For the last three seasons, the Washington Nationals have been the beneficiary of having one of the best value for money players in all of baseball in Juan Soto.
Since his call-up in 2018, Soto has blossomed into a franchise cornerstone for the Nationals while becoming one of the best hitters in all of baseball. Oh, and just the small matter of being a World Series champion last year.
In that time though, the young outfielder has only earned around $1.2 million in salary, according to Spotrac.
Being able to have such an important player on close to the major league minimum salary-wise has allowed the Nationals to invest money in free agency in other areas, including the vaunted rotation that carried them to baseball’s highest peak last season.
However, Soto’s time earning pennies to the dollar for his elite production may come to an end.
The first chance MLB players often get to have a say in what they are paid each season in salary arbitration where both the player’s representation and the team either agree to a salary for the upcoming season, or they each submit a salary and let an arbitration hearing decide which of the two sides’ salary will be the player’s salary for the season.
Typically, a player will reach the first of three years of arbitration after accruing three years of major league service time, a figure that Soto is short of as he sits at two years and 134 days.
But there is an exception to this rule where players may receive a Super Two designation which allows a player to reach arbitration before they hit three years of service time essentially acting as a fourth year of arbitration instead of the usual three.
According to MLB.com, here’s how a player a qualifies for a Super Two designation:
To qualify for the Super Two designation, players must rank in the top 22 percent, in terms of service time, among those who have amassed between two and three years in the Majors. Typically, this applies to players who have two years and at least 130 days of service time, although the specific cutoff date varies on a year-to-year basis.
While it’s still to be determined exactly what the cutoff point for Super Two is with regards to service time, and there have been some instances of the cutoff point being above Soto’s current service time, it seems likely that Soto will receive that designation this offseason.
So, why is Soto potentially reaching this Super Two status such a big deal for the Nationals?
Simple, it’s because takes his salary and luxury tax figure and could increase it 20-fold.
In 2020, Soto was set to earn just $629,400 over a full 162-game season. But with a Super Two designation, he could potentially be looking at an eight-figure salary based on some recent examples of other elite players reaching their first year of arbitration as a Super Two player.
The best comparison is Cody Bellinger. The 2019 NL MVP received $11.5 million in his first year of arbitration with a Super Two designation, a record for all first-year players in arbitration.
Soto may not quite reach that figure. Bellinger has the hardware in the form of two All-Star appearances, an NL Rookie of the Year award, and an NL MVP award as well as being regarded as a much better and versatile defensive player compared to Soto, even if the young Dominican’s hitting stats are generally better than the Dodger’s.
The player whose record Bellinger surpassed was Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs, who received $10.85 million as a Super Two player following the 2017 season.
Again, Bryant had the hardware with the exact same crop of awards as Bellinger, but there’s a much better comparison here as he hadn’t been as good a defender as the Dodger at that point in his career. So this might be the best bet to serve as the floor for Soto’s 2021 salary.
So, if Soto does indeed get a Super Two designation this offseason, then it would seem as though he could get similar to Bryant’s and Bellinger’s first-year salaries in arbitration.
That’s a big step up that will have to be accounted for as the Nationals look ahead to free agency.
According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, who project that Soto will be a Super Two player, the Nats’ luxury tax commitment for 2021 is already at around $129 million of the $210 million threshold.
Assuming that the Nationals’ goal salary-wise is to once again stay below the luxury tax threshold, if you add Soto’s potential $11 million to that current figure then that leaves $70 million in breathing room for the team’s pre-arbitration players, their other arbitration-eligible players — including Trea Turner who seems primed for an eight-figure salary — and free agents.
Though Mike Rizzo and the Nats like to make splashes in free agency, they might not have quite the same war chest to go and make a big marquee free agent signing this year.
As the expanded 2020 postseason wraps up and the attention of baseball turns to the offseason, the Super Two cutoff will become official and arbitration projections will be released which will give the Nationals a clearer idea of how much money they have to work with.
A big factor in that will be whether Soto gets a Super Two designation.
If he does, the young outfielder will be due a well-deserved pay bump, and finally start to earn much closer to what he is actually worth to the Nationals...