He laughed and shook his head. He described how, once that first burst of pressure faded, he stopped trying to crush the ball to the moon with every swing. Then Soto removed his sunglasses and looked at the ground.
“It was weird, man. It’s crazy how everything changed,” he continued, nodding to the departures of Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Brad Hand, Yan Gomes, Daniel Hudson, Josh Harrison, Kyle Schwarber and Jon Lester, all in 30 hours. “It’s so different for me. I always say I will be a rookie forever. But now everybody is looking at me like I’m the role model, and it just feels weird. I don’t want to feel that way. I want to still feel like I’m a rookie, but it is what it is. I just have to step it up and just keep playing baseball.”
On July 30, after those eight veterans were traded, Manager Dave Martinez called Soto the “guy now that this organization is going to follow.” A day earlier, Martinez brought Soto into his office and relayed the same message. The deadline fire sale netted top prospects Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray, around whom the club is planning at least some of its future. But keeping Soto, one of the sport’s best hitters, remains the biggest key, even though he can’t reach free agency for another three full seasons.
Turner was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers in part because he and the Nationals couldn’t agree on terms of a contract extension in the spring of 2020, the last time specific figures were discussed. That came after outfielder Bryce Harper walked following the 2018 season, then Anthony Rendon signed with the Los Angeles Angels the next offseason, weeks after Washington won the World Series.
The largest contract in club history is Stephen Strasburg’s seven-year, $245 million deal, which so far has included just 26⅔ innings from the injured right-hander. So if the Nationals can eventually lock up Soto long term, he would be their second homegrown position player to sign a nine-figure contract, joining Ryan Zimmerman. But whether that can happen is a question that will hang over the team.
“Well, I like to say we have a long-term deal with him now; it’s a three-year long-term deal. That’s a good thing, to have an excellent player on your team for three years,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said after the trade deadline passed. “Hey, obviously, 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 and sign him long term. It’s an important part of what our plan is.”
Since the deadline, has Soto thought about the possibility of a long-term extension with the Nationals?
“I’m going to try to take it year by year,” Soto answered. “I’m just going to keep playing baseball, not think about contracts or whatever. … Right now, I was a little frustrated, but I have to concentrate on the field, on how to be better for myself and my teammates. If they want to talk to my agent, they can talk to him. But let me play.”
His agent, Scott Boras, often advises players to maximize their value on the open market. Harper, also with Boras, turned down a 10-year, $300 million offer from the Nationals in September 2018 — it did include deferred money — before landing with the Philadelphia Phillies on a 13-year, $330 million contract. After winning World Series MVP honors, Strasburg, another Boras client, exercised an opt-out in his contract, became a free agent and cashed in. Rendon, yet another Boras client, had pre-free-agency extension discussions that made little progress. There is a well-worn script.
But the Nationals have more than three years to see if there’s an offer Soto can’t refuse. And in the meantime, he wades into life without Scherzer, Turner and others in the clubhouse. Turner was a good friend, the two often joking with hitting coach Kevin Long in the dugout. Scherzer was a mentor, Soto says, someone he often asked for advice. In their absence, he will talk even more with Zimmerman, the original face of the franchise, and bullpen coach Henry Blanco.
Luis García, a 21-year-old infielder, has pledged to walk in Soto’s footsteps. Ruiz, the top catching prospect acquired from the Dodgers, says Soto’s fluency in English is aspirational. The Nationals had MLB’s oldest roster in 2019, but their entire identity has flipped. Entering Saturday, they had dropped five straight games and 23 of 32.
“I don’t feel like I’ve been in the league long enough to say, ‘Oh, I’m a veteran player now,’ ” Soto said. “I’m still learning the game, learning the team, learning about the business, everything. So it just feels odd.”
Just two autumns ago, Soto was the phenom of a championship team, forming the core with Scherzer, Strasburg, Turner, Rendon, Zimmerman, Hudson, Patrick Corbin, Howie Kendrick, Adam Eaton and Sean Doolittle. Now, only Soto, Strasburg, Zimmerman and Corbin remain, with Strasburg out for the season after undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, Corbin holding a 5.74 ERA and Zimmerman, 36, near the end of his career.
From that vantage point, Soto is almost a last man standing, bridging one era to the next. For a few days, the implications of that had him pressing in the batter’s box, trying to fix a reset that couldn’t be undone. But in a loss to the Phillies on Thursday, on a mundane afternoon at Nationals Park, Soto looked around, felt his place in the stadium and adjusted.
“That’s when I felt like, for the first time in a bit, like I played free,” he said. “I told myself: ‘[Expletive] it. Let’s go.’ ”