WASHINGTON -- The lineup for the second game of Tuesday’s doubleheader appeared to have a typo. Juan Soto had “RF” next to his name and Andrew Stevenson had “LF” next to his.
Soto’s pregame jog out toward the Nationals bullpen proved the information correct. And, he was back in right field again Wednesday night in the Nationals’ 12-3 loss. What gives?
“We wanted to throw him out there,” Davey Martinez said. “I talked about it with him for quite a while. The short stint that he was in the minor leagues coming up, that’s where he played. Right field. He feels comfortable over there. Thought we’d give it a shot to play over there.”
Well, partly. Wheels could be turning.
Adam Eaton’s broken finger ended his 2020 early. His poor season probably wiped away his chance for the Nationals to pick up his $10.5 million option for 2021. Which means right field will be open in the offseason.
Sliding Soto over there in the final week gives him, and the Nationals, an early look at how he might operate in the new space. It also allows them extra flexibility when considering free agents this offseason. Any center fielder can easily move to a corner spot. Other outfielders accustomed to playing left field would be able to fit in if Soto was moved to right.
“We will see what happens in the future,” Martinez said. “Honestly, it’s part of keeping him engaged. We talked about it, he was all excited about it.”
The Nationals’ offense devolved to just Soto and Trea Turner in 2020. So, they need significant offensive upgrades via a mediocre free-agent market. Outside of their obvious and years-long interest in J.T. Realmuto, the outfield offers intriguing options.
Houston’s George Springer, who plays center field, will be a free agent. Marcell Ozuna, who plays left field, will be a free agent. Michael Brantley, who has played left field most of his career, is a free agent.
Asked if moving Soto was indicative of offseason considerations, Martinez smirked.
“It could be a possibility,” Martinez said. “Use your imagination.”
There are pragmatic parts in play, too. A left-handed right fielder is typically better off than a left-handed left fielder. As Martinez put it, a left-handed thrower in right field is coming toward the field more often than he would be in left. He also contended tracking fly balls is easier because a left-handed player in right is reaching across his body with his eyes up as opposed to opening up and reaching. Soto told the coaching staff he would temporarily lose the ball when sprinting right in right field.
Also, Tuesday, Martinez noticed Soto play a ball off the wall into his glove, turn and throw to second base in one fluid motion. It looked natural.
“That’s kind of a tough play when you don’t do it often, but he made it look fairly easy,” Martinez said.
The shift brought a smile to Soto’s face when discussing it Wednesday.
“It feels really good, really nice to be out there again,” Soto said. “And try to feel like my first year, Rookie ball. It feels really good right now.”
Soto progressed from raw to solid in left field because of relentless outfield practice. There are new things to learn in right field. Tuesday, Realmuto hit a fly ball to the right-center gap. Soto tracked back, jumped and hit the video board. He didn’t make the catch. Afterward, he looked back at the wall a couple times much the way someone exploring a new land would. It might be time for him to start becoming accustomed to the space.