The Nationals’ $350 Million Extension Offer Undersold Juan Soto

© Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Amid a dearth of baseball news, the Nationals took a starring role this week, not only via the retirement of franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman but also the report that before the lockout, the team offered Juan Soto a 13-year, $350 million extension. While we’ve now seen nine deals of at least $300 million in recent years — not to mention a report of a pending extension offer to Soto in the wake of Fernando Tatis Jr.’s $340-million deal last March — the price tag produced the usual sticker shock on social media, as well as incredulity given that the slugger declined it.

Via ESPN Deportes’ Enrique Rojas, the 23-year-old Soto confirmed the news, saying, “Yes, they made me an offer a few months ago, before the lockout. But right now, my agents and I think the best option is to go year by year and wait for free agency. My agent, Scott Boras, has control over the situation.”

The contract would have been the third-largest in baseball history, after Mike Trout’s 12-year, $426.5 million extension (which incorporated two years and $66.5 million from his previous deal) and Mookie Betts‘ 12-year, $365 million deal with the Dodgers. Unlike other recent offers from the Nationals — accepted ones (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin) as well as rejected ones (Bryce Harper) — the $350 million for Soto did not include any deferred money that would have reduced the value of that eye-opening figure. But for as sky-high as the amount offer may have been, it undersells a player who already has a claim as the game’s top hitter, and who continues to make strides towards Cooperstown. He’s due an even bigger payday.

During the pandemic season, Soto became the youngest player ever to win a batting title — not to mention a slash-stat triple crown — via his .351/.490/.695 (201 wRC+) performance. He followed that up with an MVP-caliber campaign in 2021, hitting .313/.465/.534 with 29 homers and making his first All-Star team. His on-base percentage and jaw-dropping 145 walks led the National League; the latter was the highest total by anyone not named Barry Bonds since 1999. Soto’s 163 wRC+ and 6.6 WAR both placed second in the NL; the former trailed only the MVP-winning Harper’s 170, while the latter was tied with Harper behind Trea Turner’s 6.9. By Baseball Reference’s version, Soto’s 7.1 WAR led NL position players by half a win.

By any measure, it was a stellar season as well as the continuation of a remarkable career that’s still in its early stages. Over the past three seasons (ages 20–22) Soto has hit .304/.440/.561 for a 159 wRC+, the last of which is the highest mark in baseball by 13 points. His on-base percentage is tops by 38 points, his slugging percentage in a virtual tie for second with Salvador Perez, behind only Nelson Cruz.

Eleven months ago, in the wake of the Tatis deal and the previous round of Soto extension rumors, I produced a table showing the latter’s career 151 OPS+ to that point ranked eighth among players with at least 600 plate appearances through age 21. Both he and Tatis are still keeping Hall of Fame company through their age-22 seasons as well:

Top Hitters Thru Age-22 Seasons Since 1901… and What Came After
Rk Player Years PA BA OBP SLG OPS+ PA After 22 OPS+ After 22
1 Ted Williams+ 1939-1941 1944 .356 .475 .640 183 7848 193
2 Mike Trout* 2011-2014 2195 .305 .395 .549 167 3465 182
3 Stan Musial+ 1941-1943 1286 .342 .415 .533 166 11435 158
4 Ty Cobb+ 1905-1909 2491 .338 .380 .459 163 10612 168
5 Juan Soto* 2018-2021 2003 .301 .432 .550 160
6 Fernando Tatis Jr.* 2019-2021 1175 .293 .369 .596 160
7 Jimmie Foxx+ 1925-1930 1976 .339 .434 .599 159 7701 164
8 Albert Pujols* 2001-2002 1351 .321 .399 .586 154 11339 143
9 Eddie Mathews+ 1952-1954 1875 .279 .384 .560 153 8226 141
10 Rogers Hornsby+ 1915-1918 1666 .307 .365 .444 150 7815 180
11 Tris Speaker+ 1907-1910 1367 .312 .369 .434 150 10653 158
12 Eddie Collins+ 1906-1909 1081 .318 .376 .421 150 11006 141
13 Mickey Mantle+ 1951-1954 2203 .296 .391 .505 149 7707 179
14 Mel Ott+ 1926-1931 2644 .322 .420 .555 147 8704 158
15 Joe DiMaggio+ 1936-1937 1360 .335 .382 .624 147 6312 157
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Minimum 1000 plate appearances. “After 22” = after age-22 season. + = Hall of Famer. * = Active.

