Status of Juan Soto overshadows all the Nationals do


PHOENIX — On Friday afternoon, ahead of a series opener with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Juan Soto and Victor Robles sat side-by-side in the visitors’ clubhouse at Chase Field and watched TV. Soto kept fidgeting in his leather chair. Robles used a massage device on his right thigh. They chatted in Spanish, laughing about something in the New York Yankees-Baltimore Orioles game.

“Remember when those guys were …” a Washington Nationals team staffer said in passing, the sentence trailing off. “I don’t know. This is all just nuts.”

A few ways to finish that thought: Remember when Soto and Robles were just two kids from the Dominican Republic, top prospects set for what seemed like a limitless future with the Nationals? Or remember 2019, when they were two-thirds of a World Series-winning outfield? Or remember last month, a simpler time, before Washington was considering trade offers because Soto turned down its 15-year, $440 million contract offer?

The uncertainty around Soto — and the churn of the national news cycle — hung over the club throughout the weekend. Most beat reporters have been enlisted to write about how or if the team they cover could acquire the 23-year-old star. Many have floated the Yankees — big spenders, always aiming for titles — as in contact with the Nationals’ front office and planning to be aggressive. And in quiet, casual conversations, a few players asked whether the Nationals are really considering moving Soto in the next nine days.

That answer lies with General Manager Mike Rizzo, his inner circle and Mark Lerner, the team’s managing principal owner whose family is in the process of selling the franchise. But the question is still on everyone’s mind.

“We’re still going to go out there and do our jobs every day. But for me, the reality is these guys are your best friends,” said right-handed starter Erick Fedde, the active roster’s longest-tenured player, by his locker Friday. “Just the thought of losing a lot of them, or losing one of your core stars, it’s not fun at all.

“Months out of the year we’re spending 12 hours out of the day together. We’re on the road for six months. So it sucks. I’ve been with Juan since, what, 2018? It’s crazy. I had never been through [a roster sell-off] until last year, so that was a real shock. But now you know how to prepare for it a little more.”

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A year ago, the Nationals shipped out Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Daniel Hudson, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, Kyle Schwarber, Brad Hand and Jon Lester for 12 players. This month, Josh Bell, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Finnegan, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr. and Soto are on the block, among others, with Soto’s case far different from the rest.

The Athletic reported Saturday that instead of negotiating at the moment, Washington is taking offers and moving on if a team is unwilling to meet its big asks. Asked if that were accurate, one person with knowledge of the process said it was “more or less the approach right now.” In this sense, then, the Nationals are on the other end of a familiar equation.

When they were in extension talks with Soto, they were less negotiating and more trying to convince him to cave on his long-held desire to reach free agency after the 2024 season. Scott Boras, Soto’s agent, never presented Washington with a counteroffer, according to multiple people with knowledge of discussions that stretched from last fall to the middle of this summer. The terms started at 13 years and $350 million in November. They ballooned to 15 and $440 million, an average annual value of $29.3 million that was unsatisfactory to Soto and Boras.

So that’s how players, coaches and staff wind up whispering about trade rumors in Phoenix. Rizzo is back in D.C. because of the nearing deadline. Meanwhile, any image of Soto — such as, for example, him sitting with Robles before batting practice — was liable to stir nostalgia, frustration or a mix of both.

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Ahead of Saturday’s 7-2 loss, Boras was at Chase Field because Druw Jones, another client and the second pick in this month’s draft, officially signed with Arizona and threw out the first pitch. Boras signed autographs and chatted on the field with Keibert Ruiz, Luis García, Bell and Fedde — all represented by him, too. His outsize presence was just another reminder of the circumstances.

“Juan’s been really, really, really good about his situation,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “We talk a lot. We talk about how he’s a Washington National and he wants to be a Washington National. That’s the way we view it. I got asked a bunch of questions [at the All-Star Game in Los Angeles], and I always reiterate that as far as I’m concerned, he’s a Washington National. I love him. He’s grown to be a quite a leader … and that’s the only way I view it as long as I possibly can — hopefully for a very long time.”

Around 11:20 a.m. Sunday, Martinez’s office door swung open and Soto walked out. They were catching up, as they often do, about Soto batting second and everything else. Martinez told reporters that Soto seemed good. A scouting report on Corbin Martin, the Diamondbacks’ starter, was waiting at his locker. Once he looked it over, he headed to the kitchen for a late breakfast.

Soto’s family is with him and will head back to Los Angeles for a series against the Dodgers that starts Monday. When not playing, Soto has mostly stared at his phone, much like anyone would if their future was being litigated, over and over, on social media. How have recent days been for him?

“Crazy,” he said. “Really crazy.”

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