News broke over the weekend via Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic that the Nationals had offered a contract extension to Juan Soto for 15 years, $440 million, and that the offer was declined by Soto. Rosenthal’s report indicates Nationals GM Mike Rizzo would now be open to trading Soto as early as the 2022 trade deadline; this means Soto’s time in Washington could be over in a matter of weeks, as stunning as that may seem.
There are a number of factors at play here, from the business of baseball to team construction strategy to my now-fragile emotions. So let’s examine some of them.
The Future of the Nationals
It has been widely reported that the Lerner family is actively shopping the team and plans to sell the franchise this upcoming offseason. This is a major factor in a possible Soto extension or trade. Would new ownership see a long-term deal for one of the best players in the sport as a priority? Or would they see him as a fan favorite of the previous era, and view a long-term contract an impediment to building a competitive roster? To me, this is simple: if you are the billionaire buying the Nationals, a generational talent like Soto must be included as a part of the purchase. You want a chance to sign Soto, and ensure the next Ted Williams dons Washington colors until his career ends in Cooperstown.
Another factor is the Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg megadeals, both of which are colossal liabilities and extend well into new ownership’s control. Current ownership might believe they can make the team a more attractive asset by offloading one of those deadweight contracts in a Soto deal, which would ease the club’s financial burden (but limit the return). This tactic would be – and I’m not exaggerating – an absolute travesty.
A more interesting question is the future of GM Mike Rizzo. He signed a one-year extension earlier in the season, so he will be in the building at the start of the new ownership regime. Does his professional future cloud his judgment with regards to Soto? Would he lose some leverage negotiating a prospect package in a misguided attempt to speed up the rebuild, hoping to protect his job security with new bosses? This would be another travesty.
Rizzo has had a remarkable career in professional baseball. He had a reputation as an ace scout and worked his way through front offices until assembling a championship team in Washington. Let me not besmirch the man’s bona fides, but recent trends are troubling.
Rizzo has apparently broken with reality, publicly claiming the Nationals will be contending again in short order; meanwhile, he helms one of the most barren farm systems in the sport, ranking somewhere around 30th (Fangraphs), 27th (Keith Law), or 29th (PitcherList). Player development has lagged in the farm system recently, other teams are outpacing – nay, lapping – the Nationals in analytics, and his recent free agent signings have been spotty at best. I believe it is possible the game is passing Mike Rizzo by, and I’m not confident in his ability to assemble the best possible return for Juan Soto.
What Should You Pay to Extend Juan Soto?
Let’s say you are attempting to build a team from scratch. A hypothetical “franchise draft.” Juan Soto would be one of the candidates you would consider with the first overall pick. Perhaps you would value a player at a premium defensive position, like Wander Franco, Fernando Tatis Jr., or Julio Rodriguez. Maybe you want Shohei Ohtani, the most unique talent we have witnessed since literally Babe Ruth (ever heard of him?!). Maybe you want a pitcher. But very few players match Soto’s combination of established production at a young age, national marketability, local adoration, durability, winning personality, and a World Series ring. He is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, and a dear sweet baby angel. This is not a player to whom you make a handful of extension offers, get rebuffed, and then bail.
The reported offer – 15 years, $440 million – was in the same style of offer Washington extended Bryce Harper (10y/$300m): big enough to be eye-popping in headlines, but guaranteed to be declined. That figure would put Soto twentieth among MLB players in annual salary, but hey, at least it didn’t include any deferred money!
I’ve seen some pearl-clutching on Twitter about anything more than that offer being “a significant overpay.” Yes! Do it! Significantly overpay him! Juan Soto is everything you want in a baseball player, and he is just now entering his prime. We root for the Washington Nationals baseball team, not the Washington Nationals balance sheets. Why do I care about a rounding error for billionaires? PAY THAT MAN HIS MONEY.
(The aforementioned Strasburg and Corbin contracts are not good enough reasons to avoid a Soto deal. Pitchers and hitters are different beasts; besides, if the Nationals had drafted and developed better since, say, 2015, they would still be contending right now and those contracts would not be as impactful.)
The Potential Prospect Haul
Dude, I don’t even care. Are they Juan Soto? No. I want Juan Soto on my team instead.
A Realistic Timeline
Here’s the thing: I don’t believe the Nationals will actually trade Juan Soto in a matter of weeks at the 2022 trade deadline. Quite frankly, such a move would be a stunning overreaction to stalled extension talks. There are still 2.5 years to ink Soto to a long-term deal that keeps him in Washington until he retires, and there is no reason to rush that process. This is especially true in light of a potential sale: let the next owners make that decision!
The Lerners and/or Rizzo leaked this story to Ken Rosenthal, that much is clear. (According to Jesse Dougherty of The Washington Post, Soto was uncomfortable that he was being asked questions about it and “somber.”) Why further alienate Soto, who is already frustrated* by playing on the worst team in the major leagues? Why? For leverage? To show potential trade suitors they are serious and trade talks are worth pursuing? I can’t quite answer that; I do know the only thing the leak ensures is to further erode Juan Soto’s passion for remaining in D.C.
*As much as someone like him can be frustrated, Juan Soto, a man who is a perfect bundle of baseball joy, a veritable adrenaline shot of happiness and glee, an actual literal cherub, really
So, What Do I Want To Happen?
Let’s wrap this up – I have already spilled FAR too much electronic ink about some backroom scuttlebutt. So allow me to end by ranking potential outcomes by desirability.
1) The Nationals sign Juan Soto to a long-term contract. I mean, duh. Either the Lerner family gets it done within the next few months, or new ownership does whatever it takes to keep Juan Soto in DC. Today, yesterday, during the winter meetings, in January 2025. Whatever number, whenever possible. Then he wins twenty MVP awards and the Nationals win all of the World Series and they rename the museum in Cooperstown to be The Juan Soto Hall of Fame and they throw away all that old junk from all the other baseball guys, who just seem kinda pathetic now when compared to Juan Soto, to be honest.
2) New ownership fails to extend Juan Soto, and trades him at the midseason deadline in 2023. If new ownership and a new front office truly can not convince Soto to stay in DC, then they can still trade him in this window for a prospect windfall.
3) Juan Soto walks at the end of the 2024 season. A disappointment to be sure, but we get to enjoy a full six years of him playing in DC, and he leaves a beloved National and a champion.
4) Mike Rizzo panic-trading Juan Soto in July 2022. Unless a franchise gives the Nationals their entire farm system, three current young MLB stars, all of their proprietary data and analysts, at least one (1) local monument or historic landmark, and their best microbrewery to relocate to Nats Park, this would be a disaster of a trade. Between the leak, the upcoming sale, Rizzo’s recent track record, and the club’s current analytic resources, I do not trust current leadership to make this trade.
It would be outrageous if Juan Soto is in another uniform a few weeks from today. As a Washington sports fan, I must emotionally prepare for that possibility.