Image credit: Mike Piazza (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
As the Aug. 2 trade deadline approaches, all eyes are on Juan Soto.
The Nationals star already has a batting title, two top-five MVP finishes and a World Series ring at 23 years old and won’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season. Few players have accomplished so much so young, and even fewer have been openly available on the trade market with their prime years still ahead of them.
Only a handful of teams actually possess the combination of young major leaguers and top prospects necessary to acquire Soto from the Nationals. The question is not whether a team will have to give up an immense amount of talent to acquire Soto, but how likely it is those players come back to haunt them.
If history is any indication, teams shouldn’t worry about it. When trading for a superstar position player, the team acquiring the star almost always comes out on top.
Below is every instance in the last 30 years that a team acquired a top-three MVP finisher OR a back-to-back Top 10 MVP finisher within two years of the player earning those distinctions. Soto fits both descriptions as the NL MVP runner-up a year ago and a top-10 MVP finisher each of the last three years.
In 13 of the 17 instances such a trade occurred, the team acquiring the star came out significantly ahead. Even in the other four cases, it was more of an even trade than a clear loss for the team acquiring the star.
(Note: The Nolan Arenado and Nelson Cruz trades in 2021 also meet our criteria but are not included because it is too early to fully assess the deals. The early trends favor the Cardinals in the Arenado trade and the Twins in the Cruz trade).
For teams acquiring a star position player, the price has almost always been worth it in the last 30 years. For teams trading away players of that caliber, history shows it’s important to manage expectations: no matter how many years of control are left, no matter how touted the young big leaguers or prospects acquired in return are, no matter how much money is saved, teams overwhelmingly don’t win trades when they deal players at that level. In all but the rarest cases, the best they can hope for is that the deal comes out even.
Betts won the 2018 American League MVP Award and was traded to the Dodgers before the 2020 season. He immediately led the Dodgers to their first World Series title in 32 years and has hit .272/.360/.519 with 61 home runs and 148 RBIs in just over a season-and-a-half’s worth of games (253) since arriving in Los Angeles. He’s already earned a Gold Glove award, a Silver Slugger award and two-all-star selections with the Dodgers. Verdugo has been a roughly average regular (103 OPS+) in three seasons with the Red Sox but has declined each year. Downs and Wong have each seen their stock crater and project as no more than future backups.
One of the best hitters of the 2010s, Goldschmidt finished third in National League MVP voting in 2017 and was traded to the Cardinals after the 2018 season. He’s continued to mash with a .291/.375/.514 slash line since joining the Cardinals and has led them to three consecutive postseasons after an uncharacteristic three-year hiatus for the club. He currently leads the NL with both a .333 batting average and 1.109 OPS, making him the odds-on favorite to win the NL MVP award. Kelly has been the best of the trade return as a roughly league-average performer (99 OPS+) as the D-backs starting catcher. Weaver has struggled to stay healthy and was demoted to the bullpen this year. Young was put on waivers and Henry is still climbing the minors at Triple-A.
Machado finished top-five in AL MVP voting in back-to-back years in 2014-15 and added his third straight 30-homer season in 2016. With the Orioles tearing down and his contract up at the end of the year, they traded him to the Dodgers at the 2018 deadline. Machado wasn’t a fan favorite in L.A., but he still hit .273 with 13 homers and 42 RBIs in 66 games to help the Dodgers reach the 2018 World Series. He’s since posted an .847 OPS (132 OPS+) in four seasons with the Padres and is a contender for this year’s NL MVP award. Diaz, the top prospect in the trade return, has battled injuries and inconsistency and is batting .222 at Triple-A. Kremer has a 5.29 ERA in 25 career starts with the Orioles, Bannon is batting .228 in Triple-A and Valera played only 12 games with the Orioles before being sold to the Giants. Pop has been a serviceable reliever with a 3.68 ERA in 64 career appearances, but it’s been with the Marlins after the Orioles lost him in the Rule 5 draft.
Stanton won the 2017 NL MVP award and was immediately traded by new Marlins ownership after the season with 10 years remaining on his 13-year, $325 million contract. Even as he’s battled injuries, Stanton is on pace for his third 30-home run campaign in four full seasons with the Yankees and has an .853 OPS (133 OPS+) overall since joining them. Castro spent two seasons as the Marlins starting second baseman before leaving in free agency. Devers is hitting .187 in Double-A and Guzman got bombed in three big league relief appearances before signing with the Giants as a minor league free agent last offseason.
