By the eighth inning, so many Nats fans among the 29,034 who drank in a 7-3 loss to Max Scherzer and the New York Mets were on their feet chanting, “We love Soto!”
“It means a lot,” Soto said after pushing Scherzer deep and appearing in his other three plate appearances. “It’s a bit weird too, because nothing [has] yet arrived, and we are still waiting.
It’s a tough thing, and on an unusually pleasant August evening, you could almost feel it strangling the franchise and its fan base. There’s a chance — a chance — that when dawn breaks on Tuesday, Soto will face a future in which he never puts on a Nationals uniform again. Put the evaluation of anything that comes back on the back burner for a while. It’s a lot to digest.
“You’re not going to give these players away and not get something in return that makes us feel like, ‘Hey, this is what our future will be, and it’s going to be really good for us,'” Manager Dave Martinez said. “Those guys up there [in the front office] are working diligently to get the players we need, if we can get them. Otherwise, we have arguably one of the youngest best players in the game, and I love that kid.
Until 6 p.m. Tuesday, the situation is incredibly fluid. As you read this on newsprint, Soto could have been traded. Update your Twitter feed frequently. It’s the only way to follow.
“I feel good where I am, and I understand it’s a business and they have to do whatever they have to do,” Soto said. “I’m just another player, another employee here – as Zim used to say.”
Forever Nat Ryan Zimmerman has never faced such a situation. But here’s an undying truth about any potential deal with Soto: The Nationals must demand an unprecedented comeback. It’s their responsibility, given that a player of his ability and age has never been traded with two years and two months of control remaining before free agency. For a competing team, it’s not just three pennant races and three Octobers. It’s also two full seasons of 162 games, which can’t be ignored.
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But the flip side of asking for such a haul — quite appropriately — is that it might be too much for an opposing chief executive, let alone an opposing ownership group, to swallow. Any club negotiating for Soto and expecting to be able to sign him for a contract extension have not listened carefully to the player – who has spoken repeatedly about his curiosity to have 30 teams bidding on his services in free agency – or his agent, Scott Boras.
A potential deal must be based in its baseball sense, and it will be framed as such. But it is undeniable that there is also an element of public relations. And it would be hard for General Manager Mike Rizzo to stand in front of the fanbase and say what he got for generational talent will transform the franchise if the rest of the industry responds with some version of “C is all they have?”
It has to be a sensational comeback, a comeback that gives fans more reason to come to the ballpark — not just in two or three years, but immediately. It’s a tough package for any team to pull apart.
Also, it would be entirely reasonable for Rizzo to say some version of, “Why is this a bad result?” We still have one of the best young players in the game. A new ownership group will be introduced during the offseason. Perhaps they can go beyond the 15-year, $440 million deal that Soto turned down the Lerner family.
I’ve grown pessimistic about whether a deal can be done – and it’s more of a 65-35 hunch against such a possibility than a 90-10 – so Soto will likely be traded five minutes after those words go out. There is no certainty in any of this. Hang on to your hat.
Well, wait. There’s one certainty about this: October 2019 and the parade that followed – man, they feel good over two years and nine months ago.
“It feels like a very long time ago,” Martinez said. “It does.”
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As if to twist that particular knife, the Mets started Scherzer on Monday night in what could have been Soto’s last game in the uniform they each wore during this mad dash for a World Series title. In an unusually expansive and poignant pre-match meeting with reporters, Martinez cried repeatedly thinking about what was and what remains. Since the trade of Scherzer and Trea Turner – not to mention Daniel Hudson and Yan Gomes and others – at the deadline last year, the Nationals are 53-111 – numbers that make sense if you look at this team play regularly but still look stunning in black and white.
Martinez said Monday he has a room in his house where he stores the most meaningful memories he has collected over the years. So much is from 2019. In those dark days, he often goes there to reminisce about old photos.
“It kind of says, ‘Hey, whatever happens, the point is to get back there, right?’ Martínez said. “So every day I’ll go down there, get up and say, ‘Hey, one day we’ll get back there.’ Just keep those memories intact.
But it’s not just the whirlwind around Soto that makes those days seem like a distant memory. It’s the deterioration of professionalism in some corners of his own clubhouse. On Monday afternoon, Victor Robles – once the undisputed starting centre-back to a World Series champion, now a spare with an uncertain future – had a box of T-shirts outside his locker, handing them out to any interested teammates. . Front: A photo of Robles sporting a clown’s nose – a nod to his antics last month after Arizona’s Madison Bumgarner called him a “clown” for pimping a solo home run then that the Nats were down six points in the eighth.
In a winning team, a funny, even self-deprecating t-shirt can be unifying. But for a group that has the worst record in baseball — and could have an even more secure hold on that status by September — it’s comical. Who are the clowns, Victor? The effort that went into designing and ordering these shirts might have been better spent figuring out how to not get thrown off the base paths.
But I digress. That, of course, is nowhere near the most important part of this week. The most important part of this week is not even about this week. This is the direction of the franchise. And we’ll know something about that direction depending on whether Juan Soto gets another standing ovation at home for the Whites on Tuesday night – or if he’s packed up his things and left the clubhouse at home for the final time.