Fernando Tatís Jr. signed his massive 14-year/$340M extension with the San Diego Padres earlier this week, “securing one of the largest guarantees in American sports history,” and, ESPN’s Jeff Passan wrote, “wedding himself to the team,” that acquired the now-22-year-old shortstop in a 2016 trade with Chicago’s White Sox, who’d signed him out of the Dominican Republic for $700K in 2015.
So if that’s what it took for the Padres to get Tatís locked up long-term, what will it take for Washington’s Nationals to get Juan Soto to sign a long-term extension which will keep the 22-year-old outfielder in the nation’s capital?
GM Mike Rizzo was asked on Thursday, in his first media availability of Spring Training, if the Tatís’ deal provided some clarity as to the sort of deal Soto will need to get in order to stick with the Nationals, who signed him out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 for $1.5M.
Soto’s set to earn $8.5M this season after reaching Super Two status last year and qualifying for arbitration for the first time, then avoiding it.
“I don’t think it gives us any more clarity of what it will take for a Juan Soto,” Rizzo explained.
“I think every deal is separate and independent. It’s all about players’ wants and needs and can both sides get together to fulfill those.”
That being said, Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office would, of course, like to keep the outfielder in D.C. for as long as possible after seeing what he’s done thus far in a stellar start to his MLB career.
“We signed developed and brought Juan to the big leagues in very, very short order and at a very young age,” Rizzo said, “and we see him as hopefully a National for a long, long time.
“But we’re still in the early stages of discussion,” he added, and they haven’t talked in a bit.
“We had some discussions with him on a long-term deal last Spring Training, and they didn’t go very far,” Rizzo said, “and since the COVID season of 2020, we really haven’t reengaged on that, but our plans are to make an effort like we’ve made efforts in the past to our really great young players to keep them in a Nationals uniform for a long, long time.”
Through three seasons, Soto has produced a combined .295/.415/.557 line with 71 doubles and 69 home runs in 313 games and 1,349 plate appearances, over which he’s been worth 11.0 fWAR.
What are the expectations for his 2021 campaign, after he won the NL Batting title in 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign? And where can he improve on his already-impressive game?
“He has set the bar extremely high for himself,” Rizzo said of what he expects, and what Soto expects of himself in ‘21.
“He’s one of the really great young players in the game. He’s one of the great players in the game.”
Part of the balance, however, the GM said, is to keep Soto’s expectations for himself at least somewhat realistic.
“He’s a guy that is such a perfectionist that I think that we have to make sure he doesn’t become too tough on himself,” Rizzo said.
“He’s a guy that works extremely hard, and he makes it a point to really take his game to another level. You see this in very, very few players that I’ve been around in the big leagues.
“They’ve set their bar, their personal bar, at a higher level than most. It’s — he wants to be one of the great players. He knows the history of baseball. And I think that his goal this year is to play a great brand of baseball, become more of a leader on the team, which he showed signs of late last year during the pandemic season, and to really improve his entirety of his game.”
Soto is going to shift to the other corner outfield spot this season, after playing left field for his first three years in the majors, and he’s determined to improve on the defensive end too.
“He’s going to move to a different position in the big leagues, but a position that he is familiar with in right field, excited about that,” Rizzo said.
“He’s always working on the aspect of throwing in his game. He does an extensive long-toss program.
“He’s a guy that wants to run the bases better, steal more bases, and become a more well-rounded, all-around player.”
For his manager, and the club’s coaches, it’s a fine line with Soto between helping him to improve, and sitting back and letting his natural talent go.
“There’s a fine line, but he’s so young and he’s still learning and he’s like a sponge, he wants to learn,” Davey Martinez told reporters when he spoke for the first time this spring.
“He’s gotten so much quicker this offseason. He worked a lot on agility. He has this thing about wanting to steal more bases and winning a Gold Glove, so he’s worked on all those things this winter. And then, for us, there’s that thing where you let him go out there and play the games. He’s a special kid. He sees the game differently, he understands the game.
“He knows how to break down the game with the game in progress, and he’s able to slow things down, which is amazing for a kid so young. It’s fun to watch him. And it’s fun to watch him grow. He’s matured so much since even the first time I met him. And he’s the dude. He’s the guy.
“He’s a guy that has conversations, he’s young, but he has conversations with young guys, he has conversations with the veteran guys, and the guys respect him.”
A leader on and off the field, a homegrown star, and one of the best young players in the game? How much will it cost to get him to sign on long-term?