WASHINGTON (AP) — These are now Juan Soto’s Washington Nationals.
He is their lone bona fide superstar, someone around whom they will try to rebuild — or, to use general manager Mike Rizzo's preferred term, “reboot.”
Soto is the only player left from the 2019 World Series champions who managed to make any sort of truly meaningful contribution throughout this disappointment of a 65-97, last-place season who is also in the fold for next year after a significant sell-off at the trade deadline.
“I can't wait to watch him continue to do what he does and watch him grow. He's truly one of the best young players in the game, if not THE best young player in the game," manager Dave Martinez said. ”It's been a lot of fun to be here with him, and I expect us to be together for a long time."
Whether Rizzo can figure out a way to keep Soto around, via what folks already are speculating will need to be a record-setting extension before the outfielder can become a free agent after the 2024 season, is a question that will linger over the franchise.
“I'm just going to remember this season because I learned a lot of things. We learned about the game. We learned about the business. We learned about everything,” said Soto, a 22-year-old All-Star who led the majors with a .465 on-base percentage and 145 walks, finished third with a .313 batting average and .999 OPS, and led the Nationals with 29 homers and 95 RBIs.
For the first time in a while, the Nationals will not be anything resembling a contender in 2022.
Rizzo's roster teardown included shipping away Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and a half-dozen other veterans while adding what the team hopes will be cornerstones such as starter Josiah Gray and catcher Keibert Ruiz, both 23.
“I like the challenge of showing people we can do it. And the non-believers — we love showing them that we can do it. It’s a labor of love. It’s a lot of work. Seasons like this are not easy. This is one of the most difficult seasons that we’ve had, most frustrating season that we’ve had,” Rizzo said. “But I think when we made our decision, I think the worst possible scenario for us would have been to go halfway and kind of Band-Aid it.”
PITCHING, PITCHING, PITCHING
Washington's success over the past decade was built on starting pitching. That's become a big problem now, though.
Scherzer's gone. Stephen Strasburg threw a total of 26 2/3 innings over the past two years because of two operations since earning World Series MVP honors. Patrick Corbin went a combined 11-23 in 2020 and 2021; this season, the lefty allowed 37 homers and his ERA was 5.82.
“This game is built on pitching. It’s built on starting pitching, for me," Rizzo said. "And we have to get better in that aspect, for sure.”
Ryan Zimmerman was the first draft pick in Nationals history, owns several team records and has been around through 100-loss seasons and a championship. Now 37, he hasn't decided whether or not to retire.
“The only thing I kind of told (Martinez) is I started the year around 50-50 and it hasn't gone up,” Zimmerman said with a laugh. “I really don't know. I still feel like I can be productive.”
The two-time All-Star shed tears when the last game of the season was paused so he and the fans could say goodbye — just in case he does stop playing.
"For the better part of my life, this is what I've known," Zimmerman said.
Two players not long ago considered important young pieces struggled so much that they were sent to the minors: CF Victor Robles and 3B Carter Kieboom. Rizzo must decide if they're still part of the plan.
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