Donaldson finished fourth and eighth, respectively, in AL MVP voting in 2013-14 after leading the A’s to consecutive playoff appearances. Despite the fact he had three years of team control left, the A’s traded him after the 2014 season in one of the most lopsided deals of the last 30 years. Donaldson went on to win the AL MVP award for the Blue Jays in 2015 and delivered three consecutive 30-home run seasons. He’s posted an .889 OPS (137 OPS+) in eight seasons since the trade and remains active. Graveman logged a 4.38 ERA in four seasons as a starter with the A’s before leaving and re-inventing himself as an effective late-game reliever. Barreto hit .175 in parts of four seasons in the majors and is currently batting .160 at Triple-A in the Astros system. Lawrie played one season with the A’s and was out of the majors for good a year later. Nolin posted a 5.74 ERA in 18 career appearances and is currently pitching in Korea.
The second of two trades involving Holliday in under a year, the A’s traded a boatload to get him from the Rockies after the 2008 season and got fleeced when they moved him again eight months later. Holliday delivered five straight 20-home run seasons for the Cardinals, posted an .863 OPS and helped lead them to the 2011 World Series title. Wallace hit .238 in parts of six seasons and hasn’t played in the majors since 2016, Mortensen posted a 4.68 ERA in 74 career appearances and has been out of the majors since 2013 and Peterson got 322 plate appearances spread over parts of three seasons as a backup outfielder.
Holliday finished second in NL MVP voting after leading the Rockies to their first World Series appearance in 2007 and was traded to the A’s after the 2008 season. In one of the few examples of a team getting equal value back for a star, Gonzalez blossomed into a three-time all-star and three-time Gold Glove winner over a decade with the Rockies while Street served as a standout closer for three seasons with the club. Holliday had a 133 OPS+ after the trade compared to a 116 OPS+ for Gonzalez, so the veteran star still outperformed the best of the trade return, but the Rockies did well enough to be fine with the deal.
Dec. 4, 2007 – Marlins trade 3B Miguel Cabrera and LHP Dontrelle Willis to Tigers for LHP Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin, RHP Burke Badenhop, C Mike Rabelo, RHP Frankie De La Cruz and RHP Dallas Trahern.
In probably the closest analogy of a potential Soto deal, Cabrera was 24 years old and already a four-time all-star, two-time top-five MVP finisher and a World Series champion when the Marlins traded him and Willis to the Tigers after the 2007 season. Even with Willis posting a 6.43 ERA in four seasons after the trade, it remains one of the most lopsided deals of all-time. Cabrera hit another gear in his mid-20s and won four batting titles, two MVP awards and two home run titles with the Tigers while solidifying himself as one of the greatest hitters of all-time. He became the first player in 45 years to win a Triple Crown in 2012 and is one of only seven players to reach 3,000 hits and 500 home runs in his career. Miller and Maybin were both Top 10 overall prospects but scuffled with the Marlins before finding their footing later in their careers, albeit never to the levels hoped for. Badenhop carved out an eight-year career as a solid reliever, while the rest never amounted to much.
In one of the biggest trades in baseball history, the Rangers sought to get out from the 10-year, $252 million contract they gave Rodriguez by trading him after he won the AL MVP award in 2003. After his proposed trade to the Red Sox was nixed, the Rangers sent him to the Yankees in a deal that ended up lopsided even accounting for Rodriguez’s off-the-field distractions and season-long PED suspension. Rodriguez hit 351 home runs in 12 seasons with the Yankees, won two more MVP awards and helped them win the 2009 World Series. Soriano played only two seasons with the Rangers, albeit all-star ones, before they traded him to the Nationals after the 2005 season. Arias, the Yankees No. 4 prospect at the time of the trade, bounced around for parts of nine seasons as a utilityman.
This remains one of the few deals where a team traded a superstar position player and didn’t get hosed. Griffey was in the final year of his contract and requested a trade, which the Mariners obliged by sending him home to Cincinnati. Griffey hit 45 home runs and was an all-star in his first season with the Reds, but injuries befell him most of the rest of his tenure. He hit 232 home runs and posted a 117 OPS+ after the trade, while Cameron hit 234 home runs and posted a 109 OPS+ after the deal while winning three Gold Gloves in center field. Tomko struggled in Seattle but overall had a respectable 14-year career in the majors. Neither of the two prospects did much. Perez, the Reds No. 8 prospect at the time of the trade, played parts of four seasons in the majors as a backup infielder and Meyer never made it out of Triple-A.
