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What does Juan Soto think of his first season with the Nationals? Well, he was impressed

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What does Juan Soto think of his first season with the Nationals? Well, he was impressed

An informational table titled “Prospects Report” hangs at the top of Juan Soto’s Fangraphs page. Two numbers on the far right stand out: The first is “50”, his future value rating, which means he projects as an average major-league player. The second is “2020” which is listed as his “ETA” into the major leagues. Those 2018 numbers are severely outdated a year later.

Soto roared to the major leagues from Single A last season to finish second in National League Rookie of the Year voting as a 19-year-old. He then joined an MLB All-Star team to play in Japan before finally returning home to take a break.

Soto’s 2018 started in front of 3,424 fans at State Mutual Stadium in Rome, Georgia, where he homered on the second pitch of his first at-bat. It ended Nov. 14 with him going 3-for-4 in the Nagoya Dome, home to the Chunichi Dragons in the Aichi Prefecture. He made 698 plate appearances during his run from northwest Georgia to central Japan. 

“Yeah I got to rest now,” Soto said recently. “The season, no. Now it's my time to rest.”

While he finds some respite, his team, and the league, wonders what’s next. The Nationals know they have an Opening Day left fielder who could be one of the league’s best hitters. They learned his patience and power translated from minor-league outposts to MLB’s biggest parks. They also saw the league quickly try to pin down this unexpected meteor. Pitchers threw Soto a fastball just 47.5 percent of the time last season. It’s the same treatment Bryce Harper received as a rookie. 

“What we did learn from Juan Soto is what? He smashes fastballs,” Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long said. “So, I’m watching and I see a game in Japan. Juan Soto, there’s a breaking ball, (makes a loud noise). First thing he says, ‘Did you see that curveball I hit?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I saw it.’ He says, ‘I know what they’re going to try to do to me now. They’re going to try to throw me a lot of off-speed.’ He’ll learn. He’s a quick-learner. He gets it."

“But that’s one part of the game he knows we’re going to have to address because they’re going to throw him a lot more off-speed stuff. And he’s going to be just fine. His mechanics are sound and his approach is sound enough, he’s going to be able to do that.”

Sound, solid, just fine are all applicable to Soto’s first season. An increase in exposure didn’t turn him into an introvert. Rather, it spurred him to sign more autographs, understand the same questions came with a new round of reporters as opponents changed, and that doing “Juan Soto things” increasingly became a phenomenon.

Soto’s grasp on his swirling life stood out as much as his plate work. His adjustments were swift in both arenas. He spent the entire season doing interviews in English. Every national broadcast brought another round of sitdowns in the dugout or under a set of lights. Much of it became a trial run for what will happen in 2019, particularly if he duplicates his season and Harper does not return. He’s known now, an idea that pleases him.

"Yeah, why not?” Soto said. “I like that. I like to be ... how they talk about me and it's positive. I like all this stuff. I don't think like that, I just keep being me and keep playing baseball."

It’s not just the United States. Returning to the Dominican Republic this offseason was another jolt. 

"It's different now because everybody knows you,” Soto said. “Every place you go everybody know you. It feels pretty good, because the people, every park they see me they are very proud of me."

The year wasn’t perfect. Soto’s OPS dipped to .800 in August. More than reasonable by typical rookie or 19-year-old standards, and acceptable by regular major league measure, but a modest slump for him. The upside of the downturn was it inspired one of the quotes of the year after Soto’s offense picked up in early September and he informed reporters he just kept doing “Juan Soto things” to come out of his relative August malaise.

His defense needed work. Soto arrived with a routine honed by outfield/baserunning coordinator Gary Thurman during Soto’s brief stay in the minor leagues. From there, the Nationals focused on Soto’s first step and park-by-park tutorials before batting practice. Soto ventured onto the field around 2 p.m. at the start of each new series to learn the wall, what playing straight up in that park meant, how the opposition’s personnel performed and how hitter tendencies determined his in-game positioning. Soto was never afforded other times to learn, so the season became perpetual on-the-job training. 

“Once he starts playing, you get opportunities to watch what his strengths and weaknesses are and where he’s at, even though you hear it from Gary,” Nationals outfield coach Bob Henley said.

Henley also had another duty: aid Soto on the basepaths. The teenager made a mistake about three weeks into his major-league life when he failed to tag up at second base during a Sunday game in Atlanta. The Nationals lost 4-2 in one of the season’s more bizarre games: Jeremy Hellickson pitched ⅓ of an inning, Jefry Rodriguez debuted out of the bullpen as emergency relief, Tanner Roark allowed a walkoff, two-run homer in the ninth. 

Washington was off the next day. Henley didn’t mention the mistake on the flight home or even directly when work began the following Tuesday. It came up when Soto went to apologize for being too far off the bag to tag, not realizing Ender Inciarte, one of the game’s elite defenders, would be able to zoom in and catch a pop-up.

