WASHINGTON -- Nationals left fielder Juan Soto has tested positive for COVID-19. Soto was placed on the COVID-19 injured list, and he will not play in tonight’s opener against the Yankees.
In a Zoom call with reporters, general manager Mike Rizzo said Soto -- who had previously tested negative four times -- is asymptomatic, and his positive test does not preclude any of his teammates from playing in tonight’s game. Rizzo added that every other test the Nationals have taken in the past two days has come back negative.
There is no minimum number of days on the COVID-19 IL, but to return to play, Soto will need two negative tests at least 24 hours apart, per Major League Baseball protocol.
“It crushed me when I heard he had contracted it,” manager Dave Martinez said.
“Unfortunately, it hit us. And it hit us at a bad time. Opening Day, I know Juan was looking forward to being out there today with his teammates. I just wish him well, and that he gets back as soon as possible.”
There is no easy way to replace Soto’s value to the Nats. In 2019, he piled up 34 homers and 110 RBIs in his first full season. He hit five home runs during the team’s World Series run, including three in the Fall Classic, with two off Yankees’ Opening Day starter Gerrit Cole. In the outfield, Soto was a Gold Glove Award finalist with a .993 fielding percentage in 2019.
"You’ve got yourself one of the best all-around hitters in baseball -- a power bat combination, a good defender in left and a middle-of-lineup presence,” Rizzo said. “To say it gives us a disadvantage going into the game would be an understatement."
The Nationals were without Soto in the early weeks of Summer Camp, as he was not cleared for workouts until last Thursday. The team noted its depth will help fill the void until he returns.
Fellow left-handed hitter Andrew Stevenson will take Soto’s place in the starting lineup for the first game of the season. He hit .367/.486/.467 with a .953 OPS in 30 games for Washington last year. Michael A. Taylor and Emilio Bonifácio joined starters Victor Robles and Adam Eaton on the 30-man roster, announced Thursday afternoon.
“It’s a challenge, but we’ve faced challenges before,” Rizzo said. “We like the depth that we have on this roster. We like the players that are going to fill in for him. They’re not going to replace Soto, but we’re going to have to win games in a different way.”
Receiving the news on the morning of the Nationals’ first game as defending World Series champions was another reminder of the uncertainties presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I woke up this morning excited that we were going to have baseball again, it is Opening Day, and then I get the news that he tested positive,” Martinez said. “It hurts. It didn't have to be Juan Soto -- it could have been any one of our guys. … And then reality sets in, like, 'Hey, we're in the midst of a pandemic and [we’ve] just got to be awfully careful.'”