Nov. 2, 1999 – Rangers trade OF Juan Gonzalez, C Gregg Zaun and RHP Danny Patterson to Tigers for OF Frank Catalanotto, RHP Francisco Cordero, C, Bill Haselman, OF Gabe Kapler and LHP Justin Thompson.
Gonzalez won his second AL MVP award in 1998 but was traded to the Tigers after the following season with only one year left on his deal. He hit .299 with an .873 OPS (123 OPS+) in six seasons after the trade, but the Tigers only got one season of that before he signed with Cleveland as a free agent. For their part, the Rangers did just fine in the trade in what is probably the closest case of a team “winning” a trade in which they dealt an MVP contender. Kapler became a solid everyday outfielder during his time with the Rangers. Cordero, the Tigers No. 3 prospect, blossomed into an all-star closer. Catalanotto was a productive everyday player for three seasons before he signed with the Blue Jays in free agency and Haselman was a serviceable backup catcher.
Burks isn’t on par with the other players on this list, but he had a vastly underrated career and qualifies under our guidelines after he finished third in NL MVP voting in 1996 and was traded to the Giants at the 1998 trade deadline. Even though he was already 33 at the time of the trade, Burks hit .301 while averaging 29 home runs and 89 RBIs per season over the next four years—two each with the Giants and Indians—and was an impact player on two division-title clubs. Hamilton was a serviceable outfielder who hit for high averages but little power, while the two prospects in the deal didn’t do much. Stoops made three career relief appearances and Brester, who was the Giants No. 7 prospect at the time of the trade, never got past Double-A.
The Marlins traded Piazza away eight days after acquiring him from the Dodgers in a stunning blockbuster. Yarnall, Wilson and Goetz were the Mets’ Nos. 2, 3 and 4 prospects, respectively, and all ranked in the Top 100 Prospects. Still, the deal ended up lopsided in the Mets’ favor. Piazza hit 220 home runs and posted a .915 OPS in eight seasons with the Mets, solidifying his place as arguably the greatest offensive catcher of all-time. Wilson finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting for the Marlins in 1999 and was productive in his four seasons with them, but his .813 OPS with Florida was still more than 100 points below Piazza’s in half the time. Yarnall made only seven career appearances in the majors and Goetz never got past Double-A. The one saving grace for the Marlins is they were able to flip Yarnall to the Yankees in the trade that brought them Mike Lowell.
This trade isn’t appropriately remembered for how truly enormous it was, a seven-player blockbuster that included a disgruntled superstar, the final dismantling of a championship team, a combined 14 all-star selections and a three-time Gold Glove award-winning catcher. Sheffield gave the Dodgers three and a half productive years, but Johnson, Eisenreich and Bonilla all moved on to other teams by the following season. Barrios made only one appearance for the Dodgers and never pitched in the majors again. Piazza, of course, went on to hit 250 more home runs in his career and went into the Hall of Fame wearing a Mets cap on his plaque, the final blow in a trade that marks one of the lowest moments in Dodgers history.
Like Burks, Grissom doesn’t quite rise to the level of other players on the list but qualifies under our criteria after finishing Top 10 in MVP voting in 1992-93 and being traded before the 1995 season. Also like Burks, he still outperformed who he was traded for. Grissom became the starting center fielder on three straight World Series teams with the Braves in 1995-96 and the Indians in 1997, won two more Gold Glove awards and had 173 home runs and 163 stolen bases the rest of his career after the trade. Kelly played only 24 games with the Expos before bouncing around as a part-time player to finish his career, Tarasco played one season in Montreal before finishing his career with five seasons as an up-and-down reserve and Yan had a 5.14 ERA in 11 seasons as a reliever.
McGriff was a Top-10 MVP finisher four seasons in a row and led the National League in home runs in 1992. He was in the midst of another award-worthy season when the Padres traded him to the Braves for three well-regarded prospects—Nieves was the Braves No. 5 prospect and No. 39 overall on the BA Top 100, Elliott was the Braves No. 9 prospect and Moore was coming off a 20-home run, 30-stolen base season at Low-A Macon. McGriff went on to hit 284 more home runs in his career, earn four more all-star selections and help lead the Braves to the 1995 World Series title. Nieves hit .231 over seven partial seasons in the majors, Elliott pitched 31 career games in the big leagues and Moore never got out of Double-A.
