July 6, 2022

Saying Goodbye to Juan Soto

May 17, 2022 by · 1 Comment 

Juan Soto has been the soul of the Washington Nationals since he first blasted his way through the DC organization’s minor league system as a 17- and 18-year old. In 2018 Soto brought the wide grin, the goofy setup in the batter’s box, and the infectious love of the game to Washington. And DC fans have been enthralled by him ever since. He has helped us survive the pandemic, the Trump administration, and the other recent downturns in the psychic life of our city.

But alas, his tenure is unlikely to survive much past the midterms. Juan Soto has been a complete hitter since he burst upon the scene and helped the Nationals to their first World Series win in 2019. He hits for average, power and has one of the keenest batting eyes in the game. He led the National League in almost every category in the shortened 2020 season, but the 1.185 OPS is perhaps the most impressive number he posted for that grim season. But the more impressive numbers can be found alongside Juan Soto’s name in the 2019 World Series where his 1.178 OPS laps everyone in the field, even Anthony Rendon, who likewise had an inspiring Series in 2019.

Many batters are struggling to find their rhythm in 2022. The shortened spring training, the rainy cold weather, the shift, the lust for home runs at the expense of solid contact. There are many causes, but more is the number of proven hitters still unable to rise above the Mendoza Line. It is fair to expect that Juan Soto will be able to raise his pedestrian .252 batting average before the end of the season. But still, watching him at the plate this year, he does appear more lost than I can ever remember in the years since I first saw him play for Harrisburg when they were visiting the Bowie Baysox in 2018.

So while he is likely to find his stroke, and almost certain to terrorize National League pitchers before the July 4th holiday, the bigger question is whether he will sign with the Nationals for the long term. Soto has put that decision in the hands of Scott Boras. Looking at the photograph of Boras sitting beside Juan Soto is like imagining Vladimir Putin astride a tank as it parades through the capital of Ukraine. Why Juan, why?

For Washington fans it is like sitting at the drive-in theatre and watching Clint Eastwood reruns. We know how this movie ends. We watched Boras guide Bryce Harper to free agency heaven several years ago after he too turned down a wildly generous offer from the Nationals. Washington was once known for their ability to negotiate successfully with Boras. The signing of Strasburg and Harper coming out of the amateur draft was fraught with anxiety, but that success seemed to foretell a long and happy marriage between Boras and the Lerner family who owned the team. Since then Boras has milked the Nationals for more than a few outlandish contracts, not the least of which is the one to Stephen Strasburg that hangs around the neck of the team like a millstone.

Fans in Washington have learned recently that we can safely put the Lerner family’s ownership of the Nationals in the past tense. They announced their desire to sell the team and have opened the bidding. Many fans hope it will come sooner rather than later. The family has lost interest in fielding a winning team, whether because their real estate empire is sinking by the stern, or because the old man is nearing 100 is unknown. No one knows and fewer care.

What should the new ownership do about Juan Soto? Like Harper he has turned down a huge financial bonanza–$350 million for 13 years–at the suggestion of Scott Boras. I do not begrudge Soto his due. But I am more concerned that the new owners will learn from the mistake the Lerners made in letting Bryce Harper walk away from the team for absolutely nothing.

In 2018 Bryce Harper turned down a ten-year, $300 million dollar offer from the Nationals, for a $330 million dollar contract that stretched over 13 years. One might quibble about all of that, but Harper’s desire to leave Washington seemed quite clear in the late summer of 2018. At the trading deadline that year, numerous teams made offers for the Nationals star in hopes he might lead them to post-season glory that fall. But the Nationals turned down offers reportedly from the Astros, Dodgers and others in hopes of keeping Harper.

Rather than repeat that mistake, it is time to trade Juan Soto before we have to watch the very depressing ending of that movie again. Somewhere there must be a Yogi Berra adage that applies here. But it is difficult to imagine that the Dodgers, the Yankees, the Cubs, and maybe other teams, would not reach deep into their minor league system to compete for the rights to Juan Soto, still under team control until the end of the 2024 season. The Nationals front office may hope that they can cobble together another winner in hopes of enticing Soto to stay. In one article General Manager Mike Rizzo counters the Boras argument that Soto needs to play for a more competitive team by citing the dominance of the Nationals over the past ten years. And Washington is fourth among all teams for winning percentage since 2012.

But there is no escaping the fact that the Lerners are scuttling the ship ahead of its sale. Washington’s abysmal winning percentage in 2022 is exceeded only by that of the Cincinnati Reds, who traded away much of their best talent in the spring. Soto has Josh Bell and Nelson Cruz protecting him in the lineup currently, but at least one of those is likely to be traded in July and perhaps both. And yet neither will bring the haul that a Soto trade might.

In 2021, Washington fans watched in horror as the Lerners dealt Trea Turner and Max Scherzer to the Dodgers. The Nationals got back Kiebert Ruiz and Josiah Gray, both of whom are among the few real talents the Nationals can point to moving forward after the 2022 season. What Washington baseball needs is several more trades like the one with the Dodgers, but they have only one talent of any capacity to offer: Juan Soto. And it is time to start thinking about what he might bring and working the phones to maximize what such a trade might net.

Take the Dodgers if you will. Ruiz and Gray were expendable commodities for an LA team that wanted to win it all last season. With Scherzer and Turner the Dodgers made it to the National League Championship Series. But their desire to win it all is palpable, and it is easy to fantasize about what the Dodgers would give for a player of Soto’s caliber with two years of control left after this one.

Ryan Pepiot has put up good numbers and gotten a brief cup of coffee at Dodger Stadium this season. But he is blocked effectively by more proven talents and might  easily be pried from the hands of Dodger management. Add another player able to step in a contribute at Nationals Stadium immediately like Miguel Vargas, plus a longer term project and you have the parameters of a deal that would allow the Nationals to build their system while fielding a team with a capacity for competing beyond 2024 when Soto will leave for greener pastures.

Similar deals can be fantasized with the Yankees, the Angels and other teams that want to win this year and whose chances for World Series glory are enhanced by a figure like Soto batting in the middle of the order. The other Los Angeles team is especially appealing. They have an outfield that includes budding star Taylor Ward and Mike Trout, but the middle of their lineup has a hole. Anthony Rendon is not the player he once was and Jared Walsh is still young and at times inconsistent. Soto would fit very nicely. Chase Silseth got a brief look last week and pitched well, but has no where to go within the context of the Angels six-man rotation. Add a future Soto in Alex Ramirez and a lefty with promise in Ky Bush, and the Nationals once again are building a competitive team with a longer term future.

Nothing drove home to fans the concept that baseball is a business more steadfastly than the brief labor confrontation during the offseason. Fueled in part by Boras clients trying to force higher free agent salaries, it reminded those watching closely enough that these are some greedy muthas. One should check sentiment with the nice lady by the door, and be ready to get down and dirty if interested in putting together a winning baseball team in today’s world. All too many fans are only interested in the over/under on the next pitch.

I am very old school and I like to watch my team win. I don’t have many illusions about how that is done, and while I love seeing Juan Soto step into the batters box and flash the pitcher that evil grin, I know the future in Washington will look Chernobyl bleak if we let him walk away and get nothing for him. Unfortunately there is an all too fitting Yogi saying for the situation the Nationals find themselves in. “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

 

 

Comments

One Response to “Saying Goodbye to Juan Soto”
  1. Brian A Morrison says:

    Soto may have survived Trump, but it is doubtful he will survive Biden/Harris.

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