The Nationals approached star outfielder Juan Soto before the MLB lockout with a contract extension offer of 13 years and $350 million, ESPN Deportes’ Enrique Rojas reported Wednesday.
Soto declined the offer, which would have been the third-largest contract in MLB history behind only the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout ($426.5M) and the Los Angeles Dodgers' Mookie Betts ($365M).
“Yes, I got an offer a couple of months ago, before the [lockout] we have right now in baseball,” Soto said in Spanish, as quoted by Rojas. “For now, me and my agents are thinking the best option will be to [consider] it year by year and wait until free agency. My agent, Scott Boras, is the one in control of that situation…Either way, in my head Washington is still the place where I’d like to spend the rest of my career. We’ll see.”
Soto, 23, is set to hit free agency after the 2024 season, a date the rebuilding Nationals are all too aware of. According to Rojas, their offer to Soto would have bought out his three remaining arbitration years and included no deferred money — a stark difference from the heavily deferred offer Washington made to star outfielder Bryce Harper when he hit free agency in 2018.
However, the offer’s average annual value of approximately $26.9 million would’ve ranked only 24th among contracts in MLB history. The Nationals alone have signed two contracts with a higher AAV in Max Scherzer ($30M) and Stephen Strasburg ($35M), though both of those deals were only seven years compared to the 13 offered to Soto.
In his first four years at the MLB level, Soto has already emerged as one of baseball’s most polished hitters. He’s won a World Series, two Silver Sluggers and a batting title while finishing among the top 10 in NL MVP voting each of the last three years and earning his first career All-Star and Home Run Derby nods in 2021. His .981 career OPS is the third highest ever for a player with at least 400 games played through his age-22 season.
Other young stars such as Fernando Tatís Jr. (14 years, $340M) and Wander Franco (11 years, $182M) have signed hefty extensions in the last 12 months to remain with the clubs that drafted them. However, Soto is represented by Scott Boras, who also represents Harper and has a reputation for taking his clients to free agency in order to maximize their value.
There are exceptions to that rule for some Boras clients, such as Strasburg. But Boras’s comments on Soto at the GM Meetings in November suggested his client hadn’t seen enough from the Nationals to convince him the organization will compete for the playoffs throughout the entirety of his deal.
“Juan Soto wants to win,” Boras said. “So the first thing that’s gonna have to happen is that he knows that he’s working with an ownership that’s gonna annually try to compete and win. And then I think once he knows that, then he’ll be ready to sit down and talk whenever they choose to talk.”
The Nationals underwent a fire sale at the trade deadline last summer, shipping eight veterans out and bringing in 12 young players to pad a farm system that had been drained by a decade’s worth of contending for championships. Their roster is almost unrecognizable from the one that took them to the 2019 World Series, a fact not lost on Soto.
The 2022 season will be a key year for the Nationals to see which of its potential building blocks can take steps forward. Until that happens — and until the Nationals up the ante — Soto is on track to become a free agent and offer up his services to the highest bidder.