This is another trade that is somewhat analogous to Soto, and also an example of how a team can trade away such a talent and come out okay. Sheffield hit .330 with 33 home runs and 100 RBIs in 1992, winning the NL batting title and finishing third in MVP voting at age 23. He was just entering his prime and had four more seasons until free agency, but the Padres kicked off a fire sale by sending him to the Marlins. Sheffield went on to lead the Marlins to the 1997 World Series and finished his career with 509 home runs as one of baseball’s best players through the 1990s and 2000s. Hoffman, however, became one of the greatest closers of all-time and a San Diego icon. He is second all-time with 601 career saves, was a seven-time all-star and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2018.
OTHER TRADES OF NOTE
There are other noteworthy trades that don’t quite meet our criteria, but are instructive nonetheless. Here are five such trades in which an established or rising star was traded for a large package of prospects and/or young big leaguers, and how it played out.
Yelich didn’t have any Top 10 MVP finishes yet, but he had a career .290/.369/.432 slash line through his age-25 season, was just about to enter his prime and was under team control for five more years. The Brewers paid a high price to acquire Yelich, sending two Top 100 Prospects in Brinson and Harrison, another well-regarded prospect in Diaz and an intriguing 21-year-old righthander in Yamamoto, who was coming off a breakout season at High-A Carolina. The price, of course, was more than worth it. Yelich had one of the greatest two-season spans in recent history after the trade, winning the 2018 NL MVP award and consecutive NL batting titles while leading the Brewers to back-to-back postseason appearances. Even as he’s struggled due to injuries since, the trade has been one of the most lopsided of the last 50 years. Brinson, Harrison and Diaz all hit under .200 in limited stints in the majors and are currently in the minors. Yamamoto was traded to the Mets and is currently in the minors as well.
Upton was one of baseball’s brightest talents at the time. He finished fourth in MVP voting in 2011 at age 23 after carrying the D-backs to a division title and commanded a significant haul when the D-backs put him on the market before his age-25 season. For Upton and Johnson, the Braves traded Prado a year after he hit .301 and garnered MVP votes, recently-graduated top prospect Delgado and three other team Top 30 prospects in Spruill (No. 9), Ahmed (No. 11) and Drury (No. 27). Upton went on to deliver six straight 25-plus home run seasons after the trade, two of them in Atlanta before they sent him to the Padres in the deal that netted them lefthander Max Fried. Prado, Ahmed and Drury are all still active and have had fine careers, but largely as second-division starters. Upton still had two all-star selections, two Silver Slugger awards and more than 200 career home runs ahead of him, and both from the standpoint of his production and what he brought the Braves back in a later trade, the deal panned out just fine for Atlanta.
Gonzalez was coming off four consecutive 30-home run seasons for the Padres and finished fourth in NL MVP voting in 2010 after leading them to a surprising 90-win season. The Padres traded him for three of the Red Sox’s top prospects in Kelly (No. 2), Fuentes (No. 7) and Rizzo (No. 8) and a veteran utilityman in Patterson. Gonzalez, still in his 20s at the time of the trade, went on to deliver four more 20-homer seasons and posted an .817 OPS (123 OPS+) in eight seasons overall before retiring. Kelly and Fuentes both busted and Patterson had only 104 at-bats for the Padres and never played in the majors again. The Padres still could have won the trade if they kept Rizzo, but they instead traded him to the Cubs for righthander Andrew Cashner after just one season with the club.
Beltran was similarly a young star in his prime at age 26 and was coming off three straight seasons of at least a .270 batting average, 20 home runs, 100 RBIs and 30 stolen bases. With Beltran set to be a free agent at the end of the year, the Royals traded him for three ranked prospects in Buck (Astros No. 3), Wood (A’s No. 12) and Teahan (A’s No. 15). Beltran tied a postseason record with eight home runs to carry the Astros to the NLCS that year and went on to hit 289 home runs and make eight all-star games after the trade. Buck hit .235 in six seasons with the Royals before leaving in free agency, Teahen had five solid but unspectacular seasons with the Royals (97 OPS+) and Wood logged a 5.49 ERA in parts of five seasons in the majors.
McGwire hit .312 and led the majors with 52 home runs, a .467 on-base percentage and a .730 on-base percentage in 1996 and was in the midst of another excellent season in 1997, but with his contract set to expire and the A’s hurtling toward last place, they sent him to the Cardinals for a promising young reliever in Mathews and two of the Cardinals top prospects in Ludwick (No. 7) and Stein (No. 9). McGwire, of course, hit a record 70 home runs the following season in 1998 and added 65 homers in 1999 for good measure. Mathews regressed in Oakland and posted a 4.78 ERA in five years with the A’s. Stein went on to record a 5.41 ERA in parts of five seasons and Ludwick retired with an 8.35 ERA in 31 career games.