Juan Soto wins the Home Run Derby as his Nationals future becomes an All-Star focus

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 18, 2022; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Washington Nationals right fielder Juan Soto (22) celebrates with the trophy and his coach Jorge Meija after winning the 2022 Home Run Derby at Dodgers Stadium.

LOS ANGELES – The clearest picture of just how much Juan Soto’s suddenly uncertain future with the Washington Nationals is dominating the baseball world wasn’t caught on any of the half-dozen cameras that were set up long before Soto took his place in front of his name plate Monday afternoon, before he won the Home Run Derby later that night.

Those cameras were focused on Soto, not the horde of reporters waiting for him, so they missed the trio of men who lingered just out of frame, to Soto’s left. His agent, Scott Boras, and two of Boras’s assistants stood there, mere feet away. Dozens of Boras clients have sat through sessions such as those in All-Star weeks such as these. Boras hasn’t been that close for many of them.

The obvious implication was that Boras and his staff felt it necessary to be nearby as the 23-year-old fielded unwelcome questions about the record $440 million he turned down from the Nationals and whether Washington will listen to trade offers ahead of the Aug. 2 deadline.

A week or so ago, Soto wouldn’t have had to spend his All-Star break answering questions such as these. But when details of the Nationals’ contract offer came out, Soto was thrust into a swirl of rumors and speculation for which he says he did not ask.

“It was pretty tough. Pretty frustrating. I try to keep my stuff private, don’t try to throw stuff out there,” Soto said of the leak. “It feels really bad, but at the end of the day we just have to keep playing.”

A month and a half ago, Washington general manager Mike Rizzo said publicly the Nationals would not be trading Soto. Soto said no one with the Nationals has explained to him what changed since then, though the obvious catalyst appears to be turning down the $440 million deal.

“I haven’t talked with anybody to tell me how that changed or what was the mindset, but definitely it’s like you say, a couple weeks ago they were saying they would never trade me and now all these things come out,” Soto said. “It feels real uncomfortable. You don’t know what to trust.”

Asked if the past few days have changed his relationship with the Nationals, Soto said, “Never.” He repeated things he told reporters in Washington this past weekend – namely that he doesn’t have control over the situation and just wants to play baseball.

In fact, Soto never seemed overly burdened at all Monday. He pumped up the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols early on, then beat him in the semifinals (after eliminating the Guardians’ José Ramírez in the first round, flipping his bat with classic Soto swagger when he advanced). His mechanics deteriorated round by round, swing by swing, as he grew visibly fatigued. But he didn’t seem to mind a bit, leaning every ounce of his strength into every final-round swing until he had delivered enough home runs to best Mariners rookie Julio Rodríguez in the final. And when ESPN’s Buster Olney asked Soto what he wanted for his future as he hoisted the derby trophy, Soto said he wasn’t even thinking about it, that he won the championship “for the Nationals.”

But earlier in the day, he seemed like a man bracing for change, should it come.

“Can’t do anything about it. I have my hands tied. I’m just going to play as hard as I can and play baseball. Forget about everything else,” he said. “I don’t make the decisions. They make the decisions. If they want to make the decision, I’ve got to pack my stuff and go.”

Soto already has dealt with swift change once in his young career. He began his Nationals tenure surrounded by players such as Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon. By August of last season, he was the last star standing, a relative veteran not far removed from being the one following the veterans’ lead. He arrived as a young star on a World Series contender and now finds himself as the best player on the majors’ worst team.

“It’s very frustrating, but at the end of the day, we’re just trying our best. For me, I’m trying my best. I know those guys are trying their best. But things just aren’t going our way,” Soto said. “We’re just going to try to keep playing hard, keep trying to find out the pieces we’re missing and get back on track.”

Reporters from the New York media corps asked Soto several times whether he wanted to play in New York. He never really gave them what they were looking for, never flinched and suggested he would rather be there. In fact, when asked about playing in New York, Soto threw some subtle jabs the Mets’ way.

“Playing in New York against the Mets, I love it. I love to play against them, hit the ball hard. You see my numbers in that field – it’s just amazing,” said Soto, who has a 1.173 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 30 career games at Citi Field.

As for that short porch in Yankee Stadium, the one that entices so many left-handed hitters with the possibility of a few extra homers each year:

“I have two homers there, but I never hit a ball that way,” said Soto, whose 1.256 OPS in four games there is his best in any stadium. “To me, it’s another thing to play against the Yankees. It’s very cool to hear the noise and just shut it down.”

This week, and probably for the next few weeks, Soto will have to shut out plenty of noise. He admitted he wished he didn’t have to deal with contract negotiations during the season, even as he nodded to Boras and his staffers and suggested they take care of everything. They stuck close to Soto on Monday in the hours before he competed in his second Home Run Derby – and claimed his first title. The rumors and the questions will stick close for the foreseeable future, too.

“Here and there, sometimes, it can be a little bit on your mind, but you can’t blame that [for] your stats or anything you do on the field,” Soto said. “At the end of the day, I just try to forget about everything outside for three hours and try to be the 12 years old I’ve been doing this since, playing baseball as hard as I can.”