This isn’t to tease. The possibility is too tantalizing to avoid. But before we get to the fall of 2024 — when Soto finally becomes a free agent — here’s some drilling down on the player he was when he was a Washington National and the player he has been since he was dealt in a franchise-altering trade in August.
Oh, but before that: The first Nationals pitcher Soto will face this week is MacKenzie Gore, the left-hander who was part of the five-prospect package the Padres sent to D.C. for Soto. The Nationals have big plans and hopes for all of those players, and indeed CJ Abrams will be the shortstop behind Gore when he faces Soto in the first inning Tuesday.
But another question to ponder: Would the Nats take Gore for Soto straight up at the moment, given the latter is a free agent after next season and the former is under control through 2027? Probably not. But the fact that it’s something other than ludicrous to consider shows the trajectory of both players, not to mention the value of a controllable, pre-free agency contract.
Soto as a National was so confident in his abilities and accomplished as a 23-year-old that he turned down a 15-year, $440 million extension offer last year, and the reaction from most executives across baseball was, “Well, of course he did.” (Pssssst: The Nats should have offered $500 million. But I digress.)
That decision can sound absurd. It is not. In Soto’s first four seasons in the big leagues — he was called up in May 2018 as a 19-year-old — he ranked second in all of baseball in on-base percentage and OPS. The only player ahead of him in either category: Mike Trout, who has won three MVP awards and finished second four more times. Through age 22, the hitters Soto most statistically resembled, according to Baseball Reference: Trout, Frank Robinson, Bryce Harper, Miguel Cabrera and Mickey Mantle. If he wasn’t on a direct highway to Cooperstown, he had a fully charged GPS and plenty of gas in the tank.
Soto’s batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash line as a Nat: .291/.427/.538 for a .966 OPS — a total monster. His numbers since the Aug. 2 trade to San Diego: .242/.393/.429 for an .822 OPS — a mouse, by comparison. His ranks across baseball during that span: 87th in average, sixth in on-base percentage, 64th in slugging percentage and 32nd in OPS.
How do you go from a Hall of Famer to just a guy simply by changing uniforms? There’s something to be said for comfort level. In a sport in which everything seems quantifiable, that’s just not. Yet it matters.
Soto arrives at his old home hitting .248/.398/.473 this year, buoyed by a 12-game stint in which he hit six doubles and three homers and has an OPS of 1.142. So maybe he’s finding something. Even if so, there are some measurable differences in his approach and the results they’re yielding.
A lethal opposite-field hitter when he’s rolling — ask current New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole if he remembers that quality from the 2019 World Series, because he surely does — Soto is pulling the ball just over half the time, by far the highest rate of his career, according to FanGraphs. That site also reveals that Soto is seeing fastballs at a lower rate than at any point in his career — just 39.5 percent of the time, a significant drop from the previous low of 46.5 percent last season. The result of all this: He’s striking out 21.8 percent of the time, an astronomical rate when compared with the previous three seasons, all between 14.2 and 14.5 percent.
No hitter in the game relished controlling an at-bat as Soto did, so maybe the new pitch clock rules have rankled him. Maybe this is an early-season funk and he’s already in the process of breaking out of it.
Or maybe — just maybe — the collection of stars the Padres have assembled as a “team” just doesn’t provide as much comfort as Soto enjoyed in Washington. (Worth nothing: San Diego, with the third-highest payroll in the game, arrives in D.C. at 21-26. The Nats, with a rebuild underway and a payroll that ranks 24th, are 20-27. It’s a reminder that spending alone isn’t enough. You have to spend wisely.)
For all their newfound, night-in-night-out competitiveness — such a departure from a dreadful, 107-loss slog of 2022 — the Nationals are still in the early stages of the climb back to contention. But by the time Soto reaches free agency at the end of 2024? If they’re not ready to strike for a big piece then, something has gone wrong.
Gore, 24, has top-of-the-rotation stuff, and if he lowers his walk rate — look out. A high-ranking official of a team that has faced the Nationals this year told me recently that if he had to pick one player from Washington’s entire organization, it would be Gore. Josiah Gray, 25, is now keeping the ball in the ballpark; he just needs to keep more of his pitches in the strike zone. Add to those two potential rotation stalwarts Cade Cavalli — out for now after Tommy John surgery — and Paul Skenes, the 6-foot-6 right-hander from LSU most people in the sport expect the Nats to take with the second pick in the draft, and there might be enough for a marquee free agent to say, “I see where this is headed.”
Here’s betting that Soto is a marquee free agent at that point. I’m not sure what has gone wrong in San Diego. I just believe that’s not the player he should be and will be. He was too mature of a hitter at too young of an age to have those skills precipitously diminish in 99 games as a Padre.
Do the Nationals know who their general manager will be in the offseason of 2024-25? No. Do the Nats know who will own the franchise in the offseason of 2024-25? That’s a lot of uncertainty, and any planning for the future has to wait for the Lerner family to figure out when and if it can sell the team.
But what is known: how Juan Soto performed when he was a National. And when Soto picks a place where he’ll play for the rest of his career, maybe he’ll decide that comfort matters more than it did last summer. When he played his final game as a National on Aug. 1, it seemed crazy to think he would ever return. Fewer than 100 games later, it would be crazy — for both sides — not to consider a reunion.