Should your MLB team gut its farm system for Juan Soto? The Miguel Cabrera trade provides some perspective
The Juan Soto situation is a lot of things, but it is not entirely unprecedented. Players with Soto's age and resume become available for a trade maybe once in a generation, and the price it takes to pry the outfielder from the Washington Nationals is likely to reflect that. The Nationals reportedly want four or five "youngsters" (read: prospects or MLB players with low service time), and that's going to give a lot of teams pause.
Should it? Well, that's not easy. Accurately judging a winner from any Soto trade the moment it's made is borderline impossible, because we really don't know what the players headed to D.C. will become, and that's why it's scary trading away a top 100 prospect. He could become another Juan Soto.
However, it may be possible to get some perspective from maybe the closest thing we have to a precedent for Soto: a player who was an NL East star and one of MLB's best hitters at a young age, with a World Series ring won at 20 years old, and was traded for a bunch of prospects whose careers we have since seen.
We are talking about Miguel Cabrera, whom the then-Florida Marlins judged to be too expensive to keep long-term and traded to the Detroit Tigers in 2007 at the age of 24, one year older than Soto is now. Cabrera would go on to have a Hall-of-Fame career in Detroit, hitting .309/.385/.522 with 368 homers, seven All-Star nods, five Silver Sluggers, four batting titles and two MVP awards across 15 seasons entering Thursday.
By Baseball Reference's version of wins above replacement (bWAR), he has been worth 68.7 wins for Detroit.
There are obviously differences between 2022 Soto and 2007 Cabrera, but their trade values shouldn't be too far off. Like the Nationals, the Marlins wanted a boatload of prospects for their young star and eventually got it from the Tigers, who turned around and gave Cabrera the extension the Marlins were trying to avoid.
The Marlins asked plenty of other teams as well, so let's look at what each team reportedly could have paid for Cabrera, and whether they would regret making that trade now with the benefit of hindsight we're missing when talking about Soto.
We'll start with the trade that actually happened. All prospect rankings come from Baseball America's pre-2008 Top 100 unless otherwise noted.
The package: Cameron Maybin (No. 6 overall prospect), Andrew Miller (No. 10 in 2007), Burke Badenhop, Eulogio De La Cruz, Mike Rabelo, Dallas Trahern (and received Dontrelle Willis)
Total career bWAR: 24.8
The thing you have to realize about this package is many people thought it was monstrous at the time. The Tigers wanted their star hitter and paid dearly for him, giving up two top-20 prospects in Maybin and Miller, plus four other live bodies.
Maybin would have a respectable-enough career as a starting center fielder with a career 92 OPS+ (basically, his OPS was 8 percent worse than league average when adjusted for park and year), but never made an All-Star team. Miller never found the success envisioned for him as a starting pitcher, but his second act as a reliever was the best thing anyone in this group did.
Should the Tigers have done this? God, yes.
Los Angeles Angels
The package: Howie Kendrick (No. 12 pre-2006), Ervin Santana, Jeff Mathis (No. 60 pre-2006), Nick Adenhart (No. 24)
Total career bWAR: 62.5
No team popped up more in trade speculation for Cabrera than the Angels, who eventually balked at the above package.
It's hard to deny Kendrick eventually became the player many believed he could, a high-contact second baseman who could fit into the top of any lineup. He made only one All-Star team, but he ranks 11th all-time on the Angels in bWAR.
Santana found plenty of success, as well, throwing 2,486.2 innings with a 101 ERA+, while Mathis lasted 17 years in the big leagues as mostly a back-up catcher. Tragically, Adenhart died in 2009 in a collision with a drunk driver.
Should the Angels have done this? Probably. Yes, their two biggest names turned out fine, but imagine Cabrera and Mike Trout in the same lineup, then get back to me.
Chicago White Sox
The package: Gio Gonzalez (No. 26), Ryan Sweeney (No. 55 pre-2007), Josh Fields
Total career bWAR: 38.4
The important name here is Gonzalez, who had a very good career ... for teams that weren't the White Sox. Chicago ended up trading him and Sweeney to the Oakland Athletics in 2008 for one year of Nick Swisher.
Gonzalez found success with Oakland and the Washington Nationals, making two All-Star teams and finishing third in Cy Young voting in 2012. Cabrera won AL MVP that year.
Should the White Sox have done this? Clearly yes, but it sounds like they were outbid.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The package: Clayton Kershaw (No. 7), Matt Kemp (No. 96 in 2006), James Loney (No. 44)
Total career bWAR: 104.1 (and counting)
The general lesson of this list is to not hug your prospects too closely, but there's an exception to every rule, and his name is Clayton Kershaw.
We don't even really need to list off what Kershaw has done, the fact that he started an All-Star game this year speaks for itself. Kemp also came a Ryan Braun short of an MVP award in 2011 and hung around in the majors for 15 years, while Loney found a little success as a high-contact, low-power first baseman.
Should the Dodgers have done this? They are the only team here in which the answer is emphatically no.
Boston Red Sox
The package: Clay Buchholz (No. 4), Jacoby Ellsbury (No. 13)
Total career bWAR: 48.2
Buchholz really looked like he was going to be MLB's next ace at one point. He did have some good years and threw a no-hitter in his second career start but the injury gods were not kind to him. The better player in this package wound up being Ellsbury, who, like Kemp, came up just short of an MVP award in 2011.
Should the Red Sox have done this? Yes, but they have two more World Series rings than the Tigers since this went down.
The package: Adam Miller (No. 29), Asdrúbal Cabrera, and more
Total career bWAR: 29.6, and more
Miller is the rare top prospect to not even see the majors, as multiple arm surgeries in 2009 left him ineffective. Cabrera turned out rather well, though "well" in this case means a solid-hitting shortstop who made two All-Star teams then embarked on a journeyman career.
Should the Guardians have done this? Yes, because pitching prospects will break your heart.
Other players MLB teams refused to include
There were a few teams generally interested in Cabrera, but the central pieces the Marlins demanded turned out to be non-starters. Here they are.
New York Yankees: One of Phil Hughes (No. 4 pre-2007), Joba Chamberlain (No. 3) or Ian Kennedy (No. 45)
St. Louis Cardinals: Colby Rasmus (No. 5)
San Francisco Giants: Tim Lincecum (No. 11 pre-2007)
Again, pitching prospects will break your heart, but they might also win two Cy Young Awards and three World Series rings before doing it.
So those are your MLB Ghosts of Christmas Past. Look at all those top-100 rankings, then look at this list of Soto mock trades, then ask yourself, are those prices really that steep?