If it was his last game with the Washington Nationals, Juan Soto’s 1 for 1, three-walk night in the nation’s capital on Monday, in which he hit his 21st home run of the 2022 campaign, (and hit it off of Max Scherzer in the fourth), and took his league-leading 89th, 90th, and 91st walks of the season as well, is emblematic of everything we’ve seen since he made his MLB debut in May of 2018.
Soto is a preternaturally patient hitter, with an advanced sense of the strike zone, with the ability to barrel them up and hit balls a long way, on rare occasions when he actually gets something to hit.
“He’s been doing that since we’ve had him here, he really has,” Davey Martinez said of the power and patience on display from the 23-year-old outfielder. “You see Juan at his best, when he doesn’t chase, he’s able to get a ball in the strike zone, he hits it hard, and he will accept his walks. He knows the strike zone probably better than any young hitter I’ve ever seen, and you can see that, you see it every day.”
And yet, with two and a half seasons of control left before potentially reaching free agency, the Nationals think they have to consider dealing Soto before today’s 6:00 PM ET trade deadline if there is a team out there willing to part with their top prospects and some MLB-ready or experienced players as part of a package which will convince GM Mike Rizzo to make a deal, or as he said recently, “...we’re going to have to get the deal that we want that makes the most sense,” and, “that gets us an opportunity to become a championship organization faster than not trading him, so that’s it in a nutshell.”
Soto turning down a 15-year/$440M extension offer from the Nationals prompted the trade talk, but they’ll have to be blown away to make a deal.
“You’re not going to give away these players and not get something in return that we feel like, hey, this is what our future is going to be and this is going to be really good for us,” the Nats’ skipper said before last night’s 7-3 loss to the New York Mets.
“And those guys up there [in the front office] are working diligently to get those players that we need, if we can get them.
“If not, then we have arguably one of the best young players in the game, and I love the kid.”
There’s a lot to love, even if the last month, and the seemingly tense relationship between the player and the team has spilled out into the media, making both sides look bad in the process, and potentially making a trade more likely before today’s deadline.
But fans in Nats Park last night let their star know how they feel about him, with ovations at a few points in the game, which Soto even said were appreciated, but ... kind of weird.
“It’s a lot,” Soto said of the reaction from fans, as quoted by MASN’s Bobby Blanco. “It kinda feels weird, too, since nothing happened yet and we’re just still waiting. But it’s kind of cool at the same time, but it’s kind of weird, too.”
“It’s awesome,” Martinez said of the reaction from the fans.
“I know the fans appreciate him. What he’s done and what he means to this fan base. It’s awesome. But that’s a testament to how good our fans are, really. I mean, our fans have supported us. It’s been tough, but they’re here and they support us and they love him as they should. So it was great to see that.”
As the fifth-year skipper noted, it was also great to see Soto battle (and win the at-bats) with his former teammate, a three-time Cy Young winner.
“Awesome. I mean, facing a guy like Max, he had great at-bats,” Martinez said.
“He stayed — kept the ball in the zone, fouled off some good pitches, got a ball to hit, hit it far, I mean, but the last couple of days, his at-bats have been really, really good.”
Soto’s dialed in all the time, in every at-bat, on every pitch, but it’s clear he also relishes the opportunity to test himself against the best of the best.
“He’s up there — as we all know, he competes every pitch, right? That’s why he does what he does to get to the next pitch,” Martinez said, referring to the shuffle/reset Soto does at the plate.
“But you know when he faces a guy like Max, or really anybody, I mean, he wants to win the at-bat. That’s just who he is. And today, he won a few. I mean, to him a walk is winning in an at-bat. And he enjoys it. He loves it. He works counts and he goes deep in counts and when he gets a ball to hit, as you saw today, he can hit it far.”
Soto has struggled at the plate, going 5 for 29 (.172/.385/.241) in nine games to start the second-half out of the All-Star break, with a triple, nine walks, and eight Ks in 39 PAs before last night, but the effort has been there from what his manager has seen as the outfielder has tried hard over the last few weeks to stay focused amidst all the rumors and drama.
“No, he’s playing — hey, Juan’s Juan, right?” Martinez said. “He comes in, he plays hard and, like I’ve been telling him for the last week and a half, I said, ‘Hey, you just gotta control what you can control, go out there and have fun and play baseball.’ And he’s been doing that.
“Once again, today his at-bats were really good. His at-bats the other day were really good. I mean, the biggest thing with him is accepting his walks.
“If they’re gonna walk you, let them walk you, and you got a couple guys behind you that can hit the ball, too. So he’s been doing that.”
Soto and his manager both said they were excited to have it all over with this afternoon one way or the other.
“For me, I’m playing for the Nationals right now. I haven’t heard anything yet. So for me, just another game that I play,” Soto told reporters.
“I mean, like I said earlier today, come 6:02 p.m. tomorrow, I’m gonna be sitting in my office and whatever happens, happens,” Martinez said. “But I’m gonna sit there, have a glass of water, some coconut milk, or whatever I decide to drink at that particular moment, and be ready for the game and be done with it.”