WASHINGTON — “I don’t want to think about what it would be like if he wasn’t here,” Sean Doolittle said, 56 hours before the MLB trade deadline. Doolittle is back in Washington this season, but out for the rest of the year with an elbow injury. As such, it’s looking increasingly unlikely he’ll ever play alongside Juan Soto again.
On what could be Soto’s last weekend as a Washington National, you wouldn’t really know it from the vibe inside the ballpark. Fans cheered for him loudest during the introductions and ahead of his at-bats — but whether that was as a precautionary farewell or simply because he’s the best player on the team is hard to tell. In game, the sea of red seemed to celebrate the success of the Nationals and the visiting St. Louis Cardinals almost equally, or maybe it just seemed that way since the latter gave them more reason to cheer. On Sunday, a late-inning chant broke out behind the Cardinals dugout: “We want Albert!”
Nationals fans undoubtedly want Soto, now and in perpetuity, but they didn’t say so in unison. Not yet anyway.
Juan Soto, you may have heard, is the second coming of Ted Williams and still just 23 with over two years of team control left. He’s at once a veteran, as cool-headed under pressure as he is competitive, and a trove of potential still coming into his prime. Ever since the eve of the All-Star Game, baseball has been obsessed with his future, abuzz with speculation about how and where — OK, mostly where — that potential might play out.
D.C. is largely cast as a foil or a fallback in those conversations. He might still stay, for a few more months anyway, if Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo isn’t offered a sufficiently compelling return or if the impending sale of the team by the Lerner family complicates the equation too much. But that would mean all the fun with photoshop and tireless Twitter refreshing and eager speculation were for naught. That would mean no Soto in the postseason this year.
And yet, all that Soto has accomplished thus far has been for the Nationals, his rise to superstar buoyed by their success and vice versa. From his first start in the majors, when he homered in his first at-bat and returned to the dugout to tell manager Dave Martinez, “I love playing baseball,” through winning the home run derby despite the intense scrutiny that descended on him after reports of a rejected extension leaked, the Soto era — still extant — has been something special.
So they still buy Soto jerseys at the park.
“And T-shirts, and baseballs, and baseball cards,” a cashier at the team store says. A teen, who road-tripped from Rhode Island with her mother, says she got one because they’re sitting in right field and she’s pretty sure he looked right at her. Who else’s would they buy, even? The team stores inside the stadium still sell “Scherzer” shirts and city connect “Zimmerman” jerseys, even though career-Nat Ryan Zimmerman retired last year, before those were even a thing. At least Soto has actually donned the cherry blossoms.
Besides, championship flags fly forever, and maybe fans don’t want to think about what it would be like if he wasn’t here, either.
Soto’s teammates: His value is priceless
“My perspective on it really changed when I was with Cincinnati and Seattle last year,” Doolittle says. “Everybody wants to know what Juan Soto is like. Everybody was like, ‘What’s he like? How is he so good? How does he not swing at pitches that aren’t strikes?’ Guys around the league were fanboying. Not about the World Series, not about playing with Max [Scherzer] or a lot of other guys. They were like, ‘What’s Juan Soto like?’”
Soto is quiet.
“Which is crazy because then you see him out on the field and he’s very, very loud,” says pitcher Erick Fedde, who has seen Soto’s whole career in D.C. “I think the baseball field brings out the best in him.”
Elsewhere, though, he’s more reserved. Quiet and clean-cut, in a way that made executives comfortable from the start. He spends a lot of time with his mom and his dad. Sleeps till noon, at least. He loves to play dominoes. On the plane, he and Maikel Franco face off against Yadiel Hernández and Alcides Escobar. If Hernández is to be believed, Soto’s baseball skills do not translate to tiles. He is not an adventurous eater.
“Straight, specific Latin food,” Martinez says. One exception is that he briefly got into honey buns, hardly the kind of athletically optimized diet a manager wants for his top player, but Soto was hitting so well at the time that Martinez let it slide. It must be nice to be 23.
On the field, Soto’s preternatural maturity is a big part of why he may be baseball’s first half-billion dollar player. His game has barely changed in almost five seasons, and that’s to his credit. He appeared in the big leagues as a teenager with the kind of patience that’s usually wasted on the old. Aníbal Sánchez was 35 when he joined the team in 2019. Playing alongside Soto, 15 years his junior, breaking down at-bats and analyzing sequencing together has “definitely” made him a better pitcher. But it’s his 4-year-old son, Aníbal Jr., who has found a kindred spirit in Soto.
