Juan Soto Primed to Usher in the $400M Era for Megastar ContractsMarch 16, 2021
If the Washington Nationals want to extend Juan Soto—and they do—they might have to make him an offer unlike any other in the history of Major League Baseball.
One worth $400 million.
Yes, the Los Angeles Angels locked up Mike Trout for $426.5 million over 12 years in 2019. But because that agreement called for "only" $354.5 million in new money, he didn't really sign a deal worth $400 million. A contract of that sort would be the first of its kind.
As for Soto, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told reporters the club is planning to offer its wunderkind slugger an extension "sometime in the near future."
At the least, the price to beat is Fernando Tatis Jr.'s $340 million, 14-year extension with the San Diego Padres. But if Soto and agent Scott Boras demand a lot more, they'll be standing on solid ground.
Juan Soto's Resume
- 22 years old
- Signed out of the Dominican Republic in July 2015
- MLB debut May 20, 2018
- National League Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2018
- World Series champion in 2019
- Silver Slugger in 2020
- Career .295/.415/.557 slash line with 69 HR, 23 SB and 9.7 rWAR
A Bat Like Soto's Doesn't Come Around Often...or Ever
It's not hyperbole to say Soto is one of the greatest younger hitters in the history of baseball. For that matter, he might even be the greatest young hitter in baseball history.
This is where OPS+ (a park- and league-adjusted version of OPS for which 100 denotes an average hitter) comes in handy. Soto boasts a 151 OPS+ and 1,349 plate appearances, marks reached by only four other hitters through their age-21 seasons.
You might have heard of them:
- Mike Trout (2011-13): 166 OPS+
- Ted Williams (1939-40): 161 OPS+
- Ty Cobb (1905-08): 153 OPS+
- Jimmie Foxx (1925-29): 157 OPS+
That's three inner-circle Hall of Famers and one active superstar who's on track to become maybe the greatest player ever. Pretty good company, as they say.
While Soto doesn't have the best OPS+ of the bunch, he does have the edge on that quartet with his 69 home runs. Likewise, he's the only hitter in MLB history to do better than a 140 OPS+ in his age-19, -20 and -21 seasons.
And he's still getting better.
Even though he played only 47 out of 60 games in last year's coronavirus pandemic-shortened season, Soto was hands down the best hitter in the game by way of his MLB-best marks in on-base (.490) and slugging (.695) percentages.
Lest anyone doubt those efforts, Soto walked 13 more times than he struck out and ranked in at least the 90th percentile for exit velocity, hard-hit rate and barrel percentage. So even in terms of expected production, he was still the majors' top hitter.
Perhaps it's easiest to compare Soto to Miguel Cabrera, who was likewise a hitting prodigy at a young age. If Soto follows a trajectory similar to that of Cabrera, then the path before him leads to more than a decade of MVP-caliber hitting.
But Is Soto Really Worth More Than Tatis?
It's not a coincidence that Rizzo had to address the possibility of an extension for Soto mere weeks after Tatis signed his deal.
After all, the two players occupy the same niche. They're cornerstone stars on contending teams, and Soto is only 69 days older than Tatis.
To be fair, it's not hard to argue that Tatis is the superior player. His 143 games in the majors have yielded a stellar 154 OPS+ with 39 homers, 27 steals and 7.0 rWAR. He was also better in Year 2 than in Year 1, specifically with regard to his contact quality and defense at shortstop.
Strictly on a performance basis, Tatis might resemble the second coming of Alex Rodriguez over the next 14 years. That is, a shortstop who uses his bat, legs and glove to annually contend for MVP Awards. On balance, the next Rodriguez would thus be better than the next Cabrera.
But between Soto and Tatis, Soto's advantage is that he's more of a known quantity.
Soto has an additional season and 170 games on Tatis. And that's just in the regular season. Soto proved in 2019 that he can also be a standout hitter under the bright lights of the postseason, as he aided Washington's World Series run with a .927 OPS and five homers in 17 games.
If nothing else, Soto's similarity to Tatis in the age, past performance and future projection columns gives him and Boras grounds to demand a 14-year contract from the Nationals. Since they can argue that Soto is the safer bet over the long term, they could also push for a higher average annual value.
To that end, it would take only $28.6 million per year to get a 14-year guarantee in the $400 million range. That's not an outrageous ask when the going rate for superstars is more than $30 million per year.
But Would the Nationals Do It? And Would Boras?
Because front offices generally try to pay players less than they're worth (and succeed), it's fair to assume the Nationals don't want to cut Soto a $400 million check.
But if that's what it would take to extend him, there are at least two reasons to believe they'd do it.
For one, they don't want to risk losing a generational hitter via free agency or—a la the Boston Red Sox with Mookie Betts—trade once his date with the open market is imminent.
For two, they can afford it. The Nats have traditionally been more willing than most to do big-money deals, and they're due for some payroll flexibility. Max Scherzer's contract will be up after 2021, and only Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are signed beyond 2022.
If anything, the bigger question might be whether Boras will stand in the way. As evidenced by the reality that only four of his clients have signed nine-figure extensions, Boras prefers to take his stars to free agency.
It might, however, bode well that Strasburg was one of those four exceptions. Likewise, Scherzer, Jayson Werth, Rafael Soriano and Matt Wieters were still more Boras clients who've scored multiyear deals from Rizzo and the Nationals. There's clearly a good working relationship there.
Which is to say there may be a chance Soto lands the richest contract in baseball history sometime soon. And if not, well, such a deal might still await him after his time with the Nationals is up in 2024.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.