Signing Juan Soto Before 2024 Free Agency Could Pose Financial Issues For Washington Nationals

With the trading deadline less than a month away, the Washington Nationals are trying to extend the nine-figure contract of their brightest star.

Juan Soto, still three months away from his 24th birthday, hasn’t hit with his usual authority this season but still has the track record to merit an enormous, long-term deal.

If he stays, he’s certain to top the biggest contract in club history: the seven-year, $245 million pact given to pitcher Stephen Strasburg in 2019. But he hasn’t decided whether he wants to stay or to enter free agency – a move that would create a massive bidding war among the best and the richest teams in baseball.

According to Washington Post reporter Jesse Dougherty, Soto could go either way.

“Everybody wants to go to free agency and see how the market is going to be for them,” Soto told Dougherty. “But for me, I really don’t know if I want to go there or to stay here. I feel really good here. We’ll see what’s going to happen.

“For me, right now, the plan that we always have is go year by year. But you don’t know what the future has for you.”

Soto is represented by super-agent Scott Boras, who typically urges his clients to enter the free-agent market. The outfielder said he’s leaving extension talks up to Boras for the time being, although the pending sale of the ballclub by the Lerner family could complicate discussions.

“[I want] to be far from (negotiations) because I want to concentrate on the game,” Soto said.

Recent free-agent contracts concluded by the club – including Strasburg’s – have been heavy in deferred salary. But that’s not the case in the Soto salary talks, according to Dougherty.

Soto, who broke into the big leagues in 2018, won’t quality for free agency for two more years. But the Nats know they can strike a better deal sooner rather than later, especially if Soto recaptures his form of 2020.

In that virus-shortened season, he led the National League in batting (.351), on-base percentage (.490), slugging (.695), and OPS (1.185). A year later, with the resumption of the 162-game schedule, he led in runs created (127) and walks (145) as well as on-base percentage again (.465).

The 6’2″, 224-pound left-handed hitter had personal peaks of 34 home runs and 110 runs batted in 2019.

The Nationals have made offers to Soto both before and after the 99-day lockout that started last December and wiped out half of spring training. Boras even came to Washington in May for face-to-face meetings with ownership.

Arguably the best pure hitter in the game, Soto is virtually certain to receive a record contract offer, whether from Washington or from another club via free agency. That means more than Mike Trout’s 10-year, $360 million extension in March 2019 and the $365 million the Dodgers gave Mookie Betts to ink a 12-year deal in July 2020. They are the only players whose contracts exceeded $350 million to date.

Soto’s disappointing start this season is not expected to diminish his return, although his decision on accepting any offer could depend upon his confidence that the last-place team can return to contention soon.

The Dominican slugger hit .333 with three home runs while helping the Nationals, then a wild-card entry in the playoffs, win their only world championship in 2019.

He and Strasburg, who’s currently on the injured list, are the last remnants of that club, which lost Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, and Ryan Zimmerman through trades, free agency, or retirement. More veterans are likely to leave before this year’s Aug. 2 trade deadline.

Soto has more than half a season to boost his batting average, which was hovering around the .224 mark entering July 4 weekend. He never hit below .282 in any previous campaign.

When the current season started, he had lifetime marks of .301 (batting) and .432 (on-base percentage). He also had more walks (373) than strikeouts (352).

Nationals fans hoping the team keeps Soto got some good news last week when the Lerners extended the contracts of manager Dave Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo. Martinez also received an invitation from Atlanta manager Brian Snitker to serve as a coach for the National League All-Star squad.