Juan Soto Is For Sale
12:02 PM EDT on July 17, 2022
The Washington Nationals have decided to make Juan Soto, the last and best of their unlikely run of homegrown superstars, available in trade discussions, following Soto's rejection last week of a 15-year, $440 million contract extension. The asking price will, of course, be astronomical. Even amid the worst season of his career, the 23-year-old Soto is seventh in the National League in OPS, is 24 walks clear of the next closest hitter in all of baseball, and is eighth in the majors in offensive bWAR. With two more arbitration years left, Soto could participate in three pennant races with his next team before entering free agency, provided the Nationals are able to move quickly between now and the August 2 trade deadline. Players like Soto at this stage in their careers are almost never available in trades, if for no other reason than there are very few players like Juan Soto.
The list of MVP-caliber players the Nationals have cast off in recent years is really quite something. Most teams develop an MVP-caliber offensive player out of their system once every couple decades, but the Nationals have lost or traded away three such players, in or around their athletic primes, just since the start of 2019. Whether Juan Soto is the best of this cluster of rare talent is a matter for discussion, but whether he will be the last of them is not. Where Anthony Rendon was around to take most of the sting off of the loss of Bryce Harper to the Phillies via free agency in 2019, and Trea Turner was around to ease the hurt of Rendon choosing the Angels the following winter, and Soto made it just possible to stomach the team trading away Turner (and Max Scherzer) for prospects last July, this time there is only an empty cupboard left behind. If the team trades Soto—and that is now looking much more like a matter of when than if—they will be out of the superstar business for the first time since 2012, and staring down the long odds of landing another player anywhere close to Soto's quality in any particular generation of talent.
It's pretty clear that the Nationals never intended this offer to be accepted. The cheapskate Lerner family that owns the team has a long track record of putting obstacles between general manager Mike Rizzo and his goal of retaining the team's superstars. Deferred payments, a favorite of the Lerners, played a role in chasing away Rendon and Harper, the latter of whom would've had to wait until 2052 to collect the total value of his contract. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, who broke the news Saturday of Soto's sudden availability in trade talks, says the $440 million offer Soto declined included no deferred payments, but the 15-year offer is reportedly heavily backloaded, which under any circumstances would be unappealing. Also, the $29.33 million annual average salary would barely crack MLB's top 20 now, never mind what going rates will look like in a decade. The Lerners are currently exploring a sale of the Nationals; a record- and bank-breaking commitment to one player could complicate the eventual sale of the team, or at least bring down the purchase price, and the prospect of new and levered-up ownership bringing its own set of priorities to a moribund baseball operation could and probably should make Soto think twice about committing to this organization at this low and miserable phase of its present rebuild.
Then there's the normal challenges. Soto wants to win, and there is no indication whatsoever that the Nationals are going to do much of that or are even all that serious about trying on any kind of palatable timeline. Soto's agent, Scott Boras, has in the past preferred for his big-name players to test the market in free agency, rather than give the modest discounts that are generally part of a long-term extension. And Soto, as a genuine phenom, stands a reasonable chance of scoring a landscape-altering deal following the 2024 season. Baseball knowers have been buzzing for more than a year now about Soto's eventual long-term contract topping $500 million. Fifteen years at $29 million per would be a hometown discount..
However much more or less than this rejected offer Soto winds up getting in his eventual mega-deal, it's hard to blame him today for his reluctance to commit to the Nationals. Soto has been a regular in the lineup since 2018. He's seen the team lose one superstar after another, decline again and again to pay market value for quality teammates, and strip a championship team down to the insulation, with very little to show for it. The teardown last summer was in the name of restocking the farm system with difference-making talent, and the selling the Nationals do this summer will be for the same cause. But Soto has been around long enough to remember when the Nationals had a glut of difference-making talent, and let it all get away. Maybe the organization is fully determined to put together a winner, but that's a long way away, if it ever arrives.
The urgency comes from the Nationals' side: The three pennant chases left on Soto's current deal mean he has as much trade value today as he ever will, and their own low standing means they have as much need for pipeline talent as they have in a decade. If they can't get him for $440 million today, maybe they can get an all-time haul of prospects and hope that one day any two of them can combine to mean as much to the organization as Soto already has.
So Juan Soto is for sale. Maybe one of the tiny handful of MLB teams that is serious about winning will scoop him up this week or next and eventually pay him to stick around and settle in, with no gimmicks or caveats, and a cool player can get paid what he's worth to do what he loves and do it well, in an environment where it counts for something. Won't that be nice?