The 2021 season opened bittersweet for the Washington Nationals. They won on a walk-off hit by Juan Soto on the rescheduled Opening Day. It was the first walk-off of Soto’s career as the team beat the Atlanta Braves. Covid had ravaged the Nats projected lineup to start the season. Of the nine players in that lineup, only three would finish the season with the team. Soto was one of them of course.
That win to open the season was not a harbinger of success to come in the long-term. It was more of a tease, and that is when you try to take the small morsels of positivity to tide you over. Soto did that for many. He was the beacon of hope on a season that ended in tank mode. He is a star. The best have and maybe ever had. We need more of him. A lot more of him.
On his 23rd birthday today, Soto has already been voted into the final-four by his peers as a finalist for the Most Outstanding Player in the Nationals League. His name, side-by-side with Bryce Harper, Austin Riley, and Fernando Tatis, Jr. For the NL MVP, you would expect that in the end that Soto will finish near the top by baseball writers too. He had a great season but fell short of a 1.000 OPS by one point.
In D.C., he is The G.O.A.T. When used the wrong way, a goat has negative connotations, but as an acronym translates to the Greatest Of All Time. Right, pump the brakes. Soto isn’t there yet with only four years in the books, but he is on his way if he can stay healthy.
Healthy. That is the operative word. Anyone who watched Albert Pujols in Los Angeles saw that age got the best of him. Time is undefeated. He was once considered a good baserunner with 16 steals in a season twice in his career and at age 29, he swiped 16 and only caught four times. But the legs gave out eventually and with foot problems. The body can take you out at any time. That 10-year deal he signed with Los Angeles was a contract he wanted to fulfill even though it meant he had to play into his age-41 season. He would never have an .800 OPS season with Los Angeles from age-33 forward. In fact, some were in the .600’s. They say the legs are the first thing to go.
But don’t fret, not every story ends like Pujols who has hit 679 home runs in his career. A first ballot Hall of Fame career for sure. When the going is great, it looks like it will never end. Pujols nickname was “The Machine” and machines breakdown. This is a cautionary tale. Max Scherzer who started the Nats season this year broke down and could not make his scheduled final start of the season in a crucial NLCS elimination game. He said he had “dead arm”. For pitchers, the arm usually is the first thing to go.
Your mind asks of it what the body can’t do sometimes. It is the little engine that could, in reverse. To steal a line from the movie Top Gun, “Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash”. Scherzer’s long-term contract for a player over 30, was one of the best ever. Most end up in one of those Catch-22 “I told you so” in the hindsight game of 20/20 vision.
So why did the Angels write a 10-year deal for Pujols that would expire in his age 41 season? Quite simply they got caught up in thinking the Pujols’ machine would never stop. They spent only $24 million a year which seemed like a bargain at the time except for the part where you would be paying him $24 million for his age 37, 38, 39, 40, and 41 season. Surely you didn’t expect that he would return 8 seasons of 1.000+ OPS like he did before they signed him.
The man averaged a 1.037 OPS with the Cardinals. Then the Cards turned their back on Pujols. They didn’t walk away, they ran away. They knew they got his best years. They avoided a disaster. Pujols was the G.O.A.T. there. Cardinals fans were more upset with Albert than they were with their own ownership when he departed. Ask them. The Cardinals owners offered him an extension to keep him in St. Louis with a large hometown discount like he had signed with them previously. Free agency requires two sides to agree. Pujols walked this time. You probably can’t blame him given that he signed his previous deal at a deep discount.
Contracts always look great when you write them until they don’t. How are those deals for Mookie Betts and Tatis looking now? Sure, Harper’s deal looked great for this year, but they did not make the postseason. Money is paid to those who click the turnstiles and those who can carry a team with wins.
Soto is going to get paid a huge sum of money in his next contract. He is set for life most likely already in the millions he has earned. All he has to do is stay healthy. Even with all the caution to the wind about long-term contracts, I would still pay Soto more than he will ever be worth. Happy birthday G.O.A.T.