Juan Soto beats Julio Rodriguez in the Home Run Derby

LOS ANGELES – It takes a certain amount of confidence to turn down $440 million. A baseball player has never received so many single contracts. Most of us will eagerly sign.

But most of us are not major leaguers, and even in this tight-knit community there is only one Juan Soto. Few can match his talent and perhaps none can match his spectacle.

The fans didn’t vote for Soto to start in Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium. Five outsiders finished ahead