Juan Soto is 21 years old, has yet to make an All-Star team and still receives the MLB minimum player salary. As much as he’s already built himself up as one of baseball’s brightest up-and-coming stars, Soto has his entire career ahead of him. He also has another five seasons with D.C. to build up his value before earning the right to entertain a bidding war for his services.
But as the best players in the sport earn their due, the only logical question to ask: Who’s up next? On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed 2018 AL MVP and four-time Gold Glove outfielder Mookie Betts to a 12-year, $365 million deal that ties him to the club through 2032. Expected to be this winter’s top free agent, Betts instead took a record-breaking deal that surpassed Mike Trout for the largest contract in MLB history (albeit with money deferred).
Even amid the financial uncertainty of MLB’s future, Betts signed for top dollar—perhaps an indication that the remaining top free agents of this winter’s class need not worry. But beyond this year, Betts’ deal will serve as the new benchmark for top players to try and reach. That number may grow, as there are players such as Francisco Lindor and Cody Bellinger who are set to hit free agency in the next four seasons and on track to push for contracts north of $300 million. For now, however, it’s the target number for Soto and his agent Scott Boras.
The list of players who’ve signed $300 million deals is short. So far, those contracts have been reserved only for, well, just look at these names:
Giancarlo Stanton – $325 million
Manny Machado – $300 million
Bryce Harper* – $330 million
Mike Trout* – $360 million ($426.5 million with previous extension)
Gerrit Cole – $324 million
Mookie Betts* – $365 million
*Won at least one MVP before signing deal
Using OPS+ (a metric that measures how more or less effective a hitter is compared to the average player), $300 million hitters are, on average, nearly 43 percent better than the average MLB player. Very few players sustain that kind of production, and even fewer hit the open market at the perfect time to maximize that value.
Soto has the potential to be one of those players. His career OPS+ of 140 (meaning he’s been 40 percent better than the average hitter) shows he’s already playing at the level that vaults him into this conversation. Couple that with the fact that he’ll hit free agency at 26 years old and you have a perfect storm similar to the one Harper saw two offseasons ago.
Of course, Soto taking a team-friendly extension can’t be ruled out just yet. A lot can happen in five years. Betts looked like a lock to hit free agency this winter until a global pandemic hit and put the Dodgers in the position to offer him a guarantee of job security for a fair price. Even with the notorious Boras representing Soto, he could pull a Stephen Strasburg (another Boras client) and decide he wants to extend his time in D.C. rather than explore free agency.
That being said, the Nationals likely can’t expect Soto to sign for a deal similar to that the Atlanta Braves used to lock up Ronald Acuña Jr. (eight years, $100 million) or the five-year, $100 million extension Alex Bregman signed with the Houston Astros. Both Acuña and Bregman stood a good chance at cashing in much more during free agency but instead decided their present financial needs and sense of security were more important.
If Soto was interested in that kind of deal, it probably would’ve already happened given the two sides have discussed contracts before.
“You always like to have long-term viability with your payroll,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas in December. “Long-term control of players is important. At this time, we have long-term control of both [Soto and Victor Robles]. We never vary from the big global picture and it has to correspond what we’re doing in our one-, three-, and five-year plans.
“We’ve talked to both of them about their future. They know their future is bright with us. We couldn’t be happier that they’re growing up with us right in front of our eyes. We’ve got a plan in place for all of our players. Those two guys are very vital parts of our organization.”
Early in spring training, Soto said he was leaving contract talks up to his agent and focusing on baseball. If Boras is handling the reins, then Soto is likely headed straight for free agency with the goal of topping Betts’ record. The longtime agent is coming off an offseason in which he secured over $1 billion for his clients. Now, he has a new goal to reach for.
Boras’ first chance will be with Bellinger during the 2023-24 offseason. After that, it will be Soto at the top of his most-prized free agent list. There are still dozens of factors that could change Soto’s outlook in free agency, particularly with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the players union expiring after next season.
For now, $365 million is a distant dream. But as Soto’s free agency creeps closer, it will become a number he won’t be able to escape until a new deal is done—whether in Washington or somewhere else.
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