Nats' offer was reasonable, but so was Soto's response

The 13-year, $350 million offer the Nationals made to Juan Soto shortly before the lockout began was a reasonable move by the organization.

And Soto's decision to turn down that gargantuan offer was just as reasonable a move.

What does all that mean in the big picture? It means it's going to take a historic contract to keep Soto in D.C., and it's probably not going to happen until he has the opportunity to field offers from 29 other clubs as a free agent following the 2024 season.

And a pleasant Thursday morning to you.

On what should be the first day of pitchers and catchers workouts in West Palm Beach, we're instead left to fret over this not-so-little nugget of news first reported by and confirmed by a source familiar with the offer. The news hit like a ton of bricks, but when you stop and consider it, nothing about it should come as a surprise.

Thumbnail image for Rizzo-Chats-With-Martinez-at-Cage-Sidebar.jpgThe Nationals knew they needed to start the process of locking up Soto this winter, with three years to go before he's eligible for free agency. And they needed to do so not with a token contract offer, but a legitimate one that would make their commitment to the sport's best offensive player clear.

They met that standard. The total value of the proposed contract would rank third in baseball history, trailing only the 12-year, $426.5 million deal Mike Trout got from the Angels and the 12-year, $365 million deal Mookie Betts got from the Dodgers.

And in an important detail confirmed by the source familiar with the terms, the Nationals' offer did not include any deferred money, a stipulation they've typically required in proposed contracts for other star players like Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon.

So, it's a legitimate offer. But that didn't mean Soto was likely to accept it. Quite the contrary.

For all the dissatisfaction Major League Baseball players have with the current financial state of the game, they really can't complain at all about the kind of deals that have become standard for the sport's very best. There are now nine MLB contracts worth a guaranteed $300 million or more, and eight of those have been signed since 2019. Eighteen players currently make an average of $30 million or more per season, and 12 of those deals have been signed since 2019.

The numbers keep going up, and there's no reason to believe that's going to change, no matter what the next collective bargaining agreement looks like.

Which is why it was perfectly reasonable for Soto to decline the Nationals' offer. Because as big a number as they put out there, he's almost certain to get an even bigger number if he just waits this out.

The appeal for players to sign long-term extensions before ever reaching free agency has always been the guaranteed money and security such deals provide. It's massive protection against debilitating injury or a dramatic decrease in performance.

But in the cases of many of these current elite young players, the risk of waiting it out really isn't that great. That's mostly because of an arbitration system that all but guarantees sizeable raises during a player's fourth, fifth and sixth big league seasons.

Soto (actually a rare player to qualify for four years of arbitration because the Nats called him up early enough during the 2018 season to make him a so-called "Super Two" player) is due to earn roughly $16 million to $17 million this year. If the arbitration system in the new CBA bears any resemblance to the current one, that number will go up significantly in 2023, then again in 2024. His salary in his walk year easily could top $30 million.

Which will establish a baseline for the mega contract he'll command that winter. A 13-year deal with an average salary of $30 million equals $390 million. An average salary of $35 million brings the total up to $455 million. And an average salary of $40 million brings it up to a staggering $520 million.

Do you see where we're going with this?

What if, God forbid, Soto got hurt sometime between now and then? Yes, his annual salary wouldn't skyrocket as much. But provided it wasn't a career-altering injury that sapped him of all his power and ability not to swing at pitches one inch off the plate, teams would still be lining up to pay him more than $400 million as a free agent.

Point is, for a player like Soto, there really is little downside to waiting and letting the process take care of itself.

There will be, of course, a tremendous amount of pressure on him to keep performing. And he'll be asked about free agency over and over and over again the next three years. (And then triple the number of times he's asked about it every time the Nats are playing in New York.)

But everything we've seen from this kid since he burst onto the scene suggests he's more than equipped to handle it.

As much as everyone would like to believe this can all be taken care of sooner rather than later, that's just not the way it works. That doesn't mean the Nationals should give up. They should approach Soto again sometime this year with an increased offer. And if (or, more likely, when) he turns that one down, they should come back again next year with an even bigger offer.

All the while, the Nats should do everything in their power to rebuild themselves into an organization capable of winning again by 2024. Worst case, they have one more shot at a title with Soto on the roster. Best case, their success in the standings helps convince him he really does want to stay here long-term.

In the meantime, we'll all be nervously watching and waiting, wondering what the magic dollar amount will be to secure the services of the game's best hitter.

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