For Juan Soto and the Washington Nationals, this year’s All-Star break is supposed to be just that — a break.
Despite Sunday afternoon’s 7-3 win — powered by homers from Soto and Victor Robles — over the visiting Atlanta Braves, the Nationals are in a free fall, owners of the worst record in the major leagues and entering the hiatus losers of 15 of their last 17.
The dejection, disappointment and dreariness that was the first half of the 2022 season certainly warrant a respite from thinking about the current state of the franchise. But the next four days likely won’t provide that for anyone watching coverage of the All-Star festivities.
Thanks to Saturday’s shocking report that the Nationals are shopping Soto after he turned down a 15-year, $440 million deal, there will be no midseason breather for Nationals fans. In fact, with Soto and manager Dave Martinez heading to Los Angeles to participate in the All-Star Game, the speculation, questions and opinions about the 23-year-old superstar’s future in the nation’s capital could reach a crescendo.
“It won’t do any damage to my [break],” Soto said of whether the news will dampen his experience in the Home Run Derby or the All-Star Game. “I’m going to try to enjoy it as much as I can. It feels a little uncomfortable at the beginning, but I will be fine.”
The news about Soto was surprising on multiple fronts. The total dollar amount — $440 million — would be the most lucrative contract in MLB history. The contact length — 15 years — is also unusually long, even for a player as young as Soto, who is represented by agent Scott Boras. And, of course, the most eyebrow-raising aspect of the report: The Nationals are now open to trading Soto after he turned down the record contract.
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Jolting, to say the least, because both Soto and general manager Mike Rizzo have downplayed that possibility.
Rizzo said before the season that extending Soto, who he called the “face of the franchise,” was his “No. 1 priority.” Then, in June, the longtime Nationals executive emphatically said in a radio interview that Soto was not on the trade market. Soto, meanwhile, has reiterated multiple times — including Saturday after the details of the proposed contract were leaked — that he wants to remain in the District.
“For me, this is the team I’ve been [with] since, what, 2015?” said Soto, who earlier told reporters that he was frustrated the contract offer was made public, insinuating it was the team that leaked the offer. “I’ve been with this team and I feel good with it. When I get to know the city more, it feels great. Why should I need to change?”
Martinez understood Soto’s frustration, and he has the next few days to convey his thoughts to the right fielder who is making his second All-Star appearance on Tuesday. Martinez will be in Los Angeles this week as an assistant on National League manager Brian Snitker’s staff.
“I mean, at the end of the day, you’re going to get [the money] you deserve,” Martinez said Saturday when asked what he would tell Soto. “We all know that. And for me, I hope it’s here. Because I love the kid. I don’t ever think that he’s anything else but a Washington National.”
While Soto’s future in D.C. will undoubtedly be the No. 1 topic during the All-Star break, he is far from the reason why the Nationals are the worst team in the National League with a 31-63 record. He started the season slow — by his immaculate standards — but he’s been scorching hot since mid-June. He extended his on-base streak to 26 games in the Nationals’ win Sunday — a victory that also snapped the club’s nine-game losing skid — with a solo home run in the eighth.
During his on-base streak, Soto has been arguably the best hitter in baseball, posting a .505 on-base percentage and a .663 slugging. In the last 11 games, he’s been unstoppable with an eye-popping 1.393 on-base plus slugging thanks to six multi-hit performances, five home runs and a pair of three-walk games. He’s now slashing .250/.405/.497, as his season-long statistics finally look like typical Soto numbers.
Over the past month, Soto has proved that he’s worthy of a massive payday — just like he showed in each of his first four seasons when he put up a combination of numbers not seen by players his age since Ted Williams.
Now, whether the Nationals up the ante — and whether Soto accepts that offer — remains to be seen. But they’ll certainly be talking about it on MLB Network and ESPN this week, that’s for sure.
“I don’t know. That’s on their hands,” Soto said about his D.C. future. “For me, my job here is just to come every day to play baseball as hard as I can, no matter if I’m here. I would love to be here, but definitely at the end of the day I’m just going to do my job and play as hard as I can. I’ll let them do the decisions.”