be the talk of the league until it’s settled.