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Facing an Uncertain Future With the Nationals, Juan Soto Keeps Smiling

The 23-year-old is putting on a show, even as contract talks with Washington stall and trade rumors swirl around him.

LOS ANGELES — For nearly an hour on Monday, as Nationals right fielder Juan Soto perched behind a podium and described what he called a “tough,” “frustrating,” “really bad” situation that made it hard to “know who to trust” and caused “a lot of tension,” he barely stopped smiling.

This was eight hours before he won the Home Run Derby, besting Mariners rookie center fielder Julio Rodríguez with a 19-dinger final round. First Soto had to address his future.

The past few days, since The Athletic reported that Soto had rejected a 15-year, $440 million extension and Washington would explore trading him, have surely been a circus for the 23-year-old Soto. But he seems to be making popcorn.

When he arrived eight minutes early for his mandatory media session, he grinned at the assembled reporters, then darted behind the backdrop. “I need to make a phone call,” he said, then, with a theatrical shake in his voice, added, “I’m a little nervous.”

Jul 18, 2022; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Washington Nationals right fielder Juan Soto (22) talks with New York Mets right fielder Starling Marte (6) in the first round during the 2022 Home Run Derby at Dodgers Stadium.

Two minutes later, he joked that he too would record the press conference, then took questions. He appeared earnest as he addressed the upheaval in his life. Three years after Soto led the Nationals to a surprise World Series title, they are a last-place team whose owners are openly trying to sell them and whose front office cannot make long-term decisions. And he is a young man who cannot legally rent a car, navigating all this in his second language, trying to do his job while unsure where he will live two weeks from now.

“A couple weeks ago, they were saying they’d never trade me, and now all these things are coming out,” Soto said. “It feels really uncomfortable. You don’t know what to trust. But at the end of the day, it’s out of my hands, with what decision they make.”

That is true to an extent. He could have accepted the team’s offer. But his agent, Scott Boras, said on Monday that his camp did not see that proposal—which would have set a record for total dollars but placed Soto only 20th in the sport in average annual value—as genuine.

“The player is fully aware that these things are done to optimize franchise value, are done to show the owner that they've got something of great value so that they can optimize their sale, because I don't think any player is gonna sign with an owner that he doesn't know,” said Boras.

Soto said that the way the talks had become public had made him reluctant to continue negotiating during the season. Boras said, “We want all of our discussions to be private. We now know they're not. And so I'm sure Juan will take that under advisement as he goes forward.” He added, “All I know here is that the undefined and Juan Soto played a game yesterday. The Atlanta Braves arrived here five hours earlier than Juan Soto did. You know why? Because their team chartered a plane. Juan Soto had to fly on a commercial flight and wait in an airport for two hours and get here at 1:30 in the morning and have to compete in the Home Run Derby. And that’s something that Major League Baseball did not take care of and that’s something that the Washington Nationals did not take care of.”

Soto is the Nationals’ only All-Star. A team spokesman initially did not comment. After this story was published, he pointed out that other teams did not charter planes for their All-Stars. For example, the A’s did not fly righty Paul Blackburn private; he caught a ride with the Astros, who did charter a plane. Boras said he did not charter a plane for Soto himself because that would have been a violation of rules governing agent behavior.

All this would seem to put an end to talk of an extension, at least until the winter. And with Soto under club control for the rest of this season and two more—and as such likely to fetch the greatest haul in history—Washington can be forgiven for calling around.

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So that leaves Soto here, answering questions from friends and reporters and fellow All-Stars. For some people, that might be difficult. But Soto is a showman. Four innings after Astros third baseman Alex Bregman hit a home run and carried his bat to first base during Game 6 of the 2019 World Series, Soto did the same thing. Afterward, he laughed. “It's pretty cool. I want to do it, too,” Soto said. “That's what I think when I saw that. I get the opportunity and do the same thing.” He recently eliminated the crotch grab from the dance he does after close pitches, but the gesture remains such a trademark that earlier this month he debuted a necklace with a diamond-encrusted version of himself doing it.

Now he plays for an irrelevant team. No one is requesting press conferences with him in D.C. Soto thrives under the spotlight, and on Monday it was back on him. Asked about his swing, Soto grinned. “I feel amazing,” he said, drawing out the word.

He teased reporters. Asked about whether he enjoys playing in New York, Soto smiled.

“Playing in New York—against the Mets? I love it,” he said. “I love to hit the ball far. If you see my numbers at that field, it’s just amazing.”

As for the Bronx? “Playing against the Yankees is really cool, to hear the noise and just shut it down,” he said.

He complimented the weather in Southern California, and when someone asked whether he was looking forward to playing with Cardinals DH Albert Pujols, who like Soto was born in the Dominican Republic, “for the first and last time,” Soto mused, “I don’t know if it’s gonna be the last time.”

After he was done, he strolled toward the field for the team photo. Asked whom he had called, he laughed. “That’s private!” he said.

Maybe it’s not so bad having to answer unwelcome questions. At least people are talking about him.

Editors’ Note, July 20, 4:05 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to include the Nationals’ response about not chartering a plane for Soto.

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