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Juan Soto uses the 'Soto Shuffle' to psych out the opposition

Juan Soto uses the 'Soto Shuffle' to psych out the opposition

It’s an indelible image to Nats fans everywhere. Their prodigious young superstar Juan Soto stands in at the plate against a tough left-handed reliever in a big spot late in the game. He lays off a tough breaking ball low and away, his body leaning in toward the pitch. Then, while crouched over, he squares his body toward the pitcher, shuffling his feet while curling a small smile at the mound.

The “Soto Shuffle” is somehow both respectful and disrespectful, fun and serious, and lighthearted and cold-blooded.

“That started in the minor leagues,” Soto explained Wednesday when asked about his pitch-taking routine. “I like to get in the minds of the pitchers because sometimes they get scared. In the minor leagues some pitchers get scared, they say, ‘oh, wow,’ because [they’ve] never [seen] that before. I just try to get on their minds and all this stuff.”

Of course, young minor league pitchers are a little more likely than MLB All-Stars to be scared off by a little dance from an opposing batter, but that hasn’t stopped Soto from bringing the move to the big leagues. He has made an effort to pick his spots, though.

“I still do it here in the big leagues,” he continued. “A couple of the guys tell me, ‘hey, you can keep doing it, but do it in the right situation’ and that's what I'm trying right now. Because in those tight moments everybody's paying attention, everybody wants to get the job done and if you get a little bit of that and get a little bit comfortable with that, and confidence to get the job done, you get one step in front.”

Surprisingly, neither Fangraphs nor Baseball-Reference offer statistics for “Juan Soto at-bats in which he shuffles at the pitcher,” but anecdotally it sure feels like the young outfielder comes through in these big moments with regularity. He notably brought out the shuffle during his eventual game-winning at-bat in the eighth inning of this year’s Wild Card Game.

“It fuels my confidence,” Soto admitted. That confidence is clearly a crucial ingredient for any professional athlete, and Soto certainly isn’t the first player to find ways to psyche himself up in important moments.

The reactions from opposing pitchers can be varied. For Soto, most see it for what it is: Soto hyping himself up, not attempting to show up the pitcher.

So, who had the funniest reaction to the little dance?

“It was last year,” Soto answered when asked about the weirdest reaction he’d seen. “I did [it] against [current teammate Anibal] Sanchez and when I did it against him, he just started laughing on the mound. I mean, I start laughing too.”

Soto appreciated how Sanchez, then a member of the rival Atlanta Braves, had fun with it. In fact, it may have helped his now teammate, if you ask Soto.

“He just started laughing and he couldn't stop, he just kept going,” Soto continued while smiling. “He saw me and he just took that thing in the right way. And that was one of the pitchers that I never get a hit against him, because he just stayed relaxed and he just enjoyed it. He likes when I do this, so I start, I just stopped doing it against him, but he keeps going and he just started laughing at it. And when he don't pitch he just saw me in the dugout and he just started doing it to me, and I'm like, that was, that was the best reaction that I have received.”

The “Soto Shuffle” is a small move coming from a big-name player and something that Nationals fans everywhere love seeing in huge moments. Hopefully, for them, we haven’t seen the last of it in 2019.

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Is there any chance the Nationals trade for Mookie Betts?

Is there any chance the Nationals trade for Mookie Betts?

The Boston Red Sox have been widely reported to be open to trading star rightfelder Mookie Betts, opening the door for fans of every team to clamor for their club to acquire the former MVP.

Hosts Tim Shovers, Todd Dybas and Chase Hughes discussed the possibility of Betts being shipped to D.C. in Monday’s episode of NBC Sports Washington’s Nationals Talk podcast.

“The Nationals…don’t have the assets to satisfy a Mookie Betts trade and the Nationals don’t have a need to pull off a Mookie Betts trade,” Dybas said. “Sometimes I say there’s a zero percent chance of something happening and I would say this is very close to zero percent.”

Betts is a four-time All-Star, three-time Silver Slugger, the winner of four straight Gold Gloves and the 2018 AL MVP—oh, and he just turned 27 in October. The only reason Boston is considering moving him under new Chief of Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom is the state of its payroll.

According to Spotrac, the Red Sox have had the highest payroll in baseball each of the past two seasons. Heading into 2020, the team is looking at paying over $92 million just to David Price, Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi and Dustin Pedroia—all of whom have significant questions surrounding either their production or performance.

That doesn’t even include Betts, who’s projected to make over $27 million in arbitration, or Xander Bogaerts, their star shortstop whose salary jumps to $20 million next season.

Meanwhile, the team enters the offseason following a disappointing campaign in which it finished 84-78 and missed the playoffs. If Boston aims to compete again in 2020, it’s going to need to find a way to satisfy a long list of roster needs while simultaneously cutting costs.

