WASHINGTON — Juan Soto may be two-and-a-half years away from hitting free agency, but the rumor mill doesn’t stop turning for anyone. That goes especially for stars of Soto’s caliber.
The Nationals’ outfielder entered this season having received — and rejected — a 13-year, $350 million extension over the winter. President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo publicly characterized signing Soto long term as the club’s “No. 1 priority.” Then, as the Nationals labored to a slow start, an ESPN report based on speculation from rival executives explored the possibility of Soto being made available on the trade market.
Soto, meanwhile, has struggled to regain his form of years past. Though he entered play Tuesday with an .833 OPS -- still impressive by most players’ standards -- that mark would represent a career low by 90 points. As much as Soto has tried to leave the contract talk to his agent Scott Boras, who was in attendance for Washington's series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the 23-year-old admits it’s no easy feat blocking out the chatter.
“It’s just too much stuff that comes up nowadays,” Soto said. “It can just get you off your game, get you out of your focus and I just try to be away from it.
“I just try to come here and play baseball. I just let my agent take care of it. All the rumors and everything that they’re talking about, I just let those guys talk with them and I just come into the field, try to forget about what they’re saying, the noise outside and just try to focus on my game.”
In an effort to get Soto feeling more comfortable at the plate, manager Davey Martinez has moved him back to the No. 3 spot the last few days. The Nationals originally asked Soto to hit second this year, hoping to increase the number of at-bats he gets over the course of the season and bring him up in late-and-close situations more often.
“We’re trying to get him really going again,” Martinez said in his pregame press conference Tuesday. “I try to explain to these guys, after the first inning it doesn’t matter if you’re hitting one, two or three. You’re just a hitter and you’re gonna come up in certain situations. Just have good at-bats, and that’s something we talked to Juan about…don’t try to do too much. The biggest thing with him is sometimes he tries to do a little too much.”
While advanced analytics support the notion that a team’s best player should bat second, Soto has done much better in the No. 3 spot. In 463 career plate appearances at No. 2, Soto has hit .267 with an .839 OPS and one home run every 33.1 trips to the dish. In his 712 plate appearances batting third, Soto is a .303 hitter with a 1.006 OPS and a homer every 20.3 chances.
Any statistician will warn you that correlation doesn’t necessarily indicate causation. The thing is, Soto does feel a difference.
“Whatever spot I’m in the lineup I will be fine but definitely third and fourth hole, they’re spots I feel more comfortable with and you can see it,” Soto said. “It’s just a different feeling to be a second-hole hitter. Definitely, you try to get more on base for the guys that come in behind you and try to get more walks and try to get more on base and sometimes you just reach [for] the moment. You try to do more than you can and sometimes that’s what I feel.”
The No. 2 experiment isn’t over yet. Part of the reason Martinez moved Soto back was to get catcher Keibert Ruiz and his .341 on-base percentage in at the top of a streaky Nationals lineup. On days Ruiz takes off, Soto will hit second once again.
Yet Soto hasn’t looked like himself this year. According to FanGraphs, he’s swung at 19% of the pitches he’s seen outside the strike zone, which is up 2.5% from his career average and 7.5% above his rate from 2021. Statcast still puts his chase rate up in the 90th percentile, but last season he was the standard finishing in the 100th percentile.
The Nationals aren’t trading Soto anytime soon. Extension talks were ongoing when the season began and that $350 million offer won’t be the last. However, there are looming questions at the ownership level and until his next deal is signed, rumors and speculation about his future will continue to dominate headlines.
Soto will try not to pay much attention to it. For the Nationals, it’s all about making him feel more comfortable.