It’s a new era for the Washington Nationals. In a major deadline selloff in July, the club traded Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Yan Gomes, Jon Lester, Daniel Hudson, Brad Hand and Josh Harrison. Anyone who was healthy and productive was shipped out of town. Well, almost anyone. Juan Soto stayed.
Even though the team is clearly stripping things down for the short-term, it always made sense to hang onto an incredible talent like Soto since he still has three years of team control remaining after 2021. The club targeted MLB-ready prospects in their deadline deals such as Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz, specifically to get back into contention while Soto is still on the club. But why not keep him around past 2024 and get rid of that ticking clock scenario?
Back in August, Soto said he wanted to go year by year, which would seem to indicate he’s not terribly motivated to put pen to paper. After all, he’s already banked some money, having reached Super Two status last offseason. He and the club avoided arbitration and agreed to a salary of $8.5MM for this season. But players have often made similar statements and still gone on to sign extensions when the numbers were big enough. For example, Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor had extension rumors swirling around them for years, rumors that they consistently shrugged off until they finally got what they wanted. In both cases, they were just one season away from free agency.
So, what would it take to lock up someone like Soto and keep him away from the open market? Let’s look at some numbers. Soto is going to finish this season with three years and 134 days’ service time. The largest extension ever given out for a player between three and four years’ service time is Freddie Freeman’s eight-year, $135MM contract, signed at the start of the 2014 season. But Soto now has more earning power than Freeman did then. First of all, Freeman didn’t reach Super Two status as Soto did. Soto has also accomplished much more in his career so far, compared to Freeman at that time. In 471 games up to that point, Freddie had a career slash of .285/.358/.466 for a wRC+ of 127 and 7.1 fWAR. In 464 games, Soto’s career slash is .301/.432/.550, for a wRC+ of 156 and 17.7 fWAR.
Fernando Tatis Jr. makes for a closer comparison, though with a slightly smaller track record. When he signed his extension in February of this year, he had two years’ service time, with one of those years being the shortened 2020 season. Through 143 games, he had a line of .301/.374/.582, for a wRC+ of 150 and 6.6 fWAR. It took 14 years and $340MM to get his signature. That’s an average annual value of over $24MM.
Mookie Betts also makes for an interesting comparison, but unlike Tatis, he was much closer to free agency than Soto at the time of his extension. He had between five and six years’ service time and was just one year away from hitting the open market. In the three years leading up to that contract, Betts played in 439 games, slashed .299/.389/.535, for a wRC+ of 140 and 22.4 fWAR. His extension was 12 years, $365MM, average annual value of just over $30MM, the largest extension ever given out in MLB history.
Soto’s skill level is very similar to both Tatis and Betts, but he falls between the two when it comes to service time and proximity to free agency. Therefore, it seems fair to think that he could reasonably ask for an average annual value in between the two, where his salary escalates over his remaining arbitration years and into the free agent years. (Tatis’s contract for instance, escalates from $1MM in 2021 to $5MM in 2022, $7MM in 2023, $11MM in 2024, $20MM apiece in 2025 and 2026, $25MM in 2027 and 2028 and then settles at $36MM for each of the last six years of the deal.)
If Soto could get a contract of 14 years, just as Tatis did, that would take him into his age-36 season. That’s not unreasonable, given that other recent extensions for superstars have gone to a similar range. Betts’ extension goes to his age-39 season, Mike Trout’s to his age-38 season, Lindor to age-37 and Tatis to age-35. If that contract had an average annual value of $28.6MM, that would eclipse $400MM, nudging over a symbolic barrier and surpassing Mookie Betts for the largest extension in history.
That’s a lot of money, and probably too much money for the Nationals, without some creative manoeuvring to go along with it. They have Stephen Strasburg’s contract on the books through 2026, paying him $35MM in each of the next five years. There’s also Patrick Corbin’s deal, which pays him $23MM next year, $24MM in 2023 and $35MM in 2024. Add on that theoretical Soto money and they’re in the range of $100MM to just three players in 2024.
That’s probably too rich for a club that’s never had a payroll higher than about $205MM, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. But then again, Soto’s contract figures to be quite high by 2024 anyway. Mookie Betts used the arbitration process to get his salary as high as $27MM in his final year of control, and he wasn’t even a Super Two player. So, extension or not, the club is still facing a scenario where Strasburg, Corbin and Soto take up about half the budget in 2024.
The question then is if they want to commit to a Soto-Strasburg duo earning around $70MM for 2025 and 2026, with Soto being the primary line item for about a decade after that. If the answer to that is yes, then baseball could have its first 400-million-dollar man.