Juan Soto’s Hall of Fame path is rare — and his trade history unprecedented

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Published
Dec. 8, 2023 8:00 a.m. ET

When Juan Soto steps to the plate for the Yankees on Opening Day next season, he’ll be 25 years, 155 days old.

For reference, that’s exactly how old his new teammate Aaron Judge was when he launched the 51st home run of his sensational rookie season back in 2017. That blast came in Judge’s 180th career game — or, 600 fewer than the total Soto will reach when he makes his debut with New York in Houston next March. Soto’s first homer as a Yankee will be the 161st of his career, a total that doesn’t even include his seven memorable moonshots across 29 postseason contests.

When Judge was the age Soto was when he debuted with the Nationals — 19 years, 207 days old — he was just starting his sophomore year at Fresno State, still nearly two full years from being selected by the Yankees in the first round of the 2011 draft.

Consider this the latest submission in a long-running genre of fun facts regarding Soto’s unfathomable youth relative to what he has already accomplished. Such sentiments have been popular among fans dating back to his iconic run to a World Series championship with the Nationals back in 2019 surrounding his 21st birthday. All these years later, Soto’s stats have continued to astound in relation to the more traditional timelines of his peers. As players like James Outman, Spencer Steer and Nolan Jones jockeyed for position on this year’s National League Rookie of the Year ballot, Soto — younger than all three — was busy amassing a career-high 35 homers with a .930 OPS in his sixth season in the majors.

Just a handful of players in the game’s history have matched the magnitude of Soto’s offensive impact at such a young age. He has slashed .284/.421/.524 in 3,375 plate appearances thus far, amounting to a .946 OPS and 157 OPS+, a mark in line with the careers of Stan Musial (159), Frank Thomas (156) and Henry Aaron (155). Soto’s 30.5 oWAR through his age-24 season ranks 12th all time, and the only two players ahead of him on that list who are not in the Hall of Fame are Mike Trout and Álex Rodríguez. No player ever has drawn remotely close to as many free passes as Soto has early in his career — his 640 walks are 103 clear of Mel Ott’s previous record of 537 through age 24. Soto is power and patience personified, a savant of hitting at the highest level like few the game has ever produced. 

And yet, remarkably, the Yankees will be Soto’s third team in two years. And as perfect of a fit as he is in the Bronx, there’s no guarantee New York will be his final MLB destination. Even general manager Brian Cashman has already acknowledged as much. A year from now, we very well might be discussing Soto suiting up for a fourth different team in three years — a nomadic trend far more commonly associated with middle relievers or utility infielders, not generational sluggers.

For better or for worse, it has become increasingly rare in the modern game for superstars to stay in one place their whole careers. Nonetheless, it’s awfully difficult to find another player throughout baseball history who has bounced around this much this early in a career this good. 

Sammy Sosa was traded twice in his early 20s before blossoming with the Cubs, but that’s because he wasn’t all that good with the Rangers or White Sox. Gary Sheffield was another prodigious slugger who was hastily dealt away by the Brewers and then, incidentally, the Padres one year after winning the NL batting title at 23 years old. That’s not a terrible parallel considering his success in San Diego before the second trade, but his days in Milwaukee paled in comparison to Soto’s in Washington. Pedro Martínez, who shares an Oct. 25 birthday with Soto, had a similarly unusual early-career trajectory on the mound, excelling as a rookie with the Dodgers before being dealt the following year to Montreal where he emerged as an ace, only to be traded to Boston less than a month after turning 26 and just one week after winning his first Cy Young. He, too, was a year out of free agency.

Those are the few remotely similar examples, but none quite rise to the level of Soto’s caliber being on the move this often despite being this productive. 

It has taken an extraordinary set of circumstances to produce the two industry-shaking deals in which Soto has been the prize. First, Soto rejected a monumental extension offer from the Nationals in the first half of the 2022 season. The reported 15-year, $440 million deal would have surpassed Trout’s 12-year, $426 million extension with the Angels as the largest total guarantee in baseball history, but its relatively underwhelming $29.3 million average annual value and expected deferrals made it less appealing. It was a wholly respectable offer from a team Soto deeply loved playing for, but also one that Soto could reasonably reject with confidence knowing the track he was on. Still, we’ve seen plenty of talented young players agree to significant extensions early in their careers in an effort to guarantee some long-term financial security. 

Amid a relatively down year for Soto in 2022, many around the game — including David Ortiz — and even some in Soto’s own circle, questioned his decision to decline such a massive offer, citing the risk and questioning the ultimate upside of an eventual deal in free agency. But by turning down Washington’s offer and — as far as we know, choosing not to counter — Soto and his agent Scott Boras made it clear then and there where they stood.

Rather than negotiate further, the Nationals determined trading Soto was the healthiest move for the direction of the franchise, especially during a serious rebuild aimed at infusing talent at all levels of the organization. Off to San Diego he went in a shocking swap that landed Washington a number of core pieces, including left-hander MacKenzie Gore, shortstop CJ Abrams and top outfield prospect James Wood.

But after a year and half in San Diego that featured an exhilarating run to the NLCS in 2022 followed by a stunningly disappointing encore this past season, Soto found himself as the odd man out of a payroll puzzle. By going all-in to an extreme degree over the previous two seasons, the Padres had stretched their budget to the limit and then some. MLB Trade Rumors projects Soto to make $33 million in his final year of arbitration, which would comfortably smash the record $30 million Shohei Ohtani received a year ago for the final year of his Angels contract. In order for San Diego to backfill a depleted pitching staff, Soto emerged as the best avenue to address its needs as a valuable trade chip. The Yankees’ wealth of pitching made them an ideal trade partner, and a deal was done. 

It also just so happened to be the perfect landing spot for Soto entering the final year of his contract.

Who would you start a franchise with, Juan Soto or Ronald Acuña Jr.?

We’ve seen several dynamic offensive duos appear together as teammates at or near the top of MVP ballots in recent years: Ohtani and Trout in Anaheim, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman in Los Angeles, Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt in St. Louis, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Matt Olson in Atlanta, Marcus Semien and Corey Seager in Texas. Each of these superstar pairings has offered varying flavors of excellence as a combo. In Judge and Soto, the Yankees have brought together two offensive titans capable of terrifying opposing pitchers in their own special way. It’s too early to determine exactly what lineup arrangement will maximize Soto and Judge’s rare abilities in tandem; that’s for manager Aaron Boone to figure out. But no matter the order, Judge and Soto unquestionably have the potential to find themselves together at the forefront of the AL MVP discussion.

In 2022, we watched Judge deliver a contract year for the ages and cash in accordingly. In 2023, Ohtani took his two-way talents to new heights en route to what is expected to be the largest contract in baseball history. Now thrust into the spotlight of the Bronx, Soto is primed to shine spectacularly in his final year before hitting the open market himself. A vintage Soto season in 2024 should put him in excellent position to command a superior deal to the massive one he confidently turned down from the Nationals 18 months ago. If Judge can command a nine-year, $360 million deal entering his age-31 season, it’s not hard to imagine Soto beating that handily as a 26-year-old free agent, whether it be to stay in the Bronx or to star elsewhere. 

No need to get ahead of ourselves, though. What comes first will be a season of Soto in pinstripes, a dream outcome for Yankees fans across the world and an absolute nightmare for 29 other teams. Soto’s endearing personality and shuffling antics in the batter’s box might not be as endearing as he plays for the team everyone loves to hate. But if Soto’s tenure atop his profession as one of the game’s best hitters has taught us anything, we will most certainly be entertained — and likely awed — by whatever he does next.

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_

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