Latest On Cardinals’ Pursuit Of Juan Soto

Juan Soto has been the talk of deadline season since reports emerged that the Nationals were entertaining dealing him in the wake of a rejected extension offer. The young superstar will continue to dominate headlines up until he’s either traded or next Tuesday’s deadline passes, with plenty of teams relishing the chance to acquire a 23-year-old who is already perhaps the game’s best hitter.

There’s been plenty of speculation about which teams could be involved, and Jeff Passan of ESPN wrote yesterday that some rival executives believe the Cardinals and Padres are the clubs with the best chance of prying Soto out of Washington. That’s more informed speculation than an indication anything is close between the Nats and either club. Both the Padres and Cardinals have win-now mentalities and a group of high-upside controllable players both at and below the major league level. That’s also true of clubs like the Dodgers, Yankees and Mariners, among others, and Soto’s two and a half years of remaining arbitration eligibility means the Nats don’t have to take the best offer on the table over the next few days.

Both Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat write that the Cardinals have considered making a push for Soto. Jones reports that talks between the St. Louis and Washington front offices have already been underway, with rookie second baseman Nolan Gorman on the table.

According to Jones, the St. Louis front office has proposed building a return package around Gorman in hopes of keeping at least one of minor league infielders Jordan Walker or Masyn Winn. Walker is perhaps the organization’s top young player, checking in 7th overall on Baseball America’s most recent Top 100 prospects update. Winn, meanwhile, places 65th on that list. They’re two of the top three St. Louis prospects, with left-hander Matthew Liberatore — who has made his first seven MLB appearances this year — checking in 35th. (Triple-A outfielder Alec Burleson and Double-A pitcher Gordon Graceffo also placed towards the back of the top 100).

Gorman, of course, would still be a top prospect himself if he hadn’t exhausted his eligibility this season. The 22-year-old entered the year as a consensus top minor league talent in his own right. Keith Law of the Athletic placed him slightly ahead of Walker as St. Louis’ top prospect entering the season. Baseball America and Kiley McDaniel of ESPN each gave the edge to Walker but slotted Gorman second in the system and among the sport’s top 50 farmhands. Gorman proceeded to tear the cover off the ball with Triple-A Memphis, blasting 15 home runs in 34 games before getting his first big league call in May.

Through 54 major league games entering play Wednesday, the left-handed hitting Gorman has a .223/.299/.411 showing. The high-power, low-OBP combination is about what was anticipated. Gorman’s huge power numbers in Memphis came with a lofty 34% strikeout rate, and he’s gone down on strikes 32.5% of the time thus far as a big leaguer.

One shouldn’t expect Gorman to be a finished product at this point. He just turned 22 years old a few months ago. “Merely” hitting at a slightly above-average level in the majors at that age is quite promising. Gorman has predictably not rated highly as a defender at second base, but the 6’1″ infielder was forced to the keystone by the presence of Nolan Arenado. Gorman could probably fare better with an opportunity at his natural position at the hot corner, although his power upside at the dish will always be his calling card.

Promising as Gorman has been, it’s also understandable if the Cardinals would prefer to center a possible Soto return around him rather than Walker. The latter, a first-round pick in 2020, has played his way to Double-A Springfield despite having just turned 20 years old. Walker is excelling at that advanced level, hitting .304/.393/.486 with eight home runs, a quality 11.5% walk rate and a manageable 22.3% strikeout percentage. Those excellent numbers only reinforce scouting evaluations that suggest Walker could be a middle-of-the-order bat in the not too distant future. Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs credited Walker with possible top-of-the-scale power (an 80 on the 20-80 scale) this month, writing that he’s posted eye-popping exit velocities in the minors despite his youth. Like Gorman, Walker has come up as a third baseman.

Winn, also 20, went in the second round of that 2020 draft. A two-way player in high school, he’s converted to shortstop as a professional. He retains the elite arm strength he showed on the mound, and Longenhagen praised his combination of bat speed, athleticism and contact skills. He’s split the season between High-A Peoria and Springfield, hitting .298/.363/.484 across 357 plate appearances.

Whether a Gorman-centered return could get the ball rolling in talks for the Nationals isn’t clear. Washington holds plenty of leverage in Soto talks, and the early reported asking price has been for a return of five or more controllable big leaguers and/or prospects. Even if the Nationals had interest in Gorman as a headliner, St. Louis would surely have to additionally include multiple young players (one or more likely from the aforementioned group of top 100 talents in the system) to convince Washington general manager Mike Rizzo to pull the trigger.

Jones writes that, at some point in negotiations with the Cardinals, the Nats sought to include left-hander Patrick Corbin in talks as a means of offsetting salary. Corbin is under contract for roughly $60MM over the 2023-24 seasons, an unappealing sum for a pitcher with a 6.02 ERA through 20 starts on the year. Rizzo flatly rejected the idea the Nationals have sought or would seek to include Corbin’s contract in a Soto deal during a chat on 106.7 FM radio in Washington this morning.

We’ve never contacted teams and talked about Juan Soto and attaching any contract to any player,” Rizzo told “The Sports Junkies.” “We’re not going to dilute a return for any player by adding a bad contract. That’s not where we’re at in our organization at this time. We want to get the most for each and every trade that we do, so we certainly are not going to tack on anybody’s contract to anybody’s deal, including Juan Soto’s or Josh Bell’s or anybody.

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