JULY 1: Soto spoke with Dougherty on Friday, backtracking somewhat on his previously expressed desire to play out his arbitration years to test free agency. “Everybody wants to go to free agency and see how the market is going to be for them,” Soto told the Post. “But for me, I really don’t know if I want to go there or if I want to stay here. I feel really good here. We’ll see what’s going to happen. For me, right now, the plan that we always have is go year by year. But you don’t know what the future has for you.”
Asked whether he’d consider signing an extension with the Nats, Soto replied “Yes. Why not?” He suggested he’s content with Boras and the front office discussing potential terms during the season, saying he prefers to “to be far from (negotiations) because I want to concentrate on the game.”
JUNE 30: The Nationals made an extension offer to Juan Soto at some point this spring, writes Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post. Specific timing of the proposal isn’t clear, but Dougherty adds that it’s believed the offer was made before Soto’s agent Scott Boras visited Nationals Park in late May. Soto rejected the offer, but Dougherty characterizes discussions between the two sides as “active.”
It’s at least the second offer the Nationals have put forth to the face of the franchise within the past 12 months. In February, Soto told Enrique Rojas of ESPN he’d rejected a long-term overture made prior to the lockout. Rojas reported the pre-lockout offer would’ve been for 13 years and $350MM guaranteed. Dougherty reports the Nationals went beyond $350MM in their spring proposal, but specific terms are unknown. Both Dougherty (Twitter link) and Britt Ghiroli of the Athletic (on Twitter) hear that rumors of a 13-year, $425MM offer are inaccurate.
In any event, the relatively recent proposal is the latest indication the Nationals are hopeful they can keep Soto around for the long haul. It’s at least somewhat notable that discussions remain open even after Soto again declined. In his February interview with Rojas, the two-time Silver Slugger Award winner expressed a desire to proceed year-by-year through the arbitration process in anticipation of reaching free agency at the end of the 2024 season. That wasn’t due to any expressed animosity towards the Nationals organization, but rather a desire to market himself to all 30 teams with a good chance at a record-setting payday.
Without specific terms of the proposal, it’s impossible to pin down precisely where the latest offer stacked up among the biggest in major league history. At worst, it’d have marked the third-largest guarantee ever. Only two players have ever topped the $350MM mark. Mookie Betts received 12 years and $365MM from the Dodgers on his July 2020 extension, while Mike Trout took home ten years and $360MM in new money on his March 2019 extension.
As was the case when Soto turned down $350MM over the winter, many fans are sure to bristle at the notion of rejecting a proposal at an even greater amount. That’s particularly true in the context of what’s been a relative “down year,” at least in comparison to his pre-2022 performance. Soto enters play Thursday with a .224/.375/.437 slash line. Those are the lowest such marks of his career across the board, as he’d hit at least .282 with an on-base percentage above .400 and a slugging percentage north of .500 every season from 2018-21.
Nevertheless, the first three months of this season are unlikely to have a depressing effect on Soto’s long-term value. For one, his relatively underwhelming numbers would still be a strong showing for the majority of players. Soto’s on-base and slugging marks are decidedly above the respective .312 and .394 league figures. His .224 batting average is certainly not ideal, but that’s in large part attributable to a .225 average on balls in play that’s the fifth-lowest number for qualified hitters. Soto’s average exit velocity and hard contact rate are down somewhat, so the lesser batted ball results can’t be chalked up solely to misfortune. Yet his quality of contact metrics have still been solid, and considering he entered the season owner of a .330 career BABIP, Soto seems likely to enjoy better ball-in-play results moving forward.
Owner of a .290/.424/.534 career line with more walks than strikeouts, Soto is still on track for an eye-popping payday. He amazingly won’t turn 24 until October and would hit free agency in advance of his age-26 season. Once there, he still looks a good bet to top the record $36MM average annual value for position players over more than a decade, assuming he stays healthy. A deal in excess of $400MM seems likely, and it’s not out of the question Soto and his reps could set their sights on the half-billion dollar mark. (Getting to $500MM would likely require a 13-year term at an AAV just shy of $38.5MM).
There’s of course some risk for Soto in continuing to turn down offers that’d make him among the highest-paid players in league history. Every player has some risk of a drop-off in performance or severe injury. Soto, though, will have already banked more than $25MM in arbitration earnings by the end of this season. He’ll go through the arb process twice more and figures to make another $50+MM over the next couple years before reaching the open market.
Discussions with Soto come against a backdrop of possible change for the Nationals. The Lerner family has been looking into sale possibilities for the past few months. A potential ownership shakeup has led to some uncertainty for president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez, each of whom are in the final guaranteed year of their contracts and have 2023 options that need to be decided upon next month.
The roster has undergone a major overhaul dating back to last summer’s trade deadline. Washington has kicked off a rebuild and seen the departures of key contributors to their 2019 World Series team like Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner. The Nats enter play tonight 20 games below .500, and they’re certain to move impending free agents Josh Bell and Nelson Cruz over the next four and a half weeks. They’ve not given much, if any, consideration to dealing Soto in a franchise-altering blockbuster. Rizzo flatly shot down speculation about a Soto trade four weeks ago, saying the Nationals “have every intention of building this team around” him.
Héctor Gómez of Z101 was first to report fairly recent discussions between Soto and the Nationals this afternoon.
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