Make that two days in a row with fairly significant news concerning the Washington Nationals! In a lockout, that’s like gold dust for us to write about.
On Wednesday afternoon, Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes reported that the Nationals offered Juan Soto a monster 13-year, $350 million extension just before Major League Baseball’s lockout began at the start of December.
An interesting nugget included in the report was that the contract offer to Soto “did not include deferred money,” according to Rojas, something the Nationals have tended to do in their larger contract offers.
“Yes, they made me an offer a few months ago, before the lockout,” Soto told Rojas. “But right now, my agents and I think the best option is to go year by year and wait for free agency. My agent, Scott Boras, has control over the situation.”
It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that Soto, a player some have dubbed as someone who could be baseball’s first $500 million man, turned down the offer — and at the same time, astounding that he’s put himself in a position to confidently turn down that sort of money.
That doesn’t mean he’s completely against signing an extension with the Nationals though.
“I still think of Washington as the place where I would like to spend the rest of my career, so we will see,” Soto also explained to Rojas in the ESPN report.
However, the previous offer is way short of where it needs to be to make that a reality.
Even when you take into account the fact the offer covers his three remaining arbitration seasons, the $26.9 average annual value of the contract falls way short of comparable contracts.
If we assume that the three arbitration seasons were valued at roughly $16 million, $20 million, and $24 million — there have been no reports on the exact structure, this is an educated guess —that leaves 10 more years worth $29 million each to try and convince Soto to forgo free agency and re-sign with the Nationals.
The $29 million AAV of that hypothetical scenario would rank 9th in the majors among position players behind Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado, Corey Seager, Miguel Cabrera, Mookie Betts, and Manny Machado.
From an AAV perspective, Soto has a case to exceed the seven non-Trout players in that list, and maybe even a case to exceed Trout’s AAV, but that might be a slightly tougher sell.
So on the part of the contract that would replace whatever contract Soto would get on the free-agent market, the Nationals would need to increase the AAV by roughly $6-7 million to get to the $35 million range that Boras and the rest of Soto’s camp would be looking for.
If the 13-year, $350 million offer was one of the team’s opening gambits, then it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable gap to negotiate and find common ground. Especially as the offer didn’t contain deferred money which has been a sticking point with other players.
The worry for Nats fans is that this offer was essentially a final offer to Soto, at least this offseason.
Over the last decade, the Nationals have seen plenty of homegrown position players get a similar treatment to the one Soto is getting right now. Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, and Trea Turner are arguably the most noteworthy examples.
Desmond received a seven-year, $107 million extension offer from the Nationals two years away from free agency that, at the time, seemed pretty low as he was coming off of three-straight Silver Slugger seasons at shortstop. There were no other reported offers after that.
For Harper, the Nationals gave him a ten-year, $300 million offer with deferrals in the final days of 2018. Harper and Boras saw it as a fine starting point, but the Nationals indicated it was their final offer before free agency started. They made another lesser offer during Harper's free agency, but it never matched the AAV or total value of that previous offer.
Much like Harper, Rendon also received an extension offer in the final month of his contract year to the tune of $210 million over seven years. Yet again though, there were no reports of the Nationals ever topping that offer before the third baseman left for Los Angeles.
Finally, with Turner, the last offer Nationals reportedly made him was a six-year, $100 million extension three seasons out from testing free agency during Spring Training in 2020.
All of the above offers were seen as way below market value at the time they were offered. The Nats never budged from their offers though, letting three of them (Desmond, Harper, and Rendon) walk in free agency and trading the latter (Turner) to kickstart a rebuild this past season.
Regardless of how they ended up working out or are working out now, the pattern of how the Nationals have generally approached extension talks is worth bearing in mind for Soto.
By the time the team’s offer ends up in the public domain via leaks to reporters, the total contract value hasn’t ever really increased after that, at least in these four key examples.
If the Nationals have just done the same with Soto and don’t plan to come back to the table with an improved offer, then it doesn’t bode well for their chances to lock down their star right fielder long-term now or moving forward.
The difference might be that Soto appears to be a baseball unicorn even compared to those stars.
He’s already considered one of, if not the best, hitters in baseball at the tender age of 23. His game is based around unfathomable plate discipline and a work ethic off the field that should translate to a long and productive career that shouldn’t fall off a cliff as other players might.
If the Nationals are ever going to shift course from their usual tactic in extension negotiations, Soto would be exactly the type of player that they should do it for.
With the lockout still in effect, they can’t resume any potential extension talks until it is over, so we aren’t likely to find out soon whether that offer was just the first move or whether they were drawing their line in the sand.
However, based on how the team has handled previous extension discussions with former players, the signs may actually point to the latter which hinders the chances of a deal...