“So he comes to me, he says, ‘Hey, Bob. In that situation…’” Henley said. “You know what I did? I said it’s completely my fault, Juan. That situation the other day was my fault. I said in that situation...here’s what I want to do: We’re going to have hand signals, nobody out situation that I remind you where you need to be because I need to get better with Juan and knowing where he’s at. And of course now in those situations we have hand signals as far as what you’re doing and reminders for him because he was a kid still playing with the best players on the planet.”

Soto turns 20 in May. Life will be different then. The league is expected to tantalize him with more off-speed pitches. Charts and information about his weaknesses will abound. Everyone knows his name. 

He will be different, too. At least to a degree. Soto will be at major league spring training for the first time. He’ll own all the knowledge about parks, and new planes and the big league life. Expectations will also exist, taking over for last year’s anonymity. Those circumstances aren’t the least bit jarring to him.

"I think, do my routine, and no change,” Soto said. “If that worked I got to keep going until I retired."

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Nationals' wild-card lead becomes tenuous

Nationals' wild-card lead becomes tenuous

Another loss, another tightening of the wild-card race.

A recent blitz by Chicago and Milwaukee has vaulted each right behind the Nationals. The Cubs are just a half-game back of Washington for the right to host the Wild-Card Game. Milwaukee is only 1 ½ games behind the Nationals and a game behind Chicago. 

Philadelphia and New York are each 5 ½ games behind Washington. Those seasons are fading -- as is Washington's.

A week ago, the Nationals led the Cubs by 2 ½ games and Milwaukee by 4 ½. Two weeks ago, Washington led the Cubs by 3 ½ and Milwaukee by 7 ½.

Fivethirtyeight.com puts the Nationals' chances of making the postseason at 87 percent, a six percent decline from Monday morning.

Coming up Tuesday:

Philadelphia at Atlanta, 7:20 p.m., Velasquez (6-7, 4.95 ERA) vs. Keuchel (8-5, 3.35)

San Diego at Milwaukee, 7:40 p.m., Paddack (9-7, 3.38) vs. Woodruff (11-3, 3.75)

Washington at St. Louis, 7:45 p.m., Corbin (12-7, 3.20) vs. Mikolas (9-13, 4.28)

Cincinnati at Chicago, 8:05 p.m., Gray (10-7, 2.80) vs. Darvish (6-6, 3.70)

New York at Colorado, 8:40 p.m., Stroman (8-13, 3.35) vs. Melville (2-2, 5.16

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Would a team comprised of former Nationals players make the playoffs?

Would a team comprised of former Nationals players make the playoffs?

One measure of a successful pro sports organization is how many players leave them and then catch on with other teams. The way it works is simple. The best teams dispatch a group of players every offseason that either aren't in their financial plans or simply aren't good enough to make their roster. The players that aren't good enough move on to the next-best clubs until they are cycled out of the league.

The worst teams are usually home to the worst players. They are the final stops for guys on their way out either due to lack of production or age.

The Nats used to be one of those final stops. Back in their losing days, they were the last exit on the highway to retirement. Many longtime veterans came through Washington for brief stints before exiting the league; guys like Ivan Rodriguez, Matt Stairs and Alex Cora.

Nowadays, the Nats are making tough decisions on good players. That has led to a good deal of talent leaving the organization for one reason or another.

Look around the league and there are former Nationals everywhere. Some of those players are thriving. This season, two former Nationals players were All-Stars (Lucas Giolito and Felipe Vazquez) and the year before there were three (Wilson Ramos, Blake Treinen, Vazquez).

It's not often you see a franchise have multiple former players on the All-Star team, but that has been the case for the Nationals in recent years. It's a testament to their ability to find talent. The other way to look at it, of course, is that they have made some regrettable decisions. Giolito and Vasquez, in particular, were part of trades that are now second-guessed.

But in simply evaluating the talent that used to be in Washington, an interesting question can be posed. Would a team comprised solely of former Nats players make the playoffs?

There is no way of truly knowing the answer, but that didn't stop me from trying. Some of it was easy, like who would play right field. Filling out the bench, however, was a bit of a chore. It was the type of extensive research that reminds you Matt Skole is still in the majors and that Marcus Stroman and Khris Davis were both drafted by the Nationals before going to college.

Just being drafted by the Nats, though, was not enough to make the cut. These players had to have at least been in the minor league system before moving on. Those who were traded as prospects before they became big leaguers count because the Nats gave up on them before their MLB careers were over.

With all that said, here is how the 25-man roster would look with their 2019 stats in parentheses...

