Washington Nationals

Juan Soto should go Bryce Harper route with Nationals

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is ready to make Juan Soto a lucrative contract offer, but at this point the young outfielder should let things play out all the way to free agency.

Upon arriving in the big leagues in 2018, Juan Soto proved he belonged immediately on his way to hitting 22 home runs and driving in 70 with a .923 OPS over 116 games (494 plate appearances) as he finished runner-up for NL Rookie of the Year. With Bryce Harper leaving via free agency last offseason, Soto was easily anointed as the young star to author a seamless transition for the Washington Nationals.

Entering Thursday, Soto has been even better this year. He’s got a .290/.401/.554 slash-line (.955 OPS with 29 home runs and 88 RBI). Over his last 17 games dating back to Aug. 9, he has a .333/.432/.768 slash-line (1.200 OPS) with eight home runs and 16 RBI.

When asked about Soto to 106.7 The Fan on Wednesday, with a theoretical total contract amount put out there, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo sounded ready to offer the 20-year-old star a healthy contract extension. According to one report, the Nationals may have already made said offer.

“Well, yeah, we would give him 10 years, $180 million tomorrow morning for sure,” he said. “But I don’t think he’s going to accept that.”

Soto is making $578,300 this year, with bargain basement salaries coming to him until he hits arbitration eligibility after the 2021 season. Then after three years of arbitration eligibility, he would hit free agency after the 2024 season at age 26.

Soto currently sits with between one and two years of service time. The record contract for a player in that service time range is the seven-year, $58 million deal Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons got. As a further comparison, Mike Trout’s pre-arbitration deal came in at six years and $144.5 million.

With MLB free agency what it’s been the last two offseasons, plenty of young players could choose certainty/security over a chunk of years rather than playing things out before hitting free agency. Ronald Acuna Jr. is one that chose security, as he signed an eight-year, $100 million extension with the Atlanta Braves in early April that could go to 10 years, $134 million if options for 2027 and 2028 are picked up.

A 10-year deal that would theoretically start next season would buy out Soto’s remaining two years of arbitration, all three years of arbitration and five years of free agency. Depending on how the contract is structured, he would get solid raises in 2020 and 2021. But after that, if he stays on his current production track, $18 million looks like no better than a wash compared to what Soto could get playing it out year-to-year through arbitration.

Harper signed one-year deals with Washington for the 2017 and 2018 seasons, at $13.6 million and $21.6 million respectively, clearly with his eye on hitting free agency. He then signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies last offseason, at 26 years old.

The Nationals don’t seem likely to offer Soto a shorter deal with salary bumps over the next few years, then have him hit free agency on a similar timeline he’s already on track to.

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If 10 years and $180 million stands as the maximum offer, and a shorter deal is not possible, Soto is best-served to play things out all the way to free agency and take the same route the man he has replaced in left field for Washington did. Leaving life-changing money on the table is not easy, but it’s a risk Soto can take as long as the leverage sits in his corner.

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