That’s 11 players and counting in Cooperstown, with Trout and Pujols en route as well, leaving only Tatis and Soto, the latter of whom ranks fifth in PA among this group. We’re not talking borderline Hall of Famers, either. Nine of the 11 rank among the top 20 in OPS+ among players with at least 7,000 PA; all of them, even the Splendid Splinter, actually improved after their age-22 seasons (and the Williams comparisons aren’t off base). The other three stragglers who have met that threshold rank among the top 50 in OPS+, and, in a remarkable coincidence, each ranks second in JAWS at his position despite their offensive declines. The baker’s dozen besides Tatis and Soto have averaged 8,679 PA over the remainder of their careers, with a median OPS+ of 158.

Speaking of JAWS (and WAR), Soto’s not as high on the through-22 WAR leaderboard due to his below-average defense at both corner outfield spots, though he was in the black in both UZR and DRS last year, his first full season since moving from left field to right. His 17.6 bWAR merely ranks 21st, exactly 10 WAR behind Trout, while his 17.7 fWAR ranks 16th; the top 20s for both stats contain more Hall of Famers than misses, even without counting Trout.

Even without placing in the upper reaches in either flavor of WAR thus far, Soto projects as a future Hall of Famer whose performance over the life of the proposed contract would be worth something in the ballpark of half a billion dollars (not that you can build a state-of-the-art ballpark for that little money anymore). That valuation is based upon Soto’s ZiPS projection for the remainder of his career, which Dan Szymborski helpfully provided for this piece:

ZiPS Projection – Juan Soto
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .306 .445 .570 532 117 163 35 117 134 108 12 169 0 7.1
2023 .303 .449 .573 518 117 157 35 117 139 110 12 172 -1 7.1
2024 .299 .448 .572 512 116 153 35 116 140 112 11 171 -1 6.9
2025 .297 .449 .569 499 113 148 34 112 139 112 11 170 -1 6.7
2026 .295 .448 .561 485 109 143 32 106 136 105 10 168 -2 6.3
2027 .294 .446 .553 470 103 138 30 101 130 98 10 166 -2 5.9
2028 .290 .439 .534 455 96 132 27 93 122 92 9 159 -2 5.2
2029 .283 .428 .511 438 88 124 24 85 112 86 8 150 -3 4.3
2030 .279 .418 .492 419 80 117 21 77 100 78 7 143 -3 3.5
2031 .274 .405 .467 398 71 109 18 69 88 68 6 133 -4 2.7
2032 .269 .389 .447 376 62 101 15 60 75 59 5 123 -5 1.8
2033 .261 .373 .414 348 53 91 12 51 63 51 3 111 -6 0.8
2034 .256 .360 .381 320 45 82 9 42 52 43 2 99 -7 0.1
2035 .252 .345 .362 254 33 64 6 30 36 32 2 90 -7 -0.5
2036 .246 .335 .337 175 21 43 3 19 23 20 1 81 -6 -0.7
Ages 23-37 .285 .422 .509 6199 1224 1765 336 1195 1489 1174 109 145 -48 57.4
Thru Age 22 .301 .432 .550 1612 337 485 98 312 373 352 32 160 -6 17.7
Total Thru 37 .288 .424 .517 7811 1561 2250 434 1507 1862 1526 141 148 -54 75.1

The proposed contract would have covered Soto’s 2022-34 seasons (ages 23 through 35), during which he’s projected to produce 58.4 WAR; at my request, the above includes the tail end of his career so as to illustrate what his final numbers might look like. The hit and home run totals eyeball as a bit less than automatic tickets to Cooperstown, but the only players with a 148 OPS+ across 7,000 or more PA who aren’t enshrined are either players with links to performance-enhancing drugs (Bonds, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez), those still active (Joey Votto), and the unjustly snubbed Dick Allen. For players with at least 75 career WAR, the story is similar, with only Bonds and Alex Rodriguez out due to PED stuff, Pete Rose out due to lifetime ban for gambling, Pujols and Adrián Beltré waiting their turns as future inductees, and 19th-century star Bill Dahlen (75.2) and the terminally underrated Lou Whitaker (75.1) — Era Committee candidates waiting for the traffic ahead of them to thin — the other misses.

