There is no player in baseball, young or old, for whom you would trade Juan Soto. At 22, Soto is just a couple of months older than Fernando Tatis Jr., who according to sources, just got paid big by the Padres. Even at his own young age, Soto has been around longer and has done more, including being a star of a World Series that his Nationals team won in October 2019. He is as talented as any young player to come along since Mike Trout.
It was Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals' vice president and assistant general manager for international operations, who once nicknamed Soto the “Latin Mamba.” Now, because he and Tatis are both 22 years old and because Tatis did just get paid, there is already talk about the kind of money that Soto can make if the Nats try to extend him. Even though, those sorts of extensions have never been Soto's agent Scott Boras’ style. And Boras’ style has always involved trying to set records in free agency, all the way back to when he got $252 million for Alex Rodriguez in December 2000.
But this isn’t about those kinds of numbers. This is about the numbers Soto has been putting into the books since he got to the big leagues as a teenager.
I remember the first time I saw Soto play, at Yankee Stadium, when he was a rookie in 2018, and I saw what the ball was like coming off the kid’s bat. He hit what looked like a rather lazy fly ball to left field. Brett Gardner was out there that night and he slowly began to back up. And he kept backing up, finally watching helplessly as the ball ended up somewhere between the left-field wall and the Major Deegan Expressway.
I was talking to the baseball boss of the Nationals, Mike Rizzo, about Soto a couple of years ago in Spring Training. Bryce Harper had left the Nats by then. Anthony Rendon would go on to leave as a free agent after the Nationals won the World Series over the Astros. But as good as Rendon was, and is, the player to watch with Rizzo’s team was already the kid.
“I don’t get into ‘the best this,’ or ‘the brightest that,’” Rizzo said. “But let me put it this way: If there’s a team photo of the best players in our game, he’s in it.”
Soto is seven years younger than Trout, who signed a monster extension of his own in March 2019. Soto is six years younger than Mookie Betts, five years younger than Francisco Lindor and four years younger than Corey Seager -- who in 2020 won the MVP Awards of both the National League Championship Series and the World Series. But again: There is no one more talented than Soto.
"I know Juan the man, his character and his makeup," Rizzo said. "I can’t say that about any of the other elite players. ... When evaluating age, talent level, performance level, makeup and character, I wouldn’t trade him for anyone. I love the kid. Known him since he was 15, watch him grow and blossom into one of the best at an early age."
Even in the short season of 2020 (and playing 47 games out of 60), Soto hit .351, with 13 home runs and 37 RBIs. Tatis hit more home runs (17) for the Padres, and ended up with eight more RBIs. Tatis had Manny Machado in San Digeo's batting order with him. Soto had Trea Turner, who had a terrific ’20 season. Rendon had left Soto the way Harper once did before him, but the kid just continued to mash. Soto also had a .490 on-base percentage, a .695 slugging percentage and an OPS of 1.185. And he didn’t turn 22 until his season was over. You don’t sit around waiting to see if Soto can break a contract record, as interesting as that kind of speculation always is in sports. You just sit back and watch the way he plays the game.
Here is what Rizzo said in a Zoom call on Thursday about Soto, in the context of the 14-year, $340 million deal that Tatis had just gotten:
“We signed, developed and brought Juan to the big leagues in very, very short order and at a very young age. We see him as hopefully a National for a long, long time. But we’re still in the early stages of discussions. We had some discussions with him on [a] long-term deal last Spring Training, and they didn’t go very far. Since the COVID season of 2020, we really haven’t re-engaged on that.”
Rizzo didn’t sit back. He went out and added more protection for Soto in Dave Martinez’s order. Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber are now Nationals. And Turner (12 home runs in 2020, 41 RBIs, .335 average) is still around. The Nats have a starting rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester. In their minds, they likely think this is the official defense of title they won in October 2019. In the World Series that year, Soto hit .333 with three home runs and seven RBIs. He didn’t turn 21 until Game 3 against the Astros.
There is a lot of talk about money these days in baseball, especially after Tatis' deal. Soto is money. That photograph of the best players Rizzo talked about? Soto isn’t just in it, he’s in the front row.