After MVP-caliber season, Soto now faces contract question

PLAYER REVIEW: JUAN SOTO

Age on opening day 2022: 23

How acquired: Signed as international free agent, July 2015

MLB service time: 3 years, 134 days

2021 salary: $8.5 million

Contract status: Arbitration-eligible, free agent in 2025

2021 stats: 151 G, 654 PA, 502 AB, 111 R, 157 H, 20 2B, 2 3B, 29 HR, 95 RBI, 9 SB, 7 CS, 145 BB, 93 SO, .313 AVG, .465 OBP, .534 SLG, .999 OPS, 175 OPS+, 3 DRS, 6.6 fWAR, 7.0 bWAR

Quotable: “I said this maybe a couple years ago: I played with a guy that was pretty impressive in his day, and that was Barry (Bonds). I said if (Soto) keeps going the way he’s going, if you compare anybody to Barry, it would be Juan right now.” - manager Davey Martinez

Soto-HR-Swing-Gray-CIN-Sidebar.jpg2021 analysis: The path Juan Soto took to get to total numbers worthy of MVP consideration was not a straight one. There were some significant twists and turns along the way, and at times some real cause for concern. That he still wound up where he did only underscores what an elite player he is.

Soto got off to a red-hot start in early April, but then a two-week stint on the injured list with a left shoulder strain was followed by one of the coldest offensive stretches of his career (at least by his lofty standards). During a 42-game period beginning May 4, he hit just .250 while slugging only .407. The problem: a ton of hard-hit ground balls, leading to nine of his eventual league-high 23 double plays.

Soto was starting to figure things out in early July, though, and then came an invitation to participate in the Home Run Derby at Coors Field. When he noted he thought it might help him get his power stroke back, many scoffed at the notion. Then he went 10-for-17 with two doubles, five homers and 11 RBIs in his first four games coming out of the All-Star break, and the narrative became reality.

Soto would proceed to put together one of the great second-half performances in recent history. Over his final 72 games, he hit .348/.525/.639, drawing an astounding 87 walks but still making the most of what few pitches he got over the plate. In the process, he became only the seventh player in history to post a .525 on-base percentage in the second half of a season, joining Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Harry Heilmann, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds and Joey Votto. He also joined Ruth, Bonds and Lou Gehrig as the only players ever to reach base four times in 26 or more games during a single season.

Not to be lost amid his jaw-dropping offensive numbers, Soto made major strides in improving his defense this season. Shifting from left field to the right field position he played coming up through the minors, he ranked above average with 3 Defensive Runs Saved and five outfield assists. He did, however, make too many baserunning mistakes, most notable in being successful on only nine of 17 stolen base attempts.

2022 outlook: You wouldn’t think there’s much room for growth here, but Soto has never been one to be content with himself. He’s always striving for ways to improve and that won’t change entering next season. He wants to make sure he remains as patient as ever at the plate while not missing any pitches he does get to drive in the air. He wants to continue to get better in the field and challenge for a Gold Glove as he did in 2019. And he especially wants to wipe out those baserunning mistakes. (It remains to be seen if he achieves that by running less frequently or getting better jumps and reads off pitchers.)

The big story with Soto right now, of course, has nothing to do with his playing performance and everything to do with his chances of staying in D.C. for the long term. He’s still got three more seasons to go before he becomes a free agent, but as was the case with Bryce Harper before him, it’s impossible to ignore the noise already stirring about the kind of record-breaking contract he’s likely to command.

The Nationals can (and should) begin the process now and make him a real offer ASAP, one that will let everyone know they truly are serious about trying to keep him here. But truth be told, there’s very little reason for Soto to accept any offer at this point. He’s already due for a massive raise via arbitration this winter, probably in the neighborhood of $16 million. And then he’ll have two more years of arbitration to continue to raise that salary bar before ever reaching free agency (assuming the league’s new collective bargaining agreement doesn’t include an overhaul of that system, which it could).

Soto has every reason to wait this out, go into free agency after the 2024 season and let multiple clubs duke it out with each other over his services. It’s the unfortunate truth from the Nationals’ standpoint. The best thing they can do between now and then, though, is build a team that will be ready to win again by 2024 at the latest, hoping to achieve one of two potential goals: have one more shot at winning a title with Soto on the roster or convince him this is the place he wants to spend the rest of his career.

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