Can Juan Soto get his mojo back?

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

According to Fangraphs Steamer projections, Padres outfielder Juan Soto will lead Major League Baseball in WAR at 7.1 and wRC+  at 172.

If he comes close to their predictions—137 walks, 33 home runs, 113 runs scored, 95 RBIs. 431 OBP, Soto would provide that offensive spark missing last year. Few pitchers will want to face the trio of Soto, Manny Machado, and Fernando Tatis Jr.

The Padres acquired Soto and first baseman Josh Bell from the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline last year. In return, the front office gave up valuable prospects MacKenzie Gore, CJ Abrams, James Wood, Robert Hassell, and Jarlin Susana.

Unfortunately, Soto drastically underperformed in San Diego. In Washington, his offensive stats had declined the first half of last year but got worse in San Diego, where he batted .236/.388/.390/.778. In his big league career, he’s averaged a batting line of .287/.424/.526/.950

Before the trade to San Diego, Soto turned down a 15-year, $440 million offer from the Nationals, despite the fact the team won the World Series in 2019, his second year in Washington. That season, Soto played 150 games, batting 282/.548/.656, wRC+ 143, WAR 5.7.

Born the year after the Padres made it to the team’s second World Series, Soto has age on his side and should be entering his most productive years. He’s third on the Padre payroll, behind Manny Machado ($30 million) and Xander Bogaerts ($25 million) at $23 million.

The Nationals plucked Soto out of the Dominican Republic in 2015, and he joined the big league club in 2018. In his first game, he started with a home run and drove in three. Overall, he batted .292/.406/.517, hit 22 home runs, walked 79 times, and drove in 70 runners. That performance placed him second in the National League Rookie of the Year contest.

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The following year, the Nationals won the World Series. In the summer of that year, Soto joined six players in MLB history by reaching 30 home runs before turning 21. He finished the season with a batting line of .282/.401/.548, scored 110 runs, hit 43 home runs, drove in 110 runners, and even stole 12 bases.

In 2020, the pandemic shortened season, Soto missed time due to a positive COVID-19 test. When he returned, he made up for lost time and took home the National League batting title, while the Milwaukee Braves’ Freddie Freeman came in second.

He has an asterisk by his name because of the shorter season. Still, Soto’s .351 batting average ranks behind only Alex Rodriguez (1996 .358 at 20 years of age),  Lloyd Waner (1927 .355 at 21), Jimmie Foxx (1929 .345 at 21) according to age.

Soto has earned his reputation as one of the most disciplined hitters in the sport. Manager Dave Martinez had high praise for his young outfielder, “What can we say about Juan Soto? He comes every day to play—not just hitting, but his defense, his baserunning, everything. He just keeps growing every day.”

Although Soto’s defense doesn’t match his offense, he’s well-suited to right field. In his career, he’s played in both left and right, with better results in the latter. According to FanGraphs, his DRS (defensive runs saved) totaled -10 and -3.8 UZR in left field and a positive DRS 1/UZR 1.5 in right. He’s also let it be known that he feels more comfortable in right.

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When Tatis Jr. rejoins the Padres in mid-April, manager Bob Melvin et al. will have to decide whether he’ll return to short or move to the outfield. Collective thinking appears to favor the latter. Newcomer Zander Bogaerts will displace both Ha-Seong Kim and Tatis Jr. at short. Tatis Jr. stands a better chance of avoiding injury in the outfield, and left field would be the best option considering Soto’s defensive record.

Although Juan Soto’s offense suffered after arriving in San Diego, his track record ensures he will get his mojo back. At 24, he’s already reached 23.2 WAR and 157 OPS+. He’s had time to adjust to his new team and new city. Spring Training will increase that comfort level as he spends time with his fellow players and coaches.

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