First and foremost, it speaks to just how disappointing the first half of the season was, for both Harper and the Nats. Second, and almost as importantly, it speaks to just how good Juan Soto has been.
One of the main arguments against trading Harper, an idea that would've seemed blasphemous not too long ago but gained traction as the deadline approached and the Nats continued to hover around the .500 mark, was about this winter: Regardless of whether it made baseball sense, shipping the star right fielder elsewhere -- or even the mere thought of doing so -- might offend him and/or agent Scott Boras and greatly decrease the odds of Harper re-signing with Washington after his current contract expires.
By all accounts, there were no hard feelings around all the trade talk. "He understands this game as good or better than all of us," general manager Mike Rizzo said of Harper last week. "He would think we're not doing our job if we didn't address everything to try and make this organization better."
At least publicly, Harper seemed unaffected: "That's the business side of the game ... [I'm] happy that I'm still inside this clubhouse," he said.
Whether Harper was genuinely unfazed by the trade whispers, nobody knows for sure. How his free agency plays out remains to be seen. But what is coming into focus is this: If Harper should wind up on the Yankees or Cubs or Dodgers or Phillies or any team other than his current one, the Nationals' outfield will be just fine, thank you. That isn't a knock on Harper -- despite his early struggles, he remains one of the game's most dangerous power bats and is showing strong signs of life (.345 since the All-Star break). It is a testament to the other players on the roster, particularly a teenager who has spent the past few months drawing comparisons to him.
Ever since Soto exploded onto the scene back in May -- despite playing just eight games above Class-A, he was rushed to the majors because of injuries -- he has been inextricably linked to Harper. They both play for the Nationals. They're both outfielders. They both hit left-handed and are pretty darned good at doing so. Most importantly for comparison's sake, they were both 19 when they made their debuts. As if that weren't enough, when Soto returned to the dugout all smiles after homering against the Padres in his first big league start, the clean-cut teen took a page out of Harper's book by flipping his hair (or at least trying to) upon having his helmet removed from his head.
Soto did the Harper hair flip lol pic.twitter.com/wRUkNqfqgw— Danny (@recordsANDradio) May 21, 2018
It was a telling moment that reflected Soto's precocious talent and his passion for the game, as well as his knowledge of Major League Baseball.
For the Dominican-born Soto, the language was no problem, either. Every international prospect who signs with Washington receives a computer equipped with a Rosetta Stone program to learn English. The Nationals take that so seriously that they hold a real-deal graduation ceremony -- complete with cap and gown, diplomas and speeches -- for those who successfully finish the three-level course. "It's very important to us," Rizzo said. "It shows they're committed to learning."
When Washington inked Soto in 2015 for a relatively hefty $1.5 million, all Nats international signees were required to log a minimum of three hours per week on the software (it has since been upped to four hours). It's a deliberate but demanding pace that typically results in players graduating within three or four years. Some take longer. Soto, who spent upward of nine hours per week right from the get-go, needed all of one year to graduate. Said Johnny DiPuglia, who has spent the past decade helming Washington's international scouting department: "He's different, man."
The things that make Soto different -- his intangibles -- are the reasons the Nationals were willing to roll the dice on him in the first place. "Even when he was 16 years old," DiPuglia said, "he handled himself like he's been there forever."
Part of that maturity is knowing what he doesn't know. The day of his first major league start, Soto stuck out like a sore thumb because he was the only player wearing a helmet during batting practice. When asked about it afterward, he explained that he wanted to get comfortable with the single-flap ear helmet worn in the majors instead of the dual-flap model he used in the minors.
But while he does pick the brains of the veterans who surround him in the Nationals clubhouse, he doesn't do so quite as much as you might expect of a rookie. "Not a ton," said Nats second baseman and noted hitting guru Daniel Murphy, when asked if Soto uses him as a resource. "I think it would probably be the other way around. I would probably pick his brain."
That's how good Soto has been. And he has been like that for a while now.
From the time Washington started following the budding star from Santo Domingo, the scouting report was that he was a hitting savant whose bat-to-ball skills and strike-zone knowledge were off the charts but whose other tools were lacking. Soto wasn't gifted with the glove, and his arm was average. He wasn't much of a runner, owing in large part to his crooked wheels (his minor league teammates called him "Camba," short for cambado, the Spanish word for bow-legged). But between the hit tool and those intangibles, the Nationals did the math and were convinced that they had a diamond in the rough. Said DiPuglia: "We were gambling on the bat." So far, it was a pretty good gamble.
