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Monday, March 14, 2022

OPINION:

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Juan Soto dropped a sound bite Monday afternoon at Washington Nationals spring training that would make the cherry blossoms burst open early.

“I always see my future here … I never think about leaving or anything like that.”


Cue the band. Close off Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s time for the parade.

Except the problem is, apparently that Soto never really lets a negative thought enter his brain. He couldn’t conceive of playing anywhere else except Washington. This is where he won a batting title and two Silver Slugger Awards. This is where he was an MVP candidate and became an All-Star.

This is where he won a World Series ­— all before he was 23 years old.

Soto left open the possibility that in someplace other than the baseball clubhouse and on the field, his future in Washington is being discussed. In those talks, Soto leaving in three years as another Scott Boras record-setting free agent is an alternative reality.

“Right now we are just talking to them,” Soto said of contract negotiations to keep him here for many years to come. “I focus on baseball and they are doing all the stuff. They will let me know if they hear anything.”

Please, let the rest of us know, too.

Leaving is all Washington Nationals fans think about when they think about Soto, which is understandable. Soto stood talking to reporters Monday in the same place in the Nationals clubhouse in West Palm Beach where Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper once talked about their futures. Now they are gone.

Then again, they never answered this same question with a response like Soto’s.

“I feel happy with the team and everything they have done for me,” he said. “Right now I just try to think about baseball and try to stay in shape and win another championship.”

This is the core of Juan Soto — the strength to keep things simple, and the belief that good things will come.

Asked about being the MVP runner-up last season — batting .313 with 29 home runs, 95 RBIs and 111 runs scored in 151 games — Soto answered, “I just try to stay focused on the game and be ready. Last year I was ready, and when they talk about that, I focus more.”

It is challenging for Soto to stay grounded as he appears to be, given his rising star status as one of the game’s elite players, sometimes compared to Ted Williams. Soto is 23, and there are young players in that clubhouse, some of whom are even older than him, who look at him like that — a superstar.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said it Sunday — this is Soto’s team.

That’s a big responsibility for a 23-year-old from the Dominican Republic. I asked him about being considered this leader of this team, and Soto answered, “Why my name? I feel like is too much work.” He said this laughing with reporters.

Laughter. It’s rare at these spring training “when-are-you-leaving” sessions with Nationals stars.

“There are different ways to be a leader,” Soto said. “To me, I keep trying to play hard and show them that every time we come to the field we work hard and keep playing hard.”

He leads on the field by example,” manager Dave Martinez said. ‘When he goes up to hit, everybody watches him. Of course. he is a leader, and I want him to understand this team is focused around him, but there are 25 other guys on this team.”

Soto has a clear understanding of his role, even if he laughs at the idea that he is the alpha dog in the clubhouse.

“I try to be myself,” he said. “Don’t change anything. Treat all my teammates the same, minor league or big leagues. I will try to respect you and treat you like everybody else. That is what I try to do. I think they feel good about it.

“My confidence has grown in the field and in the clubhouse,” Soto said. “I feel a little more comfortable with my teammates and everybody here.”

Everyone in Washington would feel a lot more comfortable with Soto if they didn’t believe he was going to be a New York Yankee someday soon.

Rizzo emphatically told reporters that they will “attack” a deal with Soto. “He’s the face of the franchise,” Rizzo said. “I want him here for the long term. We’re going to continue to talk any try to make him a Nat for a long time.”

The Lerners are going to have to do better than the 13-year $350 million offer they reportedly made to Soto before the lockout began.

Meanwhile, Soto is keeping a tight grip on the core of Juan Soto. “I feel like the same kid coming up to the big leagues,” he said. “Just come to play and have fun.”

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.


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