After an amazing breakout campaign in front of a national audience all the way to the 2019 World Series title, Nationals left fielder Juan Soto is primed to have another big season.
He is going to walk a lot. He's going to hit a lot. And a lot of those hits will be homers. Could he be in the running for MVP in the National League?
Of course. But it will not be easy. Thanks to an October to remember, good pitches to hit will be at an even higher premium for Soto in 2020.
Angels slugger Mike Trout won his first MVP at 22 in his third full season of play, his fourth year overall. On that season, Trout slashed .287/.377/.561 with 36 homers and a career-high 111 RBIs. It was one of the few recent winners who didn't hit .300 but did everything else. Trout also won the award in 2016 and 2019.
Former Nats outfielder Bryce Harper was 22 when he grabbed the MVP award in 2015 with a .330/.460/.649 slash, including 42 homers and 99 RBIs over 153 games.
Soto, who won't turn 22 until Oct. 25, hit .292 in 2018 and .282 in 2019. But he also cranked out a career-high 34 homers with 110 RBIs in the regular season last year over 150 games and finished ninth in the NL MVP voting.
Not having Anthony Rendon around to bat in front of him is a question mark for the Nats. If the Nats can sign Josh Donaldson, that will help protect Soto in the lineup a bit. If not, Soto will not see as many hittable pitches and will have to adjust.
Howie Kendrick and (most likely) Ryan Zimmerman will bat after Soto to help him to get pitches as well. But Soto will have to continue to get used to seeing one to 1 1/2 pitches per at-bat that are hittable and adjust from there.
That lack of good pitches continued into the postseason for Soto and he adjusted. In the World Series, Soto hit .333 with two doubles, three homers, seven RBIs and an OPS of 1.178.
Overall in the postseason, Soto racked up eight extra-base hits, including five homers, 14 RBIs, hitting .277 over 17 games.
And as Soto matures as a player, I think that Soto will likely calm down the "Soto shuffle" a little. The shuffle between each pitch became pretty famous (and infamous) in the postseason. His prancing and cobra-like "prideful stance" comes off as funny and cute to Nats fans, but opposing pitchers do not feel the same way and take note. We saw Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas gesture towards Soto after their matchup in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series following a Soto rollover groundout to end a bases-loaded situation.
Nationals manager Davey Martinez has talked to Soto about the between-pitches shuffle he has employed, and I expect that to be toned down a bit in 2020. But that will not deter opposing teams from throwing all the junk pitches they have to Soto early in at-bats. Either way, those one-on-one matchups with Soto and pitcher will be must-see stuff for 2020 and worth the price of admission.
The Nats lineup will still have Trea Turner and Adam Eaton at the top. If they can get a difference-making batter at No. 3, like a Donaldson, that would setup Soto again nicely in the cleanup spot. Then Kendrick, Zimmerman or a left-handed first base bat would bat No. 5. The lineup is close to where it was in 2019 when it was really rolling.
Soto is arbitration-eligible in 2022 and can become a free agent in 2025. With Victor Robles and Soto in the outfield, that core can set up the Nats offense pretty well for years to come. Robles is on the same arbitration/free agent track of 2022 and 2025.
General manager Mike Rizzo said in late August on 106.7 The Fan he would offer Soto $180 million over 10 years right now, but he did not think the slugger would accept that. And that is true.
The Braves took care of phenom Ronald AcuÃ±a Jr., to the tune of eight years for $100 million. Because of that deal, the Braves could have control of Acuna through the 2028 season. AcuÃ±a's big-money years begin in 2022, when he starts bringing in $15 million per season.
A source familiar with the Soto situation told me that no formal long-term contract talks between agent Scott Boras and the Nats have occurred. That is to be expected. But the Nats will have to consider sooner rather than later the idea of getting Soto signed long-term.
The Nats have been able to sign pitchers in Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg to long-term deals, as well as Zimmerman previously. Rizzo and Boras talk a lot, and after not getting Harper or Rendon re-signed over the last two offseasons, it is likely the Nats would prefer to get a long-term deal done with a position player the caliber of Soto well before 2022.
Oh, and about Robles ...
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