July 21, 2022 [LINK / comment]

Last hurrah? Juan Soto wins Home Run Derby!

It may be of small consolation to Nationals fans, who are coming to grips with the strong possibility that the guy who just replaced Ryan Zimmerman as the "face of the franchise" may soon depart D.C., but Juan Soto managed to win the Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium on Monday night. He was fourth-seeded, facing the fifth-seeded Jose Ramirez of the Cleveland Guardians (formerly Indians) in the first round, 18 to 17. The big first-round surprise was that Albert Pujols, who was given the privilege of participating in recognition of his impending retirement, defeated top-seeded Kyle Schwarber, a former National who now plays for Philadelphia. After Pujols' contract with the L.A. Angels expired last year, he returned to his original team -- the St. Louis Cardinals -- for a nostalgic "swan song." Also surprising was that sixth-seeded Julio Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners hit 32 home runs, defeating third-seeded Corey Seager (a former Dodger now with the Texas Rangers), who had 24. In the second round, Soto defeated Pujols 17 to 16, and in the final round Soto got off to a slow start with zero home runs in the first 30 seconds, but ultimately defeated Julio Rodriguez 19-18. With all that has been on his mind, it is remarkable that he kept his composure and focused on knocking balls over the fence. In the first round, he hit the longest homer (482 feet) of all the eight contestants, and his longest homer in the third round sailed 471 feet.

In the post-derby interview, Soto exhibited mixed emotions of pride and unease, related to his precarious situation with the Washington Nationals. (See below.) For the time being, Nats fans could relish their second team victory in the Home Run Derby, but it had somewhat of a bittersweet taste. Bryce Harper won it (at home in Nationals Park!) in 2018, his final year with the Nats.

AL wins All-Star Game again

For the ninth consecutive year (excluding 2020, when the game was canceled), the American League won the All-Star Game. The National League got off to a good start with two runs in the bottom of the first inning, but in the fourth inning, Tony Gonsolin (of the Dodgers) gave up a single to Jose Ramirez and then a home run to Giancarlo Stanton, tying the game at 2-2. The very next batter, Byron Buxton (center fielder for the Twins), homered as well, giving the American League the lead. For the rest of the game nobody scored. The final outcome almost seemed inevitable, and the game was frankly a little on the dull side. Juan Soto replaced Mookie Betts in center field (later shifting to right), and did not even reach base. Still unclear is why the guy with the third-best batting average in the National League (Josh Bell, with .311) was not chosen for the All-Star Game.

Accordingly, I just updated the Annual baseball chronology page with that 3-2 score in favor of the AL. From it, you can see that in only one year since 2014 has the All-Star Game been played in an American League stadium: Progressive Field, in 2019. They used to alternate between leagues from one year to the next, but for some reason that practice ended in 2016, when Petco Park became the second consecutive National League stadium to host the Midsummer Classic.

No deal; Soto becomes trade bait

Last weekend it was revealed via a leak (I won't speculate by whom, but it's not hard to guess) that Juan Soto turned down the Nationals' latest (and perhaps final) offer of $440 million over 15 years. (See the Washington Post.) That would have been the biggest such contract in baseball history, but it wasn't enough for Juan Soto (or his agent Scott Boras). It worked out to an average annual value of $29.3 million, which is notably less than the $36 million a year that Mike Trout is making with the L.A. Angels. Since the Nationals were badly burned with the Stephen Strasburg contract (we just learned that he is not expected to pitch at all for the rest of the year), it is entirely understandable that they would hesitate to meet the lofty expectations of Soto & Bora$.

Obviously, Soto's rejection of the Nats' generous offer raises the likelihood that he will be traded by the deadline on August 2. He is under control of the team through the next two seasons, after which he becomes a free agent, so he is worth more on the market now than he will be later on. One strong indication that the Nats front office has essentially given up on Soto: the large ads for upcoming game tickets in the Washington Post no longer feature Soto, but rather the other up-and-coming stars of the future such as Lane Thomas and Kiebert Ruiz. It's a sad indicator of the awful twists of fate that have befallen the Nationals franchise.

I generally disdain to speculate on trade rumors, but this being a special situation, I'll bend my rules just a little bit. According to MLB.com, the Nats will not trade Soto to another team in the NL East, but the big-market teams such as the Yankees and Dodgers are obvious possible suitors. Maybe the big-spending Texas Rangers? They are known for wasting hundreds of millions on players that don't really pan out, as are the L.A. Angels. The St. Louis Cardinals are a good potential match because their big stock of young, high-caliber talent that "rebuilding" teams such as the Nationals need. It is being suggested that the Nats would try to combine Patrick Corbin with Soto in any trade, a transparent (and unseemly) attempt to rid themselves of a financial burden represented by Corbin's contract, which has two more years to go. Corbin has been pitching better lately, but he is nowhere near the expectations set when they signed him before the 2019 season. For a non-contending team, there's no point to retaining an expensive and underperforming player.

As bad as things have been for the Nationals for the past twelve months, I frankly couldn't imagine that the Nats front office would be unable to come to terms with Soto. They have made it clear that he is (or was) expected to be the centerpiece of the franchise for many years to come. Clearly, something has gone terribly wrong, either in the organization or in the advice that Soto is getting from his agent. Hey, maybe all these rumors are off base, and perhaps the Nats and Soto will reach a deal after all. Us fans can indulge in a little dreaming, can't we? The apocalyptic losing streak of late July 2021 was soon followed by the Nats trading away Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, and other top players; it was an unthinkable shock. But if they do lose Soto, all hope of success (meaning contention for the postseason) for the next few years would appear to have vanished. It would constitute an incomprehensible fall from grace, less than three years since their World Series triumph.

Nats end losing streak

On a brighter note, meanwhile, the Washington Nationals finally put an end to their losing streak (at nine games), beating the Atlanta Braves 7-3 in Washington on Sunday. From June 29 until Sunday, the Nats had won only one game, while losing 15. I'll have to check, but that may be their lowest-ever record over a 16-game stretch. They took an early lead thanks in part to a home run by Victor Robles, and Juan Soto hit his 20th homer of the year late in the game to pad the lead. Soto has raised his average recently, and is now batting .250. Until a month or so ago, Soto had the lowest batting average (about .220 or so) of the Nats' entire lineup, which was hard to believe. Ironically, the Nats didn't even have a starting pitcher available, since there was a double-header on Wednesday July 13, and Erasmo Ramirez pitched the first three innings. Of note, in eleven of those 16 games the Nats scored either 3 or 4 runs, and in four of the other five games they scored even less -- consistent mediocrity. The seven runs on Sunday was the most the Nats have scored since their 8-7 loss to the Pirates on June 29. So there's that.