STARTERS

C - Wilson Ramos, Mets (14 HR, 72 RBI, 109 OPS+, 1.8 bWAR)
1B - Mark Reynolds, Rockies (4 HR, 20 RBI, 46 OPS+, -1.0 bWAR)
2B - Daniel Murphy, Rockies (13 HR, 77 RBI, 92 OPS+, 0.4 bWAR)
SS - Ian Desmond, Rockies (17 HR, 61 RBI, 83 OPS+, -1.9 bWAR)
3B - Sheldon Neuse, Athletics (0 HR, 5 RBI, 78 OPS+, 0.2 bWAR)
LF - Steven Souza Jr., Diamondbacks (yet to debut due to injury)
CF - Brian Goodwin, Angels (16 HR, 45 RBI, 115 OPS+, 2.1 bWAR)
RF - Bryce Harper, Phillies (31 HR, 102 RBI, 121 OPS+, 3.4 bWAR)

ROTATION

SP - Lucas Giolito, White Sox (3.41 ERA, 228 SO, 5.8 bWAR) 
SP - Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks (4.30 ERA, 104 ERA+, 1.5 bWAR)
SP - Tanner Roark, Athletics (4.01 ERA, 112 ERA+, 0.0 bWAR)
SP - Gio Gonzalez, Brewers (4.01 ERA, 112 ERA+, 1.2 bWAR)
SP - Brad Peacock, Astros (4.06 ERA, 113 ERA+, 1.4 bWAR)

BULLPEN

CL - Felipe Vazquez, Pirates (1.65 ERA, 28 SV, 2.9 bWAR)
RP - Yusmeiro Petit, Athletics (2.83 ERA, 0.825 WHIP, 2.0 bWAR)
RP - Mark Melancon, Braves (3.92 ERA, 111 ERA+, 0.6 bWAR)
RP - Tyler Clippard, Indians (2.87 ERA, 0.821 WHIP, 1.4 bWAR)
RP - Shawn Kelley, Rangers (4.03 ERA, 129 ERA+, 1.3 bWAR)
RP - Brandon Kintzler, Cubs (2.82 ERA, 160 ERA+, 1.5 bWAR)
RP - Blake Treinen, Athletics (4.91 ERA, 16 SV, -0.4 bWAR)
RP - Craig Stammen, Padres (3.51 ERA, 121 ERA+, 0.5 bWAR)

BENCH

C - Pedro Severino, Orioles (13 HR, 44 RBI, 104 OPS+, 1.7 bWAR)
INF - Tony Renda, Red Sox (in Triple-A)
INF - Matt Skole, White Sox (0 HR, 6 RBI, 56 OPS+, -0.4 bWAR)
C - Sandy Leon, Red Sox (5 HR, 17 RBI, 43 OPS+, -0.5 bWAR)

As you can see, the team would have some legitimate stars. A lineup with Harper, Ramos and Goodwin could be solid. And Desmond and Murphy are still productive players, at least on offense.

The rotation would be fairly good as well. There is an All-Star ace in Giolito and some capable depth with Roark, Ray, Gonzalez and Peacock. It would be a top-heavy group, but no one would stand out as not belonging in a big league rotation. And notice how it doesn't include Jordan Zimmermann, Reynaldo Lopez or Nick Pivetta.

The clear strength of this group would be the bullpen, in a cruel twist of irony. The Nats would love to have a number of their former relievers on this year's team, which currently sports the league's worst bullpen ERA. 

A bullpen comprised of former Nats pitchers would be quite good. Vazquez is one of the game's best closers and Petit, Clippard and Kintzler all have sub-3.00 ERAs. Based on ERA+, Melancon, Kelley and Stammen have been above league average this season. And Treinen is having a down year, but finished sixth in Cy Young voting last season.

That bullpen would be significantly better than the Nats' current group and might rank among the very best in the majors. Consider that the Cleveland Indians, owners of the best bullpen ERA in the majors, have four relievers with at least one win above replacement according to Baseball Reference. The Ex-Nats would have five.

Now, the team of former Nationals would have some weaknesses. Defense would be a disaster with Reynolds, Murphy and Desmond at first, second and short. And just to make a lineup, I put Neuse in there despite the fact he's only appeared in 14 big league games. He's a former second round pick of the Nats who was in the Sean Doolittle deal back in 2017.

There is also Souza, who is nearing the end of his recovery from torn ligaments in his knee and may not return until the postseason, if he returns this year at all. So, perhaps his inclusion was a little cheap.

Also, that bench. Woof. Turns out the Nats have let some good players go, but not enough to fill out a particularly deep roster, at least outside of the catcher spot. Though, in exploring options for the final bench spots, I discovered that Brandon Phillips - a former Expos draft pick and prospect - spent time in the Independent League and the Mexican League this year. That alone made all of this worth the trouble.

Okay, back to the central question of this piece: would a team of former Nats make the playoffs? The answer is probably not because of their depth and defense. But there is an argument for why they would at least have a chance.

One is that the pitching staff top-to-bottom could be playoff-caliber. Also, if you believe in bWAR, there is a statistical case. The Rockies, for comparison, made the playoffs last season with 12 players on their roster with at least one bWAR. There are 13 ex-Nationals that can say that this season.

So, could the Ex-Nats make the playoffs? Probably not. But they would almost certainly be better than the Orioles, Tigers or Marlins.

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