- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Of everything that stands out about Juan Soto — the contact, power and plate vision that make the 22-year-old an MVP candidate — there’s one other attribute that teammate Trea Turner keys in on.

Soto can be stuck in a slump, down in the count and up against an All-Star on the mound. Doesn’t matter, says Turner. Soto never flinches. Not ever.

“Some people try and fake it, but he truly isn’t scared of those things, those moments,” Turner said. “And he seems to perform. Every single time he gets that chance, he seems to lock it in even more so and kind of delivers.”

What’s there for Soto to be scared of, after all? The Washington Nationals right fielder is coming off the best season of his relatively short career, and he’s already proven he has a penchant for big moments.

Soto launched three homers in the 2019 World Series. He finished the shortened 2020 season with a league-best .351 average. He clubbed 13 homers and worked 41 walks that campaign. He finished fifth in MVP voting and new teammate Kyle Schwarber called Soto the best hitter in the game.

All of that isn’t lost on Soto. He knows what he’s accomplished, putting himself in rarefied air as one of the best players in baseball. But that hasn’t changed Soto, even as pitchers serve him a steady dose of off-speed pitches and the spotlight for the next mega-contract turns his way.

“I’m still being the same guy,” Soto said, “the same rookie from 2018.”

To manager Dave Martinez, though, Soto has changed. He’s becoming more of a leader in the clubhouse. He’s improving defensively and on the basepaths. His across-the-board growth shows little sign of slowing, too. Which leads to speculation about where Soto will be long term.

Soto and Turner — the centerpieces of Washington’s lineup in 2020 — both signed one-year deals this offseason to avoid arbitration. The next step for one or both of them will be to seal their extended futures with the Nationals.

Turner said he’d love to play out his entire career in Washington. But the answer isn’t always that simple, he said.

To sign a long-term deal, players have to balance the risk vs. reward — could their value go up in the future, or is stability in the long run worth it? And it’s not enough for a player to want to remain with a club. The organization needs to back the player, too, showing the kind of trust the San Diego Padres did with Fernando Tatis’ 14-year, $300 million extension.

The Nationals opted against giving that kind of offer to Bryce Harper early in his career, and the star outfielder wound up joining the Philadelphia Phillies for 13 years and $330 million in 2019. Washington has an opportunity with Soto to secure his long-term future, mirroring what the Padres did with Tatis. There’s no guarantee the organization will go that route, though.

“I would love to play my entire career here,” Turner said. “I would love for [Soto] to play his entire career here. But we’ll see. Those are big, big questions. Have to take it day by day. If it happens, that would be special.”

Attention shifted toward Soto once Tatis signed his extension because of the similarity between the players. They’re both 22 years old with unmatched star power and the statistics to back it up. From the outside, at least, Soto isn’t concerned about where his contract status stands.

“For me, right now I’m playing baseball,” Soto said. “I forget about it. I’m happy for him, he got his deal, but for me, my mind is in baseball. Like I said, since I got here, I tried to disconnect my mind from the world and just try to enjoy it with my teammates, to come here to the field and play baseball with my teammates.”

Soto and Turner were a dynamic duo in the order last season. Batting in consecutive slots, Turner benefited from pitchers going right after him. Soto profited from Turner’s speed on the basepaths.

With the addition of Schwarber and Josh Bell — and the return of Starlin Castro from injury — the Nationals hope Soto and Turner won’t be as isolated in the order. Washington can also hope that the combination of Soto and Turner proves dangerous for years to come.

Agreeing to long-term deals for two franchise cornerstones isn’t a certainty, though. And while Turner said staying in Washington would be his choice, Soto stayed mum on where he stands.

“For me right now, I just try to come here and play baseball,” Soto said. “I don’t think about any of that. Anytime I come to spring, my mind is on baseball. I try to get my body in shape, get ready and try to win another championship.”

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

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