It’s impressive stuff, though if you flip back to last year’s piece, you’ll see that Soto’s projection is considerably more conservative than the pre-2021 one:

ZiPS Projection Comparison — Juan Soto
Year Age PA old WAR old PA new WAR new Change
2022 22 628 7.0 666 7.1 +0.1
2023 23 635 7.5 657 7.1 -0.4
2024 24 634 7.4 652 6.9 -0.5
2025 25 632 7.5 638 6.7 -0.8
2026 26 628 7.5 621 6.3 -1.2
2027 27 611 7.1 600 5.9 -1.2
2028 28 593 6.5 577 5.2 -1.3
2029 29 570 6.1 550 4.3 -1.8
2030 30 547 5.5 519 3.5 -2.0
2031 31 498 4.6 486 2.7 -1.9
2032 32 453 3.6 451 1.8 -1.8
2033 33 412 2.5 411 0.8 -1.7
2034 34 375 1.6 372 0.1 -1.5
Totals 7216 74.4 7200 58.4 -16.0
old = projection from March 2021, new = projection from February 2022, following ZiPS recalibration

What happened? A few things. First, while Soto did exceed last year’s projection for 6.3 WAR, the shape of his production was different than anticipated, as he fell significantly short of the forecasted 37 homers and .595 SLG, and derived a larger chunk of his value from defense. All of that has longer-term ramifications for his projections; his home run total through 2034 drops from 553 to 425, and his slugging percentage, OPS+ and WAR take significant dips as well.

As Dan explained to me, Soto being a little older makes his projection a little more certain than before. “Since ZiPS sees little chance of a performance drop-off, pretty much any year he only matches the projection, that ceiling comes down a bit,” he wrote.

Second, Dan has recalibrated his system’s long-term projections based on returns that go back to his 2010 projections. His model is now a little more conservative in terms of both playing time and performance over longer periods, even for superstars. “ZiPS was overrating them a bit in very long horizons,” he told me. Even so, Soto’s playing time is pretty consistent across the two models, though his value is down by a win or two per year. That’s still Hall of Fame production, and the number eight ranking in JAWS (75.1/47.0/62.1) among right fielders, between Al Kaline and Reggie Jackson. Not too shabby.

As for the dollar value attached to that production, using a starting point of $7 million per win and a mere 2% annual growth, ZiPS values those 13 years at $483 million. That figure includes estimates of $16.9 million, $23.6 million, and $35.9 million for Soto’s three years of arbitration eligibility. Each of those salaries would break records at those levels; Cody Bellinger set the first-year record at $11.5 million in 2020, with Betts claiming the second- and third-year records at $20 million (2019) and $27 million (2020), respectively.

Particularly at a time when the owners have locked the players out and are presenting collective bargaining agreement offers that would continue not only to tamp down payrolls but to maintain teams’ abilities to significantly underpay players during their pre-free agency years, the possibility of Soto receiving every dollar’s worth of those estimates feels remote. Still, they help to illustrate why the slugger and his agent would bet on going year to year rather than lock him in at $350 million, because even given a more conservative estimate of his career path than we’ve seen before, there’s a very reasonable chance that his performance will be worth significantly more than that staggering amount — a manifestation of that same confidence that fuels his inimitable post-pitch shuffle. Even if Soto doesn’t sign a long-term deal until he reaches free agency, he has a very real possibility of signing baseball’s next $400 million contract.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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soddingjunkmailmember
9 months ago

What an enjoyable article. Just sent it to a friend of mine.
Thanks Jay!