It’s been a quiet start to the offseason, not only for the Nationals but for the entire sport, which unfortunately appears to be reluctant to sign too many free agents before the collective bargaining agreement expires one week from today, at which point the league may lock out the players.
There have been a handful of intriguing signings, though, and there certainly was one Tuesday, when the Rays agreed to a reported 11-year extension with phenom shortstop Wander Franco worth a guaranteed $182 million.
Franco, who turns 21 in March and has played all of 70 big league games, is getting by far the largest contract ever handed to a player with less than one year of experience. And if you care about the Nationals, you can’t help but now wonder about Juan Soto and what this says about his long-term contract prospects and the club’s approach so far with their young superstar.
I know, I know. I railed against all the hand-wringing about Soto’s contract last week, and here I am bringing it up again already. I’m sorry. But this story really does raise a question we haven’t asked here before, and it’s worth bringing up now: Should the Nats have tried to get Soto to sign a deal like this way back in 2018?
Soto had a better rookie season (.923 OPS in 116 games) than Franco (.810 OPS in 70 games). Franco is the superior defensive player at a more premium position, but Soto also put up his numbers as a 19-year-old while Franco debuted at 20.
In hindsight, the Nationals absolutely would have been justified in making Soto a knock-your-socks-off offer three years ago, hoping he might not be able to say no to a nine-figure deal at such a young age.
Would it have worked? Maybe, though it has to be noted here that Soto is represented by Scott Boras, while Franco is represented by Manny Paula, and that may have more to do with these players’ respective decisions than anything. Boras, as we all know, almost always advises his clients to play the long game, use baseball’s salary system to their advantage and then get a monster payday after reaching free agency.
And truth be told, Franco may be passing up a chance to make a whole lot more money than he’s getting even with this huge deal right now. If he played things out and became a free agent after the 2027 season, there’s no telling how big a number he might have been offered by another franchise.
It also must be noted that Franco will be 33 when this contract expires, and that’s not a great age to be a free agent, not in the post-steroids era.
But it’s awfully tough to turn down $182 million guaranteed at 20, and that’s the mindset the Rays took in making this offer now. Besides, given their history, what are the odds the Rays will keep Franco on their roster for 11 more seasons? There’s every reason to believe some other team will be paying him the back half of this deal.
So credit to Tampa Bay for making this happen. But let’s also acknowledge that it’s not necessarily something the rest of the sport could or would do, or that other young star players would choose to do.
At this point, it’s too late for the Nationals. Soto is four years into his illustrious career, and his price tag is already sky-high. The Nats can - and should - make every effort to lock him up as soon as possible, but they aren’t getting him at Franco prices. They aren’t even getting him at Bryce Harper prices.
Thus concludes this week’s hand-wringing over something that isn’t happening for another three years. I’ll try my best not to raise the subject again for several more weeks.