Juan Soto will have a chance to smash contract records when he becomes a free agent in three years. No one knows this better than the Washington Nationals, and they reportedly attempted to lock their 23-year-old superstar up long-term before the MLB lockout. Washington offered Soto a 13-year contract worth $350 million earlier this offseason, reports ESPN's Enrique Rojas. Soto declined the offer.
"Yes, they made me the offer a couple of months ago, before the lockout we have in baseball," Soto told Rojas. "But right now, me and my agents think the best option is to go year after year and wait for free agency. My agent, Scott Boras, is in control of that situation."
Rojas adds the contract offer included no deferred salary, something that has long been a staple in Nationals contracts. The $350 million offer would obliterate the current contract record for a player with 3-4 years of service time (Freddie Freeman's just expired eight-year, $135 million extension with the Atlanta Braves).
The 13-year, $350 million offer resembles the 14-year, $340 million contract the San Diego Padres gave Fernando Tatis Jr. last year, though there are a few key differences. Most notably, Soto is one year closer to free agency now than Tatis was when he signed his contract, and Soto is going through arbitration four times as a Super Two. Tatis would have gone through arbitration the usual three times. The proximity to free agency and Super Two status ups Soto's earning potential.
Soto is projected to make roughly $16 million through arbitration in 2022. With good health and continued Soto-like performance, arbitration could push his 2023 salary into the $24 million range, and his 2024 salary north of $30 million. Mookie Betts holds the arbitration record with a $27 million salary before proration in 2020, though Nolan Arenado sought $30 million through arbitration before signing his long-term extension in 2019. Soto is well-positioned to set arbitration records.
Assuming Soto makes $16 million, $24 million, and $30 million in his three remaining arbitration years, Washington's offer values his free agent years at 10 years and $280 million, or thereabouts. Here are a few recent 10-year free agent contracts:
- Corey Seager, Rangers: 10 years, $325 million
- Manny Machado, Padres: 10 years, $300 million
- Bryce Harper, Phillies: 13 years, $325 million ($244 million in years 1-10)
The key number here: 26. Soto turns 26 in October 2024, the offseason he becomes a free agent. Harper turned 26 the offseason he became a free agent as well. Machado turned 27 in July of the first year of his contract, and Seager turns 28 in April. Sign Soto as a free agent and you get four years of his 20s. That is almost unheard of in free agency.
Harper was coming off his first MVP season when he was Soto's age, though Soto has been better overall, and Harper clearly took fewer dollars per year in exchange for more total years when he signed his contract. Here's the side-by-side comparison:
Soto through age 22
Harper through age 22
* Soto lost 102 possible games to the pandemic in 2020.
Harper was incredible at such a young age, but Soto's been on another level. Among players with at least 2,000 plate appearances through their age-22 season (an already exclusive club that includes only 23 members), Soto ranks second in on-base percentage behind John McGraw, second in slugging percentage behind Mel Ott, and third in OPS+ behind Mike Trout and Ty Cobb. Players who do what Soto has done at a young age tend to become all-time greats and inner circle Hall of Famers.
Generally speaking, there is a discount when a player signs a long-term extension years away from free agency because the player trades his maximum earning potential in exchange for the security. That said, 10 years and $280 million is still a light valuation for Soto's free agent years. Harper received $244 million for the same 10-year chunk of his career and there will be six years of inflation to account for, plus Soto has been better than Harper to date.
I'd call 13 years and $350 million a representative offer that is not insultingly low, like the Astros offering Carlos Correa five years and $160 million earlier this offseason. Houston's offer to Correa was impossible to take seriously. Thirteen years and $350 million is on the low end for a Soto extension but it'll get his attention, and it's a good first offer for the team. You can negotiate from there.
Of course, Soto is a Scott Boras client and Boras likes to take his best, most high-profile clients into free agency. It gets no higher profile than Soto at this point. If he continues on his current path, he'll have a case to be MLB's first $500 million player in three years, with $400 million feeling like his floor.
Soto was the NL MVP runner-up last season. He hit .313/.465/.534 with 29 home runs overall and an incredible .345/.545/.639 in the second half with 87 walks and 41 strikeouts as opponents pitched around him in a weak Washington lineup.
Teams are prohibited from talking to 40-man roster players during the lockout, so the Nationals have not been able to continue extension talks with Soto the last several weeks.