While everyone sees the finished product now with Juan Soto, Mike Rizzo has known the now 23-year-old slugger since he was a 14-year-old kid, which made trading Soto to San Diego on Tuesday inordinately "emotional" in the aftermath, the Nationals GM says.
"Brutal scene. It was very, very difficult," Rizzo told The Sports Junkies on Wednesday. "I had kept Juan and Josh in the loop on where we were at during the trade talks and that type of thing, because I think it's only right to inform them, because they're reading all the stuff that's out there and that type of thing."
"They were kept in the loop," he continued. "I had called Juan earlier that day, that morning and told him that there's nothing imminent but we are making momentum, so it's a possibility, just to protect him and warn him against all the social media stuff out there. And then when we made the trade, I did go down there and had a nice conversation with Juan. He thanked me for signing him and kind of discovering him down in the Dominican, and the way we developed him and the relationships that he had with the coaches and that type of thing."
"Yeah, it was a warm farewell and it was very emotional," he said. "I told him I loved him and he'll always be a part of my history and my family, and go on and have the career that we all think you're gonna have. And that was it. Yeah. We signed him at 16-and-a-half years old. I had known him since he was 14. It was... yeah, it's a very emotional time."
Rizzo was asked to explain his change of tune to Nationals fans, from saying earlier this summer that Washington wouldn't be trading Soto to actually trading him.
"That statement was made with all the right intent in mind," Rizzo said. "We believed that we were gonna build a team around Juan. But then two historical offers that were said no to, no communication and no counter offers, we got the impression that we weren't gonna be able to extend Juan beyond his contract and he was going to become a free agent. So we had to change our plan."
"The landscape and the plans are fluid and we felt that, when thinking about it and thinking that we were really still unable to extend Juan, we felt that if we got the right offer, we at least needed to look at all of our options," he said. "And we did."
The Nationals offered Soto a 15-year, $440 million contract extension, which Soto rejected. Asked if he believes there was an offer they could have made that Soto wouldn't have turned down, or if he felt like Soto was determined to go to free agency, Rizzo said, "I don't know."
"The agent has a history of taking most or all of their superstar players to free agency," he continued. "And just the tenor and the tone of our conversations led us to believe that... we made three offers in the last year to Juan and none of them were countered, and there was not much discussion besides, 'No, we're not gonna take that offer.' So it's what I kind of read into it and knowing the uncertainties of the ownership situation, we felt that it was unlikely that he's gonna sign an extension before he went to free agency."
After letting Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon and Max Scherzer walk out the door, the Nats had already established a track record of not re-signing their marquee stars. Now add Soto to that list and it's driven many fans to react emotionally, believing that it's a waste of energy to invest in young stars who the club is never going to re-sign anyways. Rizzo was asked what he'd say to those fans who feel it's time to relinquish their fandom.
"You can't forget that Anthony and Trea and Max and Harper, and all these guys, they were the [C.J.] Abrams and the [Robert] Hassells and the [James] Woods of the world before they became superstars," he said. "That's what I would tell the fans. We've put ourselves in the position to have sustained success and we're hoping that this trade, the last trade deadline, the last couple of drafts, have allowed us to supplement the talent base."
"Our goal is to win championships," Rizzo continued, "and I would say to the fanbase, just look at our record compared to everybody else's record. We're right there with the best of them. We've won a World Championship recently. We've won division titles. And we've put a good consistent, competitive product on the field. We've taken a downturn right now. There's no question about it, but history is the best indicator and through the last downturn we had, we went on to have a decade of success after that, and that's our goal and that's our plan to do it and do it as quickly as possible."
Rizzo declined to go into specifics about which other teams besides the Padres were involved in trade discussions for Soto late in the process.
"I don't want to get into who was the last team," he said. "It started out to be a good number of teams interested, obviously, but then when it got down to the ask, and we put the bar extremely high. I mean we were extremely aggressive with it and we thought to ourselves, if someone reaches this bar, then we've made a good deal and then we would think about trading Juan. Because he's such an iconic great player, we needed to get that iconic return for him.
"And if nobody did reach that plateau, then we would keep him, because we would have him for two more years. It was a position pretty much of strength because we were getting the deal we wanted or we weren't going to do the deal, and only one team met and exceeded the compensation package that we want. It was the Padres. Hats off to them for being aggressive and getting a great player."
Many were surprised to see the Nats not make any trades beyond dealing Soto and Bell, electing instead to keep tradeable talent, like right-handed reliever Kyle Finnegan and power bat Nelson Cruz, on their roster. Especially the latter, who many believed was only signed to a one-year deal to eventually be traded. The fact of the matter is, Rizzo says, that they didn't receive any offers for those players that were substantial enough to trade them.
"That's a fine line," he said. "Nelly Cruz is such a mentor and such a presence in the clubhouse, especially with our younger Latin players. I wasn't just gonna give him away for nothing just to move on. He likes it here. He wanted to be here. He's a terrific teammate and leader in the clubhouse. So we didn't get the level of prospect that we wanted for him, so we kept him."
"That was the case for several of the guys," he said. "We're just not gonna give away our talented players. [Carl Edwards Jr.], we have control of him beyond this year, and Finnegan. There was a lot of interest in them but not to the point where you give away a good late-inning guy like Finnegan if you don't like the prospect return, and you can control him for multiple years. So that's always the decision process that you make."
Left-handed starter MacKenzie Gore (4-4, 4.50 ERA), one of the key pieces in the deal, has been sidelined since late July with what's been described as a low-grade elbow strain. Rizzo doesn't appear to be concerned that that elbow strain could lead to a more serious injury.
"People who actually went to medical school have had no concerns with it, so we trust our medical staff," Rizzo said.
Lastly, Rizzo was asked about the idea of possibly re-signing Soto as a free agent following the 2024 season.
"Juan Soto's near and dear to my heart," he said. "He's one of the great players in the game. And he's with another team, so I can't talk about him, but I know him probably as well as anybody in baseball, so."