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Nationals biggest 2020 storylines: Juan Soto’s ascension continues

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Here’s a headline to consider: “This young star is the next Ted Williams”.

It’s a bit hyperbolic, as internet headlines tend to be, but the point is that putting Juan Soto -- said mystery young star -- next to arguably history’s greatest hitter became less outlandish in 2020.

Soto’s numbers last season were comical. He reached base almost half the time (.490 OBP). He led the major leagues in that category, slugging percentage, OPS and OPS-plus. When he was moved to right field, Soto appeared more comfortable than ever, making it fair to wonder why he wasn’t over there to begin with.

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What he didn’t do was play enough to become a finalist for the National League MVP award. Soto played 47 games, which was enough to put him among qualified league leaders. However, a positive coronavirus test and, later, a sore left elbow took him off the field. Soto contended his test was a false positive. The Nationals viewed it as an enormous influence on the season. Soto and Trea Turner performed as a two-man offense. Losing Soto simply meant more losing. Both Soto and Turner finished in the top 10 for NL MVP voting, yet the team was just a middle-of-the-pack offense.

Soto is now 22 years old. He’s played three seasons, qualified for “Super 2” status and has become one of MLB’s stars. The Nationals will start paying him this year more in accordance with his value since he is arbitration eligible. His future value remains the key topic.

 

It wasn’t just the zesty comparison to Ted Williams by a writer. Davey Martinez has compared Soto to Barry Bonds in recent discussions. Why? The walks of course. Also, power to all fields. Either suggestion is eye-popping and will make Soto very costly quite soon.

“Right now, I don’t want to put a ceiling on him,” Martinez said recently. “He keeps getting better and better, every time I see him, every time he steps on the field. I sat back and watched the way he played and how intuitive he is.”

Martinez then shifted into an anecdote about one of Soto’s ambitions: he wants to steal 25-30 bases in a season. That idea, and the process to arrive there, may best explain the framework Soto is operating in.

At the start of spring training in 2019, Soto was alone with a trainer on the agility field most days after his other work was done. By then, it was hot and other players were leaving the facility for tee times or air conditioning. But, Soto shuffled hard left, then hard right. He sprinted forward and back. Soto was trying to become faster in order to be a better defender and better on the bases. Why? He just wanted to be better.

In 2019, he stole 12 bases in 13 attempts. He was 6-for-8 in 2020, making him 23-for-28 (82 percent). It’s another path to help the team win.

“He studies pitchers,” Martinez said. “Right now, he understands when he needs to steal and when he doesn’t need to steal and wants to get better at it.”

If the 2021 schedule is back to normal, Soto will play just his second full season in the major leagues. Though, he has dominated the small sample of games at the highest level. Consider this list from MLB. com, the providers of the Ted Williams headline:

Best OPS+ through age 21, min. 1,000 plate appearances 166 -- Mike Trout 161 -- Ted Williams 157 -- Jimmie Foxx 155 -- Rogers Hornsby 153 -- Ty Cobb 150 --  Juan Soto 146 -- Mel Ott 145 -- Eddie Mathews 144 -- Mickey Mantle 139 -- Frank Robinson

It’s hard to overstate the value of the names here. And it’s hard to disagree with Martinez’s decision not to put a ceiling on Soto. More pressing is what’s next, and how much will it cost?

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