As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Four weeks have passed - enough time to temper the shock, but not nearly enough to ascertain the ramifications. That will take years. For the time being, a baseball executive has stayed on message: it was the right move for the organization. The logic trail is reasonable, and the repetition helps the sales pitch, but reality remains a cold and sobering place – for him as much as anyone. He was, after all, the architect of a dominant decade, assembling All-Stars and future Hall of Famers through the draft, free agency and shrewd trades. Through his work, and with a dash of luck, he delivered a yearning town pure euphoria - its first World Series championship in 95 years.
Then the talent trickled away. Retirements and injuries claimed a few cornerstones. Deep-pocketed competitors poached others. He would admit to being in a slump himself, having whiffed on a series of patchwork personnel moves. But his greatest asset, a 23-year-old phenom who resembled Ted Williams, remained and promised to be the bedrock of an epic rebuild.
Then Mike Rizzo, Nationals President of Baseball Operations, made the most significant transaction of his career: he traded Juan Soto.
In San Diego, Rizzo’s peer with the Padres, A.J. Preller, was on the receiving end of Washington’s crown jewel talent. Preller was facing his own dilemma: an uber-talented team with a rich farm system that was, by all accounts, a significant notch below a division rival and baseball’s best team – the Los Angeles Dodgers. Preller’s Padres had recently signed Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. to a 10-year, $300M contract and a 14-year, $340M contract, respectively; despite the financial commitment, the Padres flamed out early in last season’s playoffs and showed little indication of serious contention this year. But Tatis, after missing the entire 2022 season with a shoulder injury, was nearing a return. And Preller was holding that bounty of prospects. With Washington disintegrating, on the field and off with ownership in flux, Rizzo’s inclination to sell met Preller’s urgency to buy and one of baseball’s biggest trades was consummated.
The movie “Braveheart” contains an unforgettable scene of betrayal. William Wallace, thinking he had united Scotland’s disparate clans with Robert the Bruce, led his countrymen into the Battle of Falkirk against England. The tenuous Scottish unity dissolved during battle. Wallace, wounded and in a desperate rage, pursued King Edward Longshanks’s detail. One of Longshanks’s men knocked Wallace from his horse, dismounted and hovered over the fallen Scottish hero. Wallace snapped up, ripped the helmet off his “English” adversary only to reveal it was Bruce. Wallace, stunned by the betrayal, slowly slumped to the ground.
Just over a week after gutting his farm system and scoring Soto, it wouldn’t have been misplaced humor to transpose Preller’s face onto the broken-hearted Wallace’s. See, much of Preller’s calculus in making the aggressive, win-now move to acquire Soto was linked to the pending return of Tatis. Adding Soto in the order around Machado and Tatis, three probable Hall of Famers in their prime, would create a murderer’s row to compete with any other in baseball history.
But that plan will have to wait until next season. On Aug 13, Tatis received an 80-game suspension from MLB after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. The air that was pumped into the Padres’ championship balloon with the Soto trade, immediately leaked out with the Tatis suspension. With Soto under contract through 2024, Preller’s three-year playoff window with Machado, Soto and Tatis has been trimmed to two.
Trust is an interesting thing – beautiful when it is unequivocally shared between parties, often irrecoverable, even psychologically scarring for the victim, when broken. It is best first earned, but when humans are involved, be it in personal or professional relationships, it is extended at great risk, no matter the circumstance. Preller and the Padres trusted Tatis with a $340M commitment and a franchise-altering trade. Preller must now feel a bit like the betrayed Wallace, minus the arrow wounds and thought-lost fight for independence. I’m sure Mike Rizzo would take his call to chat about the trade that may have been best if it never was.