Juan Soto best bargain in baseball as Bryce Harper's replacement

Chris Lingebach
August 28, 2019 - 1:13 pm

Juan Soto's career is off to a roaring start, and his arrow keeps trending up as he rounds third on his first full Major League season.

The 20-year-old sensation – slashing .288/.401/.550 (.950 OPS) with 21 doubles, four triples, 29 homers and 86 RBI in 534 plate appearances – is often mentioned in the same breath as historic prodigies of the sport, the likes of Mel Ott, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mickey Mantle.

There's one other phenom whose career arc Soto's is mirroring that probably hits closer to home: Bryce Harper.

It's been about six years, so in case your memory's foggy, Harper, too, in his age 19 and 20 seasons, frequented the same historic lists on which Soto is now being mentioned.

Youngest player to ____ since Mel Ott. Fastest player to ___ home runs since Mickey Mantle.

Soto, to feed you some stats, is outpacing Mantle by 15 home runs, four RBI and five stolen bases at virtually the same point in their careers (Soto has 16 more plate appearances than Mantle did by this point in his age 20 season). Here are their side-by-side comparisons in case you want peruse on your own (via Baseball-Reference: Soto; Mantle). 

And to think, Soto may have never even made his big league debut in 2018 if not for Victor Robles' injury.

"Let's be honest. Soto's better than we even thought, right?" Nationals GM Mike Rizzo was asked during his weekly appearance with The Sports Junkies, presented by Burke & Herbert Bank. "You knew he was good. You didn't think he was this good."

"Well you don't know how good a player is," Rizzo said. "We had high hopes for him when (VP, International Operations) Johnny DiPuglia and I signed him when he was 16-and-a-half years old. We don't give guys we don't love a million-and-a-half bucks to sign. It was the most money we ever spent in the international market at the time. So we knew he was good and the player development system did a great job with this guy."

"Remember, he was derailed his first year of professional baseball by a broken ankle and had really taken off from there," he noted. "The one thing that I think we do as well as anybody in baseball internationally, and with the domestic draft, is we look at these players' makeup and what their character is all about. This guy was off the charts in both of those requirements.

"You package that with that he's got a good skill set – he can really hit and he has some power and that type of thing – this guy, what he came from and how fast he came, and the fact that he came to the big leagues never playing left field in his life, at 19 years old, with a handful of at-bats at the Double-A level and did what he did offensively last year is remarkable. I've always said that."

"To play a new position at the Major League level, at 19 years old, and still hit in the middle of a lineup on a contending team is just incredible," Rizzo said. "He's handled everything with poise and kind of the makeup of a veteran already."

Rizzo was asked if Soto's so great at such a young age, why not back a Brinks truck up and throw $180 million at him to lock up him for the long term now? Rizzo's response: It's not that easy.

"Well, yeah, we would give him 10 years, $180 million tomorrow morning for sure," he said, "but I don't think he's going to accept that."

"Let's just lock this kid up," Eric Bickel pressed on. "Like, we've seen enough, right? We already know he's a superstar."

"Oh, he's a superstar and a super person, and a guy you want to have around your team for a long time," Rizzo said. "What you guys don't understand is we're all-in on these long-term extensions, but it's a two-way street. Both sides have to do it. We're invested in these guys, both financially and emotionally, and they're very special to me.

"You know, these are guys I've seen for years, and years and years. Of course we want to keep 'em in the system and in the organization. We handpick a lot of guys to extend long-term contracts to, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't."

If you were to view Soto as a direct replacement for Harper, by the way, consider that the Nationals had him in their organization since July 2015, smack dab in the middle of Harper's MVP campaign, and nary a word was mentioned of it until Harper's walk year three years later. Also consider this: Harper is slashing .253/.370/.497 for a .867 OPS, with 31 doubles, 28 homers and 93 RBI in 562 plate appearances for the Phillies.

Bryce Harper will take home $30 million in 2019. Soto?

$578,300.

Every week, all baseball season, if any Washington player hits for the cycle during a Wednesday game, one lucky fan wins a cool $100K. Click here to enter the Burke & Herbert "Bank On The Cycle" contest!