Juan Soto will soon be a multi-millionaire and the Nationals will have to foot the bill.
Soto’s major-league service time is expected to move him just beyond the arbitration-eligible threshold to be agreed upon by the Major League Baseball Players Association and league in the coming days, according to a source.
As a result, Soto qualifies as a “Super 2” player -- one who has more than two but less than three years of service time -- and his 2021 salary will be launched from less than $1 million to a likely record-breaking sum for players in his position. Cody Bellinger set the salary record for a first-year eligible player at $11.5 million in 2020. Soto could command around $12 million following his 2020 production, which would make a major dent in the Nationals finances as they attempt to retool their roster this offseason and beyond.
Service time was among the key issues when the players association and league were trying to come to an agreement in March following MLB’s stoppage of play. The players association wanted to be sure anyone who played this season received full service time, enabling them to take steps toward free agency, like any other season. The main focus was two-fold: players like Mookie Betts, a would-be free agent, needed to move forward so they could be paid. Young players, like Soto, also needed to build service time so they could move a year closer to free agency.
In this case, Soto leaps into a bundle of cash after leading the National League in average (.351), on-base percentage (.490), slugging percentage (.695), OPS (1.185) and OPS-plus (212) in the shortened 60-game season, during which he played 47 games. Soto missed time because of what he believes to be a false-positive coronavirus test result two days before Opening Day and later a sore left elbow.
Going forward, he will become increasingly costly. Soto is able to log four years of arbitration eligibility before becoming a free agent in 2025, along with Victor Robles, who is likely to narrowly miss the Super 2 cutoff. Trea Turner can become a free agent in 2023. The trio is the coming financial storm for the Nationals.
Turner’s path illustrates the one Soto is about to enter. Turner also achieved Super 2 status, so his salary went from $577,200 in 2018 to $3.725 million his first year of arbitration, then doubled to $7.45 million in 2020 (were there a full season).
Mike Rizzo noted toward the end of this season that starting a player’s service-time clock never deters the Nationals from calling someone up when they deem the player ready. They summoned the 19-year-old Soto in mid-May of 2018 to replace the injured Howie Kendrick. He began tearing through the league his first day when he homered in a game that was suspended. Soto has not stopped since then.
Soto’s first full season in 2019 led to a .949 OPS, a star turn in the postseason and ninth-place finish in National League MVP voting. He was even better in 2020 when leading the league in a variety of offensive categories during the pandemic-shortened season.
The three years of Soto performing as an elite hitter while under team control offered the Nationals dynamic financial flexibility. Now, they will have to work around what will be a rising cost for his play on the way to free agency. If Soto maintains his performance as a perennial MVP candidate -- and there is nothing to indicate he will not -- his salary could surpass $30 million annually before he becomes a free agent, influencing every financial decision the organization makes starting this winter and for the next four years.