All three have quickly established themselves among the game’s best players during the past three years (or two, in Tatis’ case), capable of creating a new highlight every time they take the field.
The Braves, Nationals and Padres have benefited from the trio's rapid emergence, but what if you could have any one of the young stars as the building block for your team? We posed this question to executives around the league: If you could start a team with Ronald Acuña Jr, Juan Soto or Fernando Tatis Jr., who would you pick and why?
Executives were instructed to focus on the players themselves, not their current contracts or club control.
“Can I just have all three of them?” one American League exec said.
Were that an option, this exercise would not be nearly as much fun -- and that team would be an overwhelming World Series favorite on an annual basis. Some were unable to make an initial decision, batting around the attributes of each player.
“If we are talking about with current service time/contract, I’m going Acuña because he’s signed the longest at a good rate for the team,” another AL executive said. “If we are talking about everything being equal as far as years of control and contract, I’d go Tatis because he’s the youngest and is an up-the-middle player. If we are talking about player that best helps you win a World Series next year, I’m going Soto because he’s the best player currently. I’m ecstatic with any of them under any of the scenarios, though.”
“It’s a fun question for people to debate,” a National League exec said. “They’re all superstars and can help you win in multiple ways.”
All solid points, but you only get to choose one. A total of 20 big league executives answered the question, and while fans of Atlanta and Washington will surely take issue with the results, Tatis emerged as the winner.
Fernando Tatis Jr.: 11 votes
Juan Soto: 5 votes
Ronald Acuña Jr: 4 votes
Tatis has made such an impact since making his debut on Opening Day 2019, it’s almost hard to believe he’s played just 143 career games. As a 20-year-old rookie, Tatis slashed .317/.379/.590 with 22 home runs, 53 RBIs, 16 stolen bases and 61 runs scored in 84 games, missing nearly half the season with hamstring and back injuries.
His sophomore season produced similar results without the injuries; Tatis slashed .277/.366/.571 with 17 homers, 45 RBIs, 11 steals and 50 runs scored in 59 games, as he played in all but one game of the pandemic-shortened season.
“Tatis is the most dynamic and magnetic of the three,” an NL exec said.
That, of course, is a matter of personal opinion. What is not subjective, however, is where each of the three plays on the field. For the majority of executives who chose Tatis, that was the deciding factor.
“Give me the shortstop who can hit at the top of your lineup,” an NL exec said of Tatis, who just turned 22 on Jan. 2. “Adding a true two-way contributor is a rare opportunity for a franchise.”
“All three are fabulous players, and any franchise would be lucky to have any one of them,” an AL executive said. “When choosing between three elite players, I simply cannot pass on the shortstop.”
“It’s harder to get a shortstop than any other position on the field,” an NL executive said.
Soto, who is only a couple of months older than Tatis, made his debut on May 20, 2018, at the age of 19. He hit 22 homers with 70 RBIs, 77 runs scored and a .292/.406/.517 slash line in 116 games, finishing second to Acuña in NL Rookie of the Year Award voting.
Soto followed that up with a superb sophomore season, belting 34 homers, 110 RBIs, 110 runs scored and a .282/.401/.548 slash line in 150 games, placing ninth in voting for the NL MVP Award. He also helped the Nationals to a World Series championship, going deep five times during the postseason, including three in the Fall Classic.
“I’d take Soto,” an AL executive said. “The bat at his age, with a maturing profile, is too much to pass on.”
That bat did its share of damage in 2020, too. Soto’s season debut was delayed after he tested positive for COVID-19, but once he took the field, he was a force. Soto led the NL in all three slash categories, compiling a .351/.490/.695 line with 13 home runs, 37 RBIs and 39 runs scored in 47 games.
“Soto is a freak at controlling the strike zone, and I would bet on his bat the most,” an NL executive said. “But a corner outfielder doesn’t bring as much defensive value.”
“I’d probably take Tatis because of the speed and position,” said another NL exec. “But I love Soto’s bat for the long run.”
One NL talent evaluator agreed with the latter part, theorizing that Soto’s style of play will allow him to remain an offensive threat for years to come.
“The way he controls the strike zone, being a left-handed hitter who hits left-handed pitching, he doesn’t swing and miss,” he said. “He walks a lot, hits massive home runs to all fields; he’s simply a dominant force at the plate.”
Acuña made his debut nearly a month before Soto, beating him easily in 2018 NL Rookie of the Year Award voting after slashing .293/.366/.552 with 26 home runs, 64 RBIs, 78 runs scored and 16 stolen bases in 111 games.
Prior to his second season, Acuña signed an eight-year, $100 million deal that includes two club options, keeping him under Atlanta’s control through 2028 for a total of $134 million. Had contracts and club control been a factor in this exercise, Acuña likely would have been a runaway winner, as Soto and Tatis are currently scheduled to hit free agency after the '24 season.
“If you needed a guy for one year, I may not choose him,” an AL executive said. “But his longer-term control probably puts him ahead.”
“I have Acuña third on that list, talent-wise. Tatis is the best combo of defense and offense,” an NL exec said. “But if you get Acuña for eight more years, there’s real value in that.”
Acuña led the NL in runs scored (127) and stolen bases (37) in 2019, ripping 41 home runs with 101 RBIs and a .280/.365/.518 slash line, earning a fifth-place finish in NL MVP voting, his first All-Star nod and the first of his two Silver Slugger Awards.
In 47 games during the shortened 2020 season, Acuña slashed .250/.406/.581 with 14 homers, 29 RBIs, eight steals and 46 runs scored in 46 games, helping the Braves win the NL East title for the third time in his three years with the club.
“I’m going to give the nod to Acuña due to more well-rounded skill set than Soto,” an NL executive said. “Though I believe in Soto’s bat the most.”
“You can’t go wrong,” an AL exec said. “I would take a middle-of-the-field guy, and I will take the younger of them, which is Tatis. But it’s splitting hairs to choose among them.”
Fortunately for the Braves, Nationals and Padres, the three superstars are locked into their respective lineups for quite some time.