Time has arrived for Nats to make major decision

It’s been 16 days now, 16 long days, since the first report emerged of Juan Soto declining a 15-year, $440 million extension, prompting the Nationals to “entertain” the possibility of trading their star right fielder.

Everyone has been put through the ringer ever since. Soto, who can’t make it through a single day without somebody bombarding him with questions about his uncertain future. The Nats, who have attempted to walk the tightrope between seeking out legitimate trade offers while simultaneously stressing they still prefer Soto stays in D.C. for the long term. Local and national media members, who spend every waking minute trying to decipher whatever clues are out there about the team’s intentions. And, of course, fans who experienced the full range of emotions and are now bracing for whatever outcome is on the horizon.

An outcome that is now nearly ready to reveal itself.

At some point in the next 34 hours, the Nationals are either going to trade Soto to a contending club for perhaps the best prospects haul in baseball history, or they’re going to let Tuesday’s 6 p.m. trade deadline pass without making the move and allow this issue to be resolved at some later date.

Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has a prediction for how this will play out. But the man in the middle of it all just wants to know, once and for all, whose uniform he’s going to be wearing the rest of the season.

“For me, the same thing: I just want to get it over with and see what’s going to happen,” Soto said following Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals. “Just go over that day, and start over here or wherever I’m at.”

You can understand why Soto is ready for answers. To his credit, he’s handled every question, every rumor, every reaction he hears at the ballpark with professionalism. He has said all the right things. He hasn’t snapped at anyone (even though he’s surely had the urge to once or twice).

But he’s been the center of attention throughout the baseball world for more than two weeks now, and he’s ready for that no longer to be the case. Or, at least, he’s ready for any attention on him to be focused on his playing performance, not his employment status.

The last three days saw Soto play in front of Nationals fans, perhaps for the last time, and he heard everything they had to say to him when he took his position in right field or stepped to the plate.

“Anything that you can imagine,” he said when asked what messages he’s been getting from fans. “For me, I just try to stay focused on the game. I’m going to hear a lot of stuff and crazy things. But at the end of the day, I just try to forget about it and just stay focused.”

And how has he done that?

“Just see the jersey you’re wearing,” he said. “You’re wearing the Nationals jersey, you’re here. And right now, I’m here and I’m a National. So I just go out there as a professional, as a National, and I just play for them as hard as I can. It doesn’t matter whatever they’re saying, whatever the rumors, stuff like that. I’m going to give 100 percent every time I wear this jersey.”

The pressure, really, is not on Soto but on Mike Rizzo. The longtime general manager has spent the last two weeks stressing over the MLB Draft and then the upcoming trade deadline, getting little sleep, wearing out his phone and his texting fingers as he tries to decide whether to make a franchise-altering deal or not.

Rizzo, according to sources familiar with his thinking, has been seeking a massive package of prospects and/or young major league players in exchange for Soto. He made his wish list known to rival GMs from the outset, and has since been waiting to see if any of them will actually meet his hefty asking price.

The teams most commonly connected to Soto rumors remain the Padres, Cardinals and Dodgers, with the Mariners, Yankees, Rangers and Giants more on the periphery. St. Louis’ front office, led by president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, was on site at Nationals Park all weekend while the two teams squared off, and Rizzo and Mozeliak were notably caught talking at length in the former’s suite during Sunday’s game broadcast on MASN.

Whether any of that means Rizzo actually is on the verge of trading away a 23-year-old star whose closest comp at this stage of his career is Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams remains to be seen. It’s important to remember, though, that for all the bluster and the hysteria of the last 16 days, one tried-and-true fact remains: The Nationals don’t have to do this.

Soto is under club control for another 2 1/3 seasons. Rizzo doesn’t have to just accept the best offer he receives, as he probably will for trade targets who are in their contract years. If nobody is willing to meet his asking price, all he has to do is say no and move on.

Would he risk losing out on a package of prospects that won’t still be offered this winter, when Soto is only under club control for two more seasons? Maybe. But he’d also buy time for the Nationals’ ownership situation to play out, and he might even open the door for other teams to enter the mix once they’ve had a chance to map out their plans for 2023.

There are baseball reasons to make a trade now, but there are public relations reasons not to. If he goes through with it, Rizzo is going to have to convince the world it was the right move to trade away one of the best young players in the game in exchange for prospects (some of whom might even be older than Soto) who aren’t guaranteed to blossom into stars themselves.

That’s a tough sell, especially when it would come one year after Rizzo already had to sell the fan base on the virtues of trading away Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Daniel Hudson, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, Brad Hand and Jon Lester for 12 prospects, only three of whom are currently on the Nationals’ big league roster.

On top of that, Rizzo has plenty else on his table over these final 34 hours. He’s got several veterans he needs to trade before the deadline, headlined by Josh Bell and Nelson Cruz, and several intriguing relievers he needs to consider offers for, including Kyle Finnegan and Carl Edwards Jr. He can’t wait until the 5 o’clock hour Tuesday to do everything. Something probably needs to happen today, whether it’s the big trade or lesser ones.

It’s a position Rizzo probably never expected to find himself in. It’s certainly a position Soto never thought he’d be caught up in at this stage of his career. Nor is it a scenario anyone with any vested interest in the Nationals ever wanted to have to consider.

One way or another, though, the time has come. Soto’s going to get his wish by Tuesday evening. He’s going to know where he’ll be playing Wednesday. The rest of us can only wait to learn whether it’ll be in Washington or somewhere else.

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