The Nationals’ recent trade of star shortstop Juan Soto to the San Diego Padres was of unusual complexity, but the team’s sales process did not directly dictate the decision, these people said. Three people with direct knowledge of the Soto negotiations said the Lerners did not seek input on Soto from any of the potential bidders. All spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about an ongoing process.
Allen & Co., the firm hired by the Lerners to handle the sale, declined to comment for this story, but two people with direct knowledge of the situation said the firm’s only advice was simple: Do what you would do if you had to continue own the team and make the best decision for the health of the franchise going forward. If Soto signed a long-term contract to stay in Washington, he could be a selling point, a cornerstone. If the Nationals traded him, restocking their minor league system in the process, then a potential bidder could inherit financial flexibility and a clean slate for the future.
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However, the potential sale had some bearing on what the Lerners thought they could offer Soto and his agent, Scott Boras. The Nationals’ proposed 15-year deal, worth $440 million with no deferred money, was more than the team had ever offered a player — and more guaranteed money than any team in baseball had ever given anyone, for that matter. But Boras has since stated that he wants Soto to receive a deal that would match or exceed the $43.3 million in average annual value the New York Mets gave Max Scherzer last year.
Whoever buys the Nationals would inherit about $500 million in debt, including $200 million owed to Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, and a long-term deal for Soto on Boras’ terms would have meant committing to another $500 million or more . Considering the team looks set to sell for less than the $2.4 billion Steve Cohen paid the Mets in 2020, that’s a scary amount of legacy spending.
So, according to General Manager Mike Rizzo and confirmed by others on the record, when Soto didn’t agree to the best trade the Lerners thought they could offer, they asked Rizzo to see what they could get in a trade. When Rizzo received what he considered a good offer, the owners asked him to make the deal.
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Selling the team “wasn’t a consideration. It’s above my pay grade,” Rizzo said at his Aug. 2 press conference, the day the Soto deal was made. “I’m here to make this team the best it can be.” could be. This was a prudent move. This was a prudent baseball move.”
Rizzo also said something that day since confirmed by multiple people with knowledge of the Lerner family’s thinking: “There was no edict” to trade the 23-year-old star when he rejected the Nationals’ contract offer; if no team met their demands in return for Soto, they would not have traded him.
Many people in the Nationals’ front office argued that the team would never get more value for Soto than it would now, when any team that acquires him would have him under contract for three postseasons. People around managing principal owner Mark Lerner argued that Washington’s minor league system, despite an offseason realignment, would not begin churning out major league starters without an infusion of elite talent. Without the deal, the Nationals might not compete for three or four years. With that, people close to Lerner argued somewhat optimistically that they might be able to speed up that process and compete within two or three. Washington didn’t win with Soto, and building around him wasn’t going to get any easier as his salary increased in arbitration.
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Although Scherzer’s, Strasburg’s and Patrick Corbin’s contracts are still on the books for the next few seasons, the Nationals don’t have any other major financial commitments — nor anyone who stands to take a big leap in arbitration — starting next season. In 2025, they only have the $35 million committed to Strasburg on the books. If a young core emerges over the next few seasons, whoever owns the team will have the financial flexibility to bolster it with free agents.
But even if the Nationals had wanted to accommodate the whims of a likely buyer, they are not far enough along in the sales process to know what such a buyer might want. If any of these interested parties decide to bid on the Nationals, they will make that bid based on their sense of the franchise’s value — not based on a specific asking price from the Lerners. So whether any of them will make an acceptable bid and emerge as a front-runner remains unclear, as does exactly how much the Lerner family will find sufficient.
People around the team expect the process to reach a resolution by the beginning of next season. The Lerners should get a sense of how others value their franchise within a month or two as potential bidders decide whether to bid and how much. Either way, those bidders won’t have to worry about Soto, whatever they would have preferred regarding his future. That decision was not yet theirs to make.