Will this 21-year-old star be next face of MLB?

July 22nd, 2020

Juan Soto, who turned 21 five days before the Nationals won the World Series, was as much a star of October last year as any of his teammates -- Stephen Strasburg or Max Scherzer or Anthony Rendon.

When you add it up, he was probably more of one. It got lost a little bit because of the way Strasburg and Scherzer pitched, and because of all those elimination games the Nationals won on their way to being one of the great baseball stories of all time. But no one Soto’s age had ever played the way he did on that stage.

Now he and his team try to get ready to do it again. And they could, as much time as we’ve spent since Spring Training and now all the way through Summer Camp talking about the Dodgers and the Yankees. If they do, the player we might be talking about at the end of this short season is the kid in left field for the Nationals. Could he win an MVP award? Yeah, he could. If he does, it would make him the youngest player in baseball history to do that.

“What we’ve all seen,” Omar Minaya said on Tuesday, “is that there is no moment too big for him. He’s got the wow factor as much as any of the kids in our game.”

Minaya, formerly the general manager of the Expos and a Queens, N.Y., kid who grew up to later become GM of the Mets, is now a special assistant to the Mets current GM Brodie Van Wagenen. He has already seen plenty of Juan Soto, just because the Mets are in the same division as the Nats.

“I think the thing that struck me the most when I finally saw him in person, apart from the talent and bat speed and all the rest of it," Minaya said, “was the way he controlled the zone. That is a special quality for someone 19 and 20 years old.”

This is what Mike Rizzo, the architect of the Nationals’ championship team and Soto’s own GM, said to me in his office at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches one morning in March:

“I honestly believe this young man has the chance to be the face of Major League Baseball someday. And I believe he’s the face of Latin baseball already.”

It is another reason why Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals’ VP and assistant GM of international operations, calls No. 22 -- who doesn’t turn 22 until Oct. 25 -- “the Latin Mamba.”

Soto hit three home runs against the Astros in the World Series. No player 21 or younger had ever hit that many. He hit .333 for the Series, with an on-base percentage of .438 and a slugging percentage of .741 and an OPS of 1.178. We also talk a lot about golden children of the game like Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. Soto is just five months older than Vlad and three months older than Tatis. He is younger than Bo Bichette and Ronald Acuna Jr.

Soto played 17 postseason games for the Nationals in 2019. He only failed to reach base in one of them. One. He broke up his team’s National League Wild Card game against the Brewers with a single (off lefty Josh Hader) that skipped past Brewers right fielder Trent Grisham in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Nationals down two runs, and cleared the bases and put the Nats ahead for good.

The Nationals were still behind the Dodgers, 3-2, in Game 5 of their NL Division Series, even after Anthony Rendon had just homered off Clayton Kershaw in the eighth inning. Soto hit the next pitch Kershaw threw for a home run of his own and the game was tied. The Nationals were that close to elimination again.

And when the Nationals were behind the Astros in the fifth inning of Game 6 of the World Series, down three games to two at Minute Maid Park, Adam Eaton homered and so did Soto with two outs, and the Nationals were on their way to a 7-2 victory. Earlier in the game, Alex Bregman had hit a home run and carried his bat all the way to first base. After Soto hit one into the upper deck off Kershaw, the kid did the exact same thing.

"I saw that, what Bregman did in the first inning... I was like, 'That was pretty cool, I wanna do that,'" Soto said afterward.

“I like that he and the other kids aren’t afraid to show their personality,” Omar Minaya said. “I even like the little shuffle he does after he takes a pitch. Put me down as being one of those guys. Let the kids play.”

Soto got two more hits in Game 7 against the Astros. By the time it was over he had the three home runs, two doubles in the Series, six runs scored, had been on base in all seven games. Again: He’d played half the Series before his 21st birthday.

He joined the Nationals’ Summer Camp late after being quarantined. When he was finally on the field again, he did some dancing after batting practice.

On Thursday night, he goes up against Gerrit Cole, against whom he hit a home run in Game 1 of the World Series, in his team’s opener at Nationals Park. Baseball is back. So his Juan Soto. No. 22 still just 21. Watch the kid play.