Nationals OF Soto ‘uncomfortable’ amid trade talk

    ESPN baseball reporter. Covered the L.A. Rams for ESPN from 2016 to 2018 and the L.A. Angels for MLB.com from 2012 to 2016.

LOS ANGELES — Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo declared at the start of June that he would not be trading Juan Soto, despite speculation to the contrary. Now, with the trade deadline a little more than two weeks away, that mindset has clearly shifted. And Soto is still coming to grips with it.

“It feels really uncomfortable,” Soto said. “You don’t know what to trust. But at the end of the day, it’s out of my hands in what decision they make.”

Soto spoke from All-Star Game media availabilities on Monday afternoon, one day after reports surfaced that the Nationals are exploring trade possibilities after Soto rejected a 15-year, $440 million extension offer. The deal, first reported by The Athletic, carried the largest total value in baseball history but a $29.3 million average annual value that is surpassed by 15 current players’ contracts.

The value ultimately was not enough for Soto, who, a source familiar with the process said, was also hesitant to commit long term to an organization undergoing a potential change in ownership and navigating through what promises to be a prolonged rebuild. Soto, flanked by agent Scott Boras, entertained questions on the subject — in English and Spanish — for about 45 minutes ahead of Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic. He expressed disappointment but also stressed the importance of remaining focused.

Asked if the trade talks have made his job more difficult, Soto, 23, said: “Here and there, you know. But you can’t blame that on your stats or anything you can do on the field. At the end of the day, I just try to forget about everything outside for three hours, and try to be the 12-year-old that I’ve been and play baseball as hard as I can and try to enjoy it as much as I can.”

Soto has established himself as one of the best pure hitters in baseball history through the early part of his career, a reincarnation of Ted Williams. Since his debut in 2018, Soto has batted .293/.427/.541 with 118 home runs and a major-league-leading 452 walks. He’s earning $17.1 million in 2022, with two more years of arbitration before he hits the market at 26 — an exceedingly young age for a player of his caliber.

The possibility of acquiring Soto via trade before the Aug. 2 deadline has baseball fans mesmerized and has left executives salivating, but Soto himself doesn’t necessarily share in the enthusiasm.

“Pretty frustrating,” he said of reports about a potential trade surfacing right before his second All-Star Game appearance. “I try to keep my stuff private and not try to throw stuff out there. It feels really bad. But at the end of the day, we just have to keep playing. It doesn’t matter what’s happening.”

The Nationals won the World Series in 2019 but spiraled quickly thereafter. Anthony Rendon left via free agency later that offseason, Max Scherzer and Trea Turner were traded last summer, and Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin struggled to live up to their inflated contracts. Heading into the All-Star break, the Nats held the worst winning percentage and run differential in the sport, even though Soto has scorched through a 1.430 OPS in July. Back in April, The Washington Post reported that the Lerner family was considering a potential sale of the franchise after 16 years of ownership, a circumstance that probably prompted the front office to get more aggressive in its extension offer to Soto — the third public offer already.

Moving forward, Soto would like to set an Opening Day deadline for negotiations.

“I would love to do that because it’s very hard, with all this stuff, and then try to make a winning team while you’re dealing with a bunch of other things,” Soto said. “I’m gonna talk to my people to see what we can do to help that out.”

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