“They like to play,” the elder Sánchez says. And then he pulls up a video from a few weeks back: Aníbal Jr. pitching to Soto, with Escobar’s son catching. It’s a role reversal from earlier in the season, when the team tweeted out video of Soto tossing BP to Aníbal Jr.
“I don’t know if he’ll understand when one day comes in and he’s not here,” Sánchez says.
“He’s a funny guy,” says 22-year-old Luis Garcia, in his third season with the Nationals.
“He’s got his own way to be funny,” says veteran Nelson Cruz, who joined the Nationals in the offseason.
Here’s what that looks like in practice, according to Garcia: “You come into the clubhouse and he’s talking s*** to you and you think it’s like real talking s*** and then as the last thing [he says], ‘Oh, I’m kidding.’ Like, what the f***?”
Topics of said s***-talking include shoes and other elements of style.
Have we mentioned he’s very good at baseball?
Nationals transition into rebuild
A year ago, the Nationals took a sluggish shortened season-and-a-half after their World Series win and turned it into a full-blown rebuild. In a stunning, if not totally unexpected, trade-deadline teardown, the Nats dealt a huge chunk of their recognizable roster — Scherzer, Kyle Schwarber, Daniel Hudson, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, Brad Hand, Jon Lester and Trea Turner, with whom Soto is particularly close.
“He was hurt by it,” Martinez says. “Plus, he still thought we had a slight chance of making the playoffs.”
Instead they lost 97 games, finishing in last place in the NL East.
Martinez says it took Soto some time, a week and half maybe, to break out of a funk after finding out he was suddenly on a team that wasn’t even planning to play in October. But if that’s the case, it didn’t show in his performance. From then until the end of the season, he hit .333, with an OPS over 1.000. He finished second in NL MVP voting.
Over the offseason, Soto called Cruz, nearly 20 years his senior, to sell him on signing with the Nationals. They’re both from the Dominican Republic, and know each other a little from charity events over the years. He did, and Soto was the first to call after he signed to welcome him to the club.
In spring training, they carpooled to away games, sitting together in the backseat while a member of the Nationals staff drove.
“We talked about everything,” Cruz says. “Nothing in particular, from the [World Baseball Classic] to food to our country to where he went to the offseason on vacation, and stuff like that.”
And as they drove, Soto, who was plenty used to the routes around the Grapefruit League, would offer edits to the GPS directions: “Oh, go this way it’s quicker, this way is faster.” “Take this road, it’s easier to go this way.”
Maybe greatness goes hand-in-hand with being a control freak.
No, Cruz explains. “He’s trying to help.”
Next stop: Unknown
The morning after the World Series is won in 2019, the Nationals fly home, trophy in hand. It’s Halloween and a bunch of the players’ kids are dressed up in costumes. At first, Soto sits in the back, but about an hour into the flight, he starts making his way forward, handing out candy to the other players as he goes, a scheme in motion.
When he’s done, the kids trick-or-treat down the aisle.
“We didn’t have that much candy, So some of us are only giving like a piece of Snickers,” Doolittle says. “I just thought it was really cool. He was thinking of the kids, and he still was a kid.”
That was back when the Nationals were on top of the baseball world. It must’ve seemed, if not easy than at least simple. Soto made at-bats look like an art form, no moment was ever too big. From the day he stepped foot on a big league field, he’d been good at baseball and the winning had followed. The season was a success, the future practically infinite. He was a kid and a champion and beloved because of his ability to blend the two. Have your candy and eat it, too, Juan Soto.
Can it really be less than three years later and things are so complicated? Change came fast around Soto, even as his teammates praise his consistency. You never do have as much control as it seems when the ball is bouncing right. And now the man who turned down $440 million has to wait and see, along with the rest of us, where he’ll play come Wednesday.
“In all honesty, I think he is obviously the face of the franchise,” Hernandez says, and it’s hard to dispute, not that anyone tries. Ask what he means to the team and teammates will tell you: Everything.
“And it’s a lot to put on a young kid,” Fedde says, “but he’s taken it so well.”
They’re diplomatic in what they want for him. Happiness, mostly.
“My hope for him is that he is able to recognize what he’s really worth,” Doolittle says.
The hope beyond that hope, though, is that he can find it — happiness, a fair deal — in D.C. They already have the jerseys, after all.
“He got spoiled really fast because we won. He got a taste of that. And he loved it. He loved the limelight. He loved everything about it,” Martinez says. “He sees what we’re really trying to do. He understands that’s going to take some time. But this is his home, right?”
For now, anyway.