A trade of Betts would certainly help take some money off the books and could go a long way toward replenishing the Red Sox’ depleted farm system. If the Nationals were to make a run at him, they’d almost certainly have to build a package around Carter Kieboom, who’s the 20th-ranked prospect in baseball per MLB Pipeline.

But Dybas says Kieboom is “a damaged asset after last year.” The 22-year-old got his first taste of the majors in late April and struggled both at the plate and in the field. He did have a strong season at AAA-Fresno (.902 OPS and 16 home runs in 109 games), but opposing scouts will point to the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League as a contributor to his success.

There’s also the fact that the Nationals already have a set outfield of Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton. Soto and Robles are both considered key parts of Washington’s future while Eaton is signed to a team-friendly deal with a team option for 2021. In fact, the Nationals’ best option for enticing Boston to make a deal might involve Eaton.

The market for one-year rentals (Betts is a free agent after next season) has plummeted as analytics-savvy executives have taken over front offices across the league. Paul Goldschmidt, widely considered one of the best hitters in the game, was traded by the Arizona Diamondbacks to the St. Louis Cardinals last offseason for a three-player package that involved just two top-100 prospects—and none from the top 50.

Betts is a better player than Goldschmidt was, and several years younger, but there is a chance Boston finds few willing suitors if a top-20 prospect is its main target. Washington could offer a package centered around Kieboom and Eaton, allowing the Red Sox to significantly cut payroll, boost their farm system and remain competitive all in one deal.

A lot would need to happen for the Nationals to acquire Betts. Although the odds are low—“very close to zero percent,” as Dybas says—the market has been known to produce signings and trades no one saw coming.

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What are the chances of Howie Kendrick returning to Nationals?

What are the chances of Howie Kendrick returning to Nationals?

Davey Martinez’s handling of Howie Kendrick was a point of contention back when his managerial ability was held in less esteem. The Nationals struggled, Kendrick did not, and the question was why Kendrick didn’t play more.

The situation tested Martinez. One of his few early-season answers needed to be slow-played, not pushed, so he could be part of the effort later -- if there was a later. Kendrick started the season on the injured list. He was coming off a lost year after tearing his Achilles tendon. He would soon be 36 years old. Martinez had every reason to protect or play him. He just had to decide which.

His decision to take it slow with Kendrick became a key to the postseason. Kendrick's grand slam against Los Angeles will long stand as one of the biggest hits in organization history. His two-run homer against Houston may supersede in the organization’s annals. And the wonder this offseason is if Kendrick will provide anything else to Washington.

He’s 36. Somehow, 2019 became the best offensive season of his 14-year career. Kendrick’s .966 OPS was 122 points higher than the second-best total in his career. However, those two years came near each other. His 2017 work -- split between Philadelphia and Washington -- led to what appeared to be an outlier then, an .844 OPS, before his 2019 surge. 

Kendrick is a free agent. He’s the oldest free agent to be considered a first baseman. He also led that batch of players in WAR by a wide margin. His days of playing second base are likely over -- barring an emergency wherever he goes next. All of which makes him appear to fit back in the American League. He can be a designated hitter, occasionally play first, pinch-hit. This is a good time to note the Nationals do not play in the American League.

But, could he still fit back in Washington? In short, yes. His 2019 OPS was .930 against right-handed pitching (.758 career). If the Nationals are looking for a left-handed bat to pair with Ryan Zimmerman at first base, how many of those hit right-handed pitching better than Kendrick? Eric Thames last season against right-handers: .877 OPS. Mitch Moreland against right-handed pitching: .887 OPS. He plummets to .598 against lefties.

The recent elevation of Kendrick’s numbers against right-handed pitching present a challenge. Do the Nationals believe them to be repeatable, making a left-hand infield bench bat unnecessary? And, do they make paying Kendrick worth it?

The market may help them. As Kendrick mentioned during the season, he could well have begun the year without a job if he didn’t have a second season on his contract. League front office folks aren’t keen on 35-year-old hitters coming off Achilles tendon surgery. 

Kendrick rolled his eyes at those who doubted his return chances. He mentioned in the offseason he was on pace to be ready in spring training. When he arrived, he proved that to be true. The rest of the season just amplified how ready he indeed was.

Next season is what matters to him and the Nationals now. Kendrick mentioned rediscovering his joy for baseball when joining the Phillies then moving to Washington. He lost it when struggling in Los Angeles. So, is there another year together? Maybe two? Mike Rizzo doesn’t share his fellow general manager’s reluctance to hire 30-somethings. But, did they receive all the could from Kendrick, who made just $4 million last season? It's another offseason question to decide.

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