After turning down $440 million, Juan Soto just wants to play

LOS ANGELES — Before Juan Soto met with reporters Monday before the 2022 Major League Baseball All-Star Game the next day at Dodger Stadium, he pulled out his cell phone and made a call. A few seconds later, his agent Scott Boras appeared, also on the phone. Accompanied by several assistants, Boras stood a few feet away from Soto as he answered questions, many of them about his future.

Soto, a 23-year-old outfielder for the Washington Nationals, is one of the sport’s biggest stars. He is a two-time All-Star. He won the batting title in 2020 and the World Series in 2019. In five seasons, he has 118 home runs and a .968 on-base percentage. After his rookie season in 2018, only seven players accumulated more wins than replacement, according to FanGraphs.

The Nationals tried to sign Soto to a long-term contract extension, but those efforts were unsuccessful. The most recent proposal — a 15-year, $440 million extension that would have been the largest contract in MLB history — was rejected. As a result, reports emerged Saturday that the Nationals were holding out on deals for Soto, who will hit free agency in 2025.

How does a franchise properly evaluate and then acquire the talent needed to replace Soto? And first, how does a team manage the treacherous public relations battle with a popular young superstar via free agency or trade?

“For me, I’m just focused on baseball right now,” said Soto, who is hitting .250 with 20 home runs and a .901 OPS. “There’s nothing you can do about it. My hands are tied. I’m just going to play as hard as I can, play baseball, and forget about everything else. I don’t make decisions. They make decisions. If they want to make a decision, I just have to pack my things and go. Now I’m just going to keep playing baseball as hard as I can.”

Soto was clearly concerned that the latest expansion offer was made public. She said it was “quite harsh and quite frustrating because I try to keep my stuff private”.

Asked if the Nationals and Soto would continue to discuss the extension, Boras’ answer Monday was reassuring. He said: “When we do these things, we want all our discussions to be private. We now know they’re not, so I’m sure Juan will take that into account as he moves forward.”

In June, Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ longtime general manager, said the team “would not trade” Soto and “we made that clear to his agent and the player.” Soto said Monday that no one has been told why it changed, if at all.

“It feels really uncomfortable,” he added. “You don’t know what to trust. But in the end it was out of my hands.”

But why would Soto turn down such a large sum?

“It’s a very unique environment,” Boras said before pointing to Alex Rodriguez, a former star, in the infield. Not since A-Rod have I had a superstar who will be a 25-26-year-old free agent. They just don’t come around that often where you have that level of performance for their teams. They offer clubs extra value that can be a billion dollar performance.

Boras, who generally prefers that his clients establish their value in free agency rather than negotiate with just one team, added that baseball is worth billions and players are worth millions and that Soto is “at the top of the food chain.”

However, there are many complicating factors. Lerner, who owns the Nationals, makes entertaining proposals to sell the team.

Since they won the 2019 World Series, the Nationals haven’t posted a winning season and have an MLB-worst record at 31-63. They are in the process of rebuilding and it is unclear how soon they will face each other again. Last month, the Nationals exercised contract options on Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez, but that extension only runs through the 2023 season.

Soto said he wants to get to know the team’s new owner and see what they think and how they can help the team win.

“He’s in a position where he’s a great asset to a major league franchise, and that franchise is going to sell,” Boras said. “I don’t think anyone wants to work for someone they don’t know. So it’s kind of a ghost contract. We don’t know who will pay. So when you’re a player like Juan, you’re a winner and you want to make sure there’s a lot more involved than dollars and cents and who you’ll be working for and where you’ll be. for the majority.”

Soto said he wasn’t thinking about playing for another team and wanted to win another title with the Nationals. He called the team’s lack of wins “very disappointing.” He admitted that the negotiations and the added attention took a toll on his mind. He also said he likely wanted to stop offseason discussions because “it’s very difficult to have all that talk and build a winning team.”

Soto, who signed with the Nationals from his native Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old, insisted his relationship with the team hasn’t changed. However, time will tell.

“I’ve been a nationalist since day one,” he said. “Why should I want to change? I have been here all my life and career. I feel great where I am. “

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