"I think it would probably be the other way around. I would probably pick his brain."Three-time All-Star Daniel Murphy, when asked if rookie Juan Soto comes to him for tips
Everywhere Soto has been, he has raked. In 2016, his first year as a pro, he hit .361 in rookie ball and was named MVP of the Gulf Coast League. In 2017, he hit .360 at Low-A Hagerstown with more walks than whiffs before an early May ankle injury cut his campaign short. This season, despite the missed time, it took him all of 15 games to outgrow high-A ball (he hit .371 with a 1.256 OPS), at which point he continued to mash at Double-A Harrisburg (.323). On May 20, after just 31 at-bats with the Senators, Soto was a surprise call-up for a depleted Nationals club that had lost several veteran outfielders to injury, along with the most logical replacement (Victor Robles). Since then, Soto has kept right on raking.
This season with Washington, Soto has punished opposing pitchers to the tune of a .999 OPS that's the best in the National League (min. 250 plate appearances). Despite being a lefty hitter, he has been especially lethal against southpaws, batting .387 with a 1.175 OPS. Just about the only thing the rookie doesn't do well when it comes to hitting is choose his walkup music.
For the first 10 weeks of his big league career, Soto used a Latino song called "A Po Ta Loco" for his home at-bats. The tune, which features a grating chorus that's hard to decipher, became a running joke in the Nats clubhouse. Backup catcher Spencer Kieboom started referring to it as "Ow, My Elbow" because that's what the refrain sounded like to his English-speaker's ears. Eventually, ace Max Scherzer suggested Soto diversify his musical portfolio, which led the young slugger to adopt "Mi Gente" and "Nice For What" as additional walk-up selections. Even though Soto still uses "Ow, My Elbow," his teammates don't begrudge him for it one bit. "The way he hits, he can listen to whatever he wants," Kieboom said. "He can listen to cricket noise for all I care. The dude can flat-out hit. It's unreal."
Even Soto's walks -- he has drawn an eye-popping 49 free passes in 68 games, more than half of which have come on two strikes -- have become the talk of the town in D.C. "He's got tremendous pitch recognition and offensive discipline," one scout said of Soto, who recently collected his second straight NL Rookie of the Month award. Added Murphy: "He makes really good decisions at the plate."
Those decisions have been on display ever since Soto cracked The Show. In his second big league start, the day after the hair-flip homer against San Diego, Soto reached base four times in four tries, including three walks on 12 pitches. Afterward, with the team interpreter standing by his side, Soto insisted on addressing the media in his second language -- as he always does -- and he had absolutely no problem getting his point across: "I know the strike zone, and the umpires are better here. So I take advantage of that."
That isn't the only thing he has taken advantage of. Thrust into the starting left-field gig because the Nationals were out of healthy bodies, Soto has capitalized on the opportunity, turning what began as a look-see into a must-stay. Although he has struggled some defensively (minus-4 runs saved), he has become a staple in the middle of the order, the most consistent hitter on a Washington team that has struggled to score runs for long stretches. Soto has appeared in all but one game since his debut. That includes both ends of a twin bill against Cincinnati on Saturday, when Soto became the first teenager since Hall of Famer Robin Yount in 1975 to record multiple hits in both games of a doubleheader, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The heady company is nothing new for a player who has attracted the nickname "Childish Bambino," a reference to Babe Ruth himself. To wit:
On June 13, in his first career game at Yankee Stadium, Soto went deep twice. Two weeks later against the Phillies, he again went yard twice, becoming the fourth teenager with multiple multi-homer games to his credit, per Elias.
In the series finale against Cincinnati, Soto walked twice. That gave him 10 multi-walk games this season and broke Hall of Famer Mel Ott's 80-year-old Modern Era record for multi-walk games by a teenager in a season, per Elias. Soto then walked three times Tuesday for his 11th multi-walk game.
Six of Soto's walks have been intentional, the most purposeful passes by a teen since Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. had eight in 1989, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
In game one of Washington's doubleheader against the Braves on Tuesday, Soto went 2-for-2 with three walks, becoming the first teenager since Yount to reach base five times in a game.
In Tuesday's nightcap, he hit his 14th bomb, surpassing Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle for fifth-most homers by a teen in a season.
In case you're wondering, the two guys in front of Soto on that teen single-season home run list are both enshrined in Cooperstown (Griffey and Ott). The guy in front of them in second? That'd be Bryce Harper. Tony Conigliaro holds the record with 24.
It's too soon to know if Harper will end up in the Hall of Fame, just like it's too soon to know what uniform he'll be wearing next season.
In the meantime, despite all the lofty parallels to players both past and present, those around Soto are resisting the temptation to compare him to anyone.
"I just see a special player," Rizzo said. "He's Juan Soto. And that's good enough for us right now."