Davey Martinez talked to Juan Soto in advance of the trade deadline back on July 30th, to let the Washington Nationals’ 22-year-old slugger know that change was likely coming for the organization.
“I talked to him in Philly, actually,” Martinez said, where the club played the final series in the lead-up to what ended up being a fire sale, and told him to just keep his head up.
GM Mike Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office 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.
Martinez wanted to make one thing clear to Soto, who walked into a completely different clubhouse than he’d known for most of his first four big league seasons on July 31st.
“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.”
The fourth-year skipper said he was careful about the messaging, trying to avoid adding any unnecessary pressure on Soto in an already difficult situation.
“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 he became a de facto leader, the manager said, Soto had already emerged as one of the key voices on the roster.
“He’s become a quiet leader in the clubhouse to a lot of young guys,” Martinez explained.
“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.”
Soto may be a quiet leader, but he also leads by example.
“I’ve learned a lot. A lot,” 21-year-old infielder Luis García said this past weekend, when he was asked about watching Soto over the last few months, as he’s torn through the league, posting a .377/.547/.700 line since the All-Star break (.369/.555/.650 since the club kicked off their reboot at the trade deadline).
“And not just in this little stretch,” García said, referring to Soto’s otherworldy run over the last few weeks (.508/.651/.864, four doubles, five home runs, 25 walks vs. six strikeouts in the last 18 games and 86 plate appearances before Sunday’s game).
“Ever since I’ve known him and ever since I’ve been up here, I’ve learned a lot from him,” the second baseman said.
“Obviously staying back on my back side as well as he does, and the focus that he has every at-bat, I’m trying to put that into play as well, and keep learning. I still am learning a lot from him, and just watching him play, a very great player, and I’m just trying to pick up as much as I can.”
How, if at all, has Soto changed as a leader since the trade deadline? Is he more vocal? Still mostly leading by example?
“You know what, he’s kind of a quiet leader,” Martinez reiterated before Sunday afternoon’s series finale in Cincinnati, “but whenever he wants to have a conversation, he’ll go up to a certain individual and talk about different things. A lot of guys, these young guys, they’ve been watching him hit, they’ve been asking him questions throughout the game, they sit back and they watch videos. I’ve seen him watch a lot of videos with Luis, talking about pitch selection and what he feels like the guys are going to do, pitch location and stuff like that.
“So he’s been really, really good. Like I said, we had conversations, multiple conversations, about, hey, I just want him to be him, don’t feel like you have to carry this team, just go out there and do what you do best.
“And he’s accepted that and as you can see, he’s had an unbelievable second-half.”
Martinez also said that he hasn’t felt the need to address the leadership role Soto’s assumed in the wake of the sell-off.
“Yeah for me you never talk about leadership,” he explained, “... that comes with him, and that’s something — what I did talk to him about, I said that you can see that we’re getting younger, you’re a guy that’s been here, you know how to win, we’ve been here, we’ve won, so this is your time to teach, and this is kind of almost your team now, with [Ryan Zimmerman] being the guy, but you got to take that responsibility, and he said he’s good, but I told him, I said, don’t try to pressure yourself to try to be that guy, just be a guy, and I said all along your teammates will appreciate you just going out there and playing hard like you always do, but I said, they’re going to watch you, believe me, they’re going to watch you, and they’re going to learn, and they have done that.”