The questions were inevitable. When a star homegrown player approaching free agency reports for spring training, he’s going to be asked about contract discussions. And when it happens only days after one of baseball’s brightest young stars signs a gargantuan extension with his club, it’s a foregone conclusion.
So neither Trea Turner nor Juan Soto could’ve been surprised today when the subject came up in their respective first Zoom sessions with reporters of 2021. On the heels of Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-year, $340 million extension with the Padres, could either of the Nationals’ two young stars envision signing their own long-term contracts to stay in D.C.?
“Yeah, I would love to play here my entire career,” Turner said. “I’ve said it in the past: I’ve always liked it here and don’t think the grass is greener on the other side, necessarily. But it’s a business and things change.”
Soto was a little less forthcoming in his answer.
“For me, I was really happy for (Tatis),” he said. “I just congrats him and everything. For me right now, I just try to come here and play baseball. I don’t think about any of that. Anytime I come to spring, my mind is on baseball. I try to get my body in shape, get ready and try to win another championship.”
Not that anyone should’ve expected either to say much more than that. This is a pretty standard ballplayer response to questions about contract negotiations. Nobody’s ever going to say out loud he doesn’t want to play for one team his entire career. And nobody’s ever going to say this isn’t a business and things don’t always work out as everyone hopes.
There is, however, a different sense of motivation for the Nationals with these two players. They already went through this dance with Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon the last two years and saw both stars leave for more money (or, at least, more money up front). They were able to keep Stephen Strasburg, and many years prior to that, Ryan Zimmerman. But at some point, don’t they need to show they can keep another star position player here for the long term?
The club isn’t facing a fast-approaching deadline in either case. Turner is entering his sixth big league season and has two years to go before he can become a free agent. Soto is entering his fourth season and won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2024 season.
The Padres, of course, managed to lock up Tatis at 21, with only two years of major league experience. It’s only natural to wonder if that might have any impact on the Nationals and Soto.
“I don’t think it gives us any more clarity of what it will take for Juan Soto,” general manager Mike Rizzo said last week. “I think every deal is separate and independent. It’s all about players’ wants and needs, and can both sides get together to fulfill those? We signed, developed and brought Juan to the big leagues in very, very short order at a very young age. We see him as hopefully as a National for a long, long time. But we’re still in the early stages of discussion.”
Rizzo confirmed the two sides did begin discussions about a long-term deal with Soto last spring, but “they didn’t go very far.” Given the unprecedented nature of the last 11 months, there hasn’t been an opportunity to revisit those talks.
“But our plans are to make an effort like we’ve made efforts in the past to our really great young players,” Rizzo said, “to keep them in a Nationals uniform for a long, long time.”
Soto, just like Harper, Rendon, Strasburg and Max Scherzer, is represented by Scott Boras, whose clients rarely agree to contract extensions before reaching free agency. (Strasburg, who agreed to his first seven-year, $210 million deal with the Nats in May of his walk year of 2016, was a notable exception.)
Boras typically advises his clients to let the system play out to their advantage. Arbitration almost always benefits players, establishing a higher bar for their annual salary before free agency. For Soto, who will make $8.5 million this year as a first-time arbitration-eligible player, it’s awfully tempting to wait it out, even if he ultimately wants to stay in D.C.
Turner may find himself in a different situation. Represented by CAA, which counts Zimmerman (among many others) as a client, he may be more inclined to agree to an extension now rather than wait two more years. His 2021 salary is $13 million, and that will continue to rise if he goes through arbitration twice more, but his ceiling won’t be as high as Soto’s is.
Even so, Turner’s offensive stats compare favorably to fellow shortstops Tatis and Francisco Lindor, who is on the verge of securing a mammoth contract in the next year. He’s not about to accept an offer that is well below his perceived value.
“For me, it’s risk versus reward,” Turner said today. “It’s a simple concept, but it’s very hard to come to an answer. Do you feel like you’ve played your best baseball? Do you feel like you have way more to prove? Do you want to bet on yourself? Do you want to have security?
“I think a lot of these things, you can’t put a blanket answer on every player. Each individual’s got different family situations, different thoughts about a city, different confidence in themselves or interest in the game, or whatever it may be. There’s so much gray, for me, that I think each person needs to do what makes them happy.”
Unfortunately, that’s probably not an answer that is going to make a lot of Nationals fans happy on this late February day.