When Juan Soto came to the plate in the first inning Monday night, most of those in the lower bowl at Nationals Park stood and clapped. Last first at-bat as a Washington National? As he slid headfirst across the plate a few moments later, the thought was unavoidable. Last run as a Nat? In the fourth, when he hit a how-do-you-replace-that shot to left-center, you had to wonder. Last homer with the Nats? All the while, the clock ticked toward Tuesday’s trade deadline — one Soto has been the fulcrum of for more than two weeks.
By the eighth inning, so many of the Nats fans among the 29,034 who drank in a 7-3 loss to Max Scherzer and the New York Mets were standing and chanting, “We love Soto!”
“It means a lot,” Soto said after taking Scherzer deep and walking in his three other plate appearances. “It kind of feels weird, too, because nothing [has] happened yet, and we just still waiting.”
This is tough stuff, and on an unusually pleasant August evening, you could almost feel it strangling the franchise and its fan base. There is a chance — a chance — that when dawn breaks Tuesday, Soto will face a future in which he never puts on a Nationals uniform again. Put the evaluation of whatever comes back in return on the back burner for a moment. It’s a lot to stomach.
“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’s going to be, and this is going to be really good for us,’ ” Manager Dave Martinez said. “Those guys up there [in the front office] are working diligently to get those players that we need, if we can get it. If not, we have arguably one of the youngest best players in the game, and I love the kid.”
Until 6 p.m. Tuesday, the situation is incredibly fluid. By the time you read this on newsprint, Soto could have been traded. Refresh your Twitter feed frequently. It’s the only way to keep up.
“I feel good where I’m at, and I understand it’s a business and they need to do whatever they need to do,” Soto said. “I’m just another player, another employee here — like Zim used to say.”
Forever Nat Ryan Zimmerman never faced such a situation. But here’s an undying truth about any potential Soto deal: The Nationals have to be asking for an unprecedented return. That’s their responsibility, given a player of his ability and his age has never been traded with two years and two months of control left before free agency. To a contending team, that’s not just three pennant races and three Octobers. It’s also two full 162-game seasons, which can’t be ignored.
But the flip side of asking for such a haul — completely appropriately — is that it just might be too much for an opposing general manager, not to mention an opposing ownership group, to swallow. Any club that trades for Soto and expects to be able to sign him to a contract extension hasn’t listened closely to the player — who has spoken repeatedly about his curiosity about having 30 teams bidding on his services in free agency — or his agent, Scott Boras.
A potential deal has to be based in its baseball sense, and it will be framed as such. But it’s undeniable that there’s a public relations element to it, too. And it would be hard for General Manager Mike Rizzo to stand in front of the fan base and argue that what he got for a generational talent will transform the franchise if the rest of the industry reacts with some version of “That’s all they got?”
This must be a wow of a return, one that gives the fan base more reasons to come to the ballpark — not just in two or three years but immediately. That’s a hard package for any team to part with.
Plus, it would be completely reasonable for Rizzo to say some version of: “Why is this a bad outcome? We still have one of the game’s best young players. There will be a new ownership group in place in the offseason. Maybe they’ll be able to go further than the 15-year, $440 million deal Soto turned down from the Lerner family.”
I’ve become pessimistic about whether a deal can be pulled off — and it’s more a 65-35 gut feel against such a possibility than 90-10 — so Soto probably will be traded five minutes after these words are published. There’s no certainty to any of this. Hang on to your hat.
Well, wait. There’s certainty about this much: October 2019 and the parade that followed — man, they feel way more than two years and nine months ago.
“It seems like a very long time ago,” Martinez said. “It does.”
As if to twist that particular knife, the Mets started Scherzer on Monday night in what could have been Soto’s last game in the uniform they each wore during that wild run to a World Series title. In an unusually expansive and poignant pregame meeting with reporters, Martinez teared up a couple of times while thinking about what was and what remains. Since trading Scherzer and Trea Turner — not to mention Daniel Hudson and Yan Gomes and others — at last year’s deadline, the Nationals are 53-111 — numbers that make sense if you watch this team play regularly yet still seem staggering in black and white.
Martinez said Monday that he has a room in his house in which he stores the most meaningful memorabilia he has collected over the years. So much is from 2019. In these dark days, he often heads down there to reminisce with old photos.
“It kind of says, ‘Hey, no matter what happens, the goal is to get back there, right?’ ” Martinez said. “So every day, I’ll go down there, I’ll pick myself up and say, ‘Hey, one day we’ll be back there.’ Just keep those memories intact.”
But it’s not just the swirl around Soto that makes those days seem more distant. It’s the deterioration of professionalism in some corners of his own clubhouse. On Monday afternoon, Victor Robles — once the unquestioned starting center fielder on a World Series champion, now a spare part with an unclear future — had a box of T-shirts in front of his locker, distributing them to any interested teammates. On the front: a picture of Robles wearing a clown nose — a nod to his dugout antics last month after Arizona’s Madison Bumgarner called him a “clown” for pimping a solo home run when the Nats were down six runs in the eighth.
On a winning team, an amusing, even self-deprecating T-shirt could be unifying. But for a group that has the worst record in baseball — and may have an even surer hold on that status by September — it’s comical. Who are the clowns, Victor? The effort put into designing and ordering those shirts might have been better used figuring out how not to get thrown out on the base paths.
But I digress. That, of course, is not close to the most important part of this week. The most important part of this week isn’t even about this week. It’s about the direction of the franchise. And we’ll know something about that direction based on whether Juan Soto gets another ovation in home whites Tuesday night — or he has gathered his belongings and departed the home clubhouse for the final time.