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Why the Nationals are testing out Juan Soto in right field

The Nationals' experimentation with Juan Soto in right field could have something to do with potential free agent targets in the offseason. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

As far as experiments go, the Washington Nationals testing Juan Soto in right field isn’t too unusual. He played there throughout three minor league seasons. The switch from left field to right can be a natural one. And since his debut in the majors at 19, Soto has shown a knack for learning very quickly, no matter the task.

But it was still fair to ask Manager Dave Martinez why the Nationals chose now, the last week of this lost season, to put Soto in a new position for three straight games. First, Martinez laughed. Then he explained that it was to keep Soto engaged. Then, when pressed on any future ramifications, Martinez cracked the smallest bit. A reporter asked whether Soto was shifted because the Nationals may eye a free agent outfielder, and that free agent outfielder may fit in left, and that may mean Soto could jog across the field next year.

Martinez smirked at the suggestion. He also didn’t knock it aside.

“It could be a possibility,” Martinez said Wednesday afternoon. “Use your imagination.”

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The manager can toggle right fielders because Adam Eaton is out for the season with a fractured left index finger. But if Martinez insists, here’s some imagining: The Nationals probably will seek a proven hitter this winter. General Manager Mike Rizzo has long wanted catcher J.T. Realmuto in Washington, though the deepest free agent position is corner outfield. Marcell Ozuna, George Springer, Michael Brantley and Joc Pederson will hit the open market after the season. Springer has largely played center for the Houston Astros, making him the most versatile of the group. The rest profile best in left, unless Ozuna can keep benefiting from the universal designated hitter.

Ozuna, playing on a one-year, $18 million deal with the Atlanta Braves, leads the National League with 17 homers. Springer is having a down year with the Astros, by his standards, but he was an all-star in each of the previous three seasons and finished seventh in AL MVP voting in 2019. Pederson, the youngest of those four players at 28, is a streaky, left-handed power bat for the Los Angeles Dodgers. And Brantley, also with the Astros, is a model of offensive consistency.

The Nationals hold a $10.5 million club option for Eaton for 2021. If they decline it and let a number of other players walk, the books free up to spend on a hitter of the caliber of Ozuna, Springer, Brantley or Pederson. It could go a long way in replacing the production void left by Anthony Rendon. Additional savings could include declining a $12 million option for Aníbal Sánchez; passing on mutual options for Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames; and not re-signing soon-to-be free agents Sean Doolittle, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Ryan Zimmerman, Kurt Suzuki and Michael A. Taylor.

“It feels really good,” Soto, 21, said Wednesday night of switching to right. “Really nice to be out there again.”

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By saying “again,” Soto is nodding to the distant past of 2018. That’s when he appeared in 39 minor league games, most of them in right, before shooting to the majors. He has since become a superstar, smacking three home runs in the World Series last October — two off Gerrit Cole, the other off Justin Verlander — then posting insane numbers this year.

Through Wednesday, Soto led all of baseball with a 1.190 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He also led in weighted runs created plus, a catchall advanced statistic that measures offensive production and adjusts for ballpark factors. He led the NL in batting average, for the traditionalists among us. He had 13 homers despite hitting zero in his first 72 plate appearances this month. He also missed 13 games — first for testing positive for the novel coronavirus, then with elbow soreness — which will probably dash his MVP candidacy.

But here’s what the Nationals have learned in 2½ years with Soto: His aptitude is off the charts. He has countered each adjustment pitchers have tried. He already has become a sneaky base stealer. So if they want him to play right, a position he grew up in, the learning curve should be fairly flat. On Thursday, in his third major league game in right, Soto made a good read on a slicing liner and caught it on the warning track. And later, as if to outdo himself, he made a leaping grab along the side wall and nearly threw out a tagging runner at second base.

“He’s worked really hard to play left field, and he’s done a great job over there," Martinez said. "But this is something to give him a little breath of fresh air and let him go back to doing what he loves to do and seeing what transpires.”

Soto’s defense always has been a work in progress. He has an average arm and has grown more comfortable tracking back toward the left field wall. When there’s chatter about him moving to first base in the future, Soto quickly declares himself an outfielder. But a transition to right, to make room for a middle-of-the-order bat, could be both logical and not a slight to his abilities.

With Martinez’s blessing, we’re free to wonder how it may look.

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