Davey Martinez tried to prepare Juan Soto for what was coming heading into the 2021 Trade Deadline this past Friday.
Martinez said he spoke with the Washington Nationals’ 22-year-old right fielder in advance, to try to let him know what to expect, and what was expected of him, as the organization was preparing for a reboot after a sober assessment of where things stood this season and in the big picture.
“I talked to him in Philly, actually, and told him that he just has to keep his head up and keep playing,” Martinez told reporters on Friday afternoon, after the team traded away seven who were playing out expiring deals (Max Scherzer, Brad Hand, Yan Gomes, Daniel Hudson, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Harrison, and Jon Lester), and one, (Trea Turner), who was a year-plus away from free agency.
“He’s the guy now that this organization is going to follow,” Martinez said of Soto.
“He just has to keep going out there, and keep grinding his at bats like he always does, and play good defense, run the bases the way he’s supposed to run them and stay positive and he understands that.”
With the organization clearly preparing for a future with Soto as the key piece around which they build, Martinez said that the outfielder is up for it, but you have to be careful with the pressure it might place on his shoulders. Labeling Soto “the guy” in D.C., of course, runs counter to some advice his manager has offered in the past, even if it’s obviously the case.
“That’s a touchy thing to put in a young player’s head, ‘the guy,’” Martinez said. “I often tell him, ‘Don’t be the guy, just be a guy. And just be you.’ And he understands that. He’s going to go out there, he’s going to compete, and he’s going to have good at bats as we all know.
“The biggest thing for him is not to get out of the strike zone, hit balls in the strike zone, take your walks and just be you, be you in the clubhouse.”
Before all of last week’s deals, Soto had already emerged as a leader on the team, in spite of his relative lack of experience in the majors.
“He’s become a quiet leader in the clubhouse to a lot of young guys,” Martinez said. “And now it’s almost like he’s a veteran guy in the clubhouse because he’s been here so long and he understands, but I don’t want him to put any added pressure on him trying to be the guy. I want him to just be a guy. Just go about your business as he always does. We had a long conversation like I said in Philly, I tried to explain to him what might transpire, what’s going to happen, and he said, ‘Hey, look, I’m going to go out there and do the best I can to help this team win,’ and I told him that’s all I can ask for, and that’s all anybody can ask for, so just you be you and go out there and have some fun.
“Yesterday he was very upbeat, cheering for his teammates like he always does. I think he’s going to be okay. I really do. He understands the game, he understands what he needs to do, and he understands that he needs to be there for his teammates as well.”
With Soto clearly the guy now though, and Turner, who’d been discussing a long-term deal over the last few springs, now a Dodger, the question it seems all Nationals fans are asking in the aftermath of the fire sale is: When does Soto get his long-term deal?
“I like to say we have a long-term deal with him now,” GM Mike Rizzo said when he spoke on Friday afternoon, referring to the team control the club has of Soto through 2025.
“It’s a three-year, long-term deal,” Rizzo said, “so that’s a good thing to have an excellent player on your team for three years.
“Honestly, Soto is a benchmark type of player, he’s the core of our team, and we would be remiss if we didn’t aggressively try to sign him long-term. I think that it’s an important part of what our plan is.”
The other part is building around Soto with the players still in the majors who are going to be around beyond this year, the prospects they acquired in the deadline deals, and all the talent they’ve drafted or traded for over the last couple years.
“When this trading class and the last couple of draft classes and trading seasons come together,” Rizzo laid out, “... these people will be the core of that world championship-caliber club with Juan Soto as our lynchpin.
“And he’s as important a part of this franchise as anybody.”
“I think Juan can handle it,” Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats’ 2005 1st Round pick said, offering his own take on the organizational reboot, and Soto’s prominence in the Nationals’ future plans as “the guy” in D.C.
“[Soto has] shown in the short time he’s been in the big leagues,” Zimmerman said, “he can handle these pressure situations of obviously not only on the field, but being a face and being the face of Major League Baseball pretty much. Not just the Nationals, but if you think of three or four guys that people mention when you say ‘Major League Baseball,’ I’m sure his name is up there. He’s already dealt with a lot of that to begin with, so I don’t really think saying something like that is going to affect who he is or how he plays any more than— he’s already kind of dealt with that stuff.”
Zimmerman has shouldered his share of the burden of being the face of the franchise, and he’s still around, coming off the bench now in a different role in his 16th big league season, so have he and Soto talked about the pressure of handling it all?
“I haven’t really talked — we talk every now and then,” the 36-year-old, 16-year veteran said.
“He’s so mature for his age. I think it’s hard for anyone to have that much pressure and not feel it a little bit. I think he does a really good job of being kind of the same person all the time and deflecting and not letting that get to him at all. I mean, you’d have to ask him, but I find it hard to believe that he doesn’t let any of it get to him. We’re all human, we all want to succeed all the time and want to be the best and be the face of the franchise and do all that stuff, but you know, he’s so mature for his age and he handles all that pressure so well, and he almost turns it into — just like he kind of does everything, he makes it enjoyable.
“You know he has a really good knack for turning difficult things into — making things fun, making things — he’s always smiling, he’s always having a good time, he works so hard and he prepares so hard that I think once he gets to the field that is fun for him and that’s kind of his escape.
“So if you have a guy that you’re going to put the pressure on and the burden of being the guy we’re going to build around I think with the way he works and the way he strives to get better each and every day, that’s the kind of guy you want to do it with.”
“You’re going to have to do something,” Zimmerman added, “or at least try to do something with that guy. I mean, he’s a special player, and obviously he’s one of the best players in the game, and I couldn’t really imagine a better guy to build around than someone like that.”