- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2021

When reports emerged that the San Diego Padres had signed 22-year-old shortstop Fernando Tatis to a massive 14-year, $340 million extension, the focus quickly shifted to another 22-year-old star who may require that kind of money — or even more — to tie him down long-term.

That’s the conundrum facing the Washington Nationals when it comes to Juan Soto. The outfielder, who made his debut as a 19-year-old, has developed into one of the best hitters in the league. He finished the shortened 60-game 2020 season with an MLB-best 1.185 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, and he enters the 2021 campaign with a one-year, $8.5 million contract to avoid the first year of arbitration.

Up next comes three straight offseasons of arbitration eligibility, working year to year. Or, the Nationals could follow the Padres’ lead with a lucrative long-term extension. But general manager Mike Rizzo said Thursday — the first day Washington’s pitchers and catchers practiced at spring training — that Tatis’ deal doesn’t necessarily relate to what Soto might earn.

“I don’t think it gives us any more clarity of what it will take for Juan Soto,” Rizzo said. “I think every deal is separate and independent. It’s all about players’ wants and needs, and can both sides get together to fulfill those?”

Rizzo said the early steps toward an extension were taken during spring training last year, but “they didn’t go very far.”

Considering the length and money Tatis earned, Soto’s deal could surpass that amount. Tatis performed well as a rookie in 2019, playing 84 games and launching 22 longballs with a .317 average. He reached another level in 2020, clubbing 17 home runs in the shortened season. Tatis came through in the playoffs, too, clobbering two homers in the wild card series.

Soto’s performances outdo Tatis, even. He hit fewer home runs (13) last season than Tatis, but his .351 batting average led the National League. Soto worked 41 walks in 47 games, struck out just 28 times and finished fifth in MVP voting — which could be considered somewhat of a snub.

In the Nationals’ run to a championship in 2019, Soto hit three dingers in the World Series. He drove in 14 runs in 17 postseason games and scored another 12 himself. Rizzo said the team hasn’t re-engaged in extension discussions since last year, but Washington knows the talent he has — and wants to keep that talent around.

“We signed, developed and brought Juan to the big leagues in very, very short order at a very young age,” Rizzo said. “We see him hopefully as a National for a long, long time. But we’re still in the early stages of discussion.”

Soto isn’t the type to rest on his laurels, though.

Rizzo said the Dominican Republic native sets the bar so highly for what he’ll achieve that the team needs to make sure Soto isn’t too tough on himself.

But this offseason, Soto came in with a clear goal: to become a more well-rounded player.

With the addition of Kyle Schwarber, Soto will move from left to right field. He’s worked on a long-toss program to improve his arm, and manager Dave Martinez said Soto “has this thing about wanting to steal more bases and winning a Gold Glove.”

Those might come in future years, as well as more Silver Slugger awards if Soto keeps up the level he’s already reached. For Rizzo and Washington, they’ll hope those future honors come with Soto sporting the Curly W.

“Our plans are to make an effort like we’ve made efforts in the past to our really great young players,” Rizzo said, “to keep them in a Nationals uniform for a long, long time.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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