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Juan Soto’s present, future mean most in 2022 for Nationals

March 30, 2022 GMT
Washington Nationals' Juan Soto runs to third during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox, Oct. 1, 2021, in Washington. No one matters as much for the Washington Nationals in 2022 and beyond than Juan Soto. The 23-year-old outfielder's performance could prevent the club from being a total disaster this season. More important than that is what happens eventually with Soto's future. He is eligible to become a free agent after the 2024 season and already turned down one long-term contract offer from Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Washington Nationals' Juan Soto runs to third during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox, Oct. 1, 2021, in Washington. No one matters as much for the Washington Nationals in 2022 and beyond than Juan Soto. The 23-year-old outfielder's performance could prevent the club from being a total disaster this season. More important than that is what happens eventually with Soto's future. He is eligible to become a free agent after the 2024 season and already turned down one long-term contract offer from Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Washington Nationals' Juan Soto runs to third during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox, Oct. 1, 2021, in Washington. No one matters as much for the Washington Nationals in 2022 and beyond than Juan Soto. The 23-year-old outfielder's performance could prevent the club from being a total disaster this season. More important than that is what happens eventually with Soto's future. He is eligible to become a free agent after the 2024 season and already turned down one long-term contract offer from Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
1 of 5
Washington Nationals' Juan Soto runs to third during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox, Oct. 1, 2021, in Washington. No one matters as much for the Washington Nationals in 2022 and beyond than Juan Soto. The 23-year-old outfielder's performance could prevent the club from being a total disaster this season. More important than that is what happens eventually with Soto's future. He is eligible to become a free agent after the 2024 season and already turned down one long-term contract offer from Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
1 of 5
Washington Nationals' Juan Soto runs to third during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox, Oct. 1, 2021, in Washington. No one matters as much for the Washington Nationals in 2022 and beyond than Juan Soto. The 23-year-old outfielder's performance could prevent the club from being a total disaster this season. More important than that is what happens eventually with Soto's future. He is eligible to become a free agent after the 2024 season and already turned down one long-term contract offer from Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

WASHINGTON (AP) — There is really one person whose present and future matter more than any other associated with the Washington Nationals at the moment: Juan Soto.

How the 2021 NL MVP runner-up and 2020 batting champion performs — perhaps from the No. 2 spot in manager Dave Martinez’s lineup — will go a long way to determining how much of a lost season this truly is for the Nationals, who are coming off consecutive last-place finishes since their World Series title.

“When he goes up to hit,” Martinez said, “everybody watches him.”

Whether Soto eventually signs a multiyear extension before the 23-year-old right fielder can become a free agent in 2024 will help define the trajectory of the franchise.

“We’ve said this is his team. He’s the face of the franchise. I want him here for the long term,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “So we’re going to continue to talk and try and make him a Nat for a long time.”

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Washington made Soto, who’s represented by agent Scott Boras, an offer reportedly worth $350 million over 13 years that was turned down shortly before the lockout.

“We didn’t have much dialogue after that,” Rizzo said at the start of spring training. “But our side plans to pick it up very soon. He’s our No. 1 priority.”

That makes sense, because Soto is, by far, Washington’s No. 1 star. Most other significant members of the roster were shipped away at last year’s trade deadline, including Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. The player known as Mr. National, Ryan Zimmerman, retired.

It all means the Nationals are looking for new talent and hoping to move forward in a process Rizzo prefers to call a “reboot,” rather than a “rebuild.”

Other things to know before the Nationals open the regular season by hosting the New York Mets on April 7:

NEW LOOK

So much has changed since the club in the nation’s capital won its championship. In addition to Zimmerman — whose jersey will be retired June 18, when Washington hosts Philadelphia and old friend Bryce Harper — Scherzer and Turner were key parts of that postseason, as were reliever Daniel Hudson and catcher Yan Gomes. More recent acquisitions Kyle Schwarber, Brad Hand, Josh Harrison and Jon Lester were traded away. The biggest addition this spring was DH Nelson Cruz, expected to hit behind Soto. Rizzo also brought back some familiar faces, as much as mentors as players: Sean Doolittle, Aníbal Sánchez and Gerardo Parra.

ROOKIE TO WATCH

It will be fascinating to see whether — well, more likely when — Cade Cavalli makes it to the majors. He is Washington’s top prospect, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound right-handed starting pitcher who was a first-round draft pick in 2020. Cavalli accumulated 175 strikeouts in 123 1/3 innings while moving through three levels in the minors last year, including six starts at Triple-A Rochester.

GRAY AND RUIZ

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The two main players Washington received in the swap that sent Scherzer and Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers in July were right-hander Josiah Gray and catcher Keibert Ruiz. Gray, 24, has 76 strikeouts in 70 2/3 innings and a 5.48 ERA in the majors so far. Ruiz, 23, has a .271 batting average and .754 OPS in 96 at-bats.

STRASBURG AND CORBIN

Rizzo likes for starting pitching to carry his team and that could be a rough spot. The two most experienced and successful — and well-paid — members of the rotation are Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, and neither was close to his best lately. Strasburg had two operations and threw only 26 2/3 innings since earning World Series MVP honors; he’s not expected to be ready to pitch in a real game before May. Corbin was 9-16 with a 5.82 ERA last season and gave up a majors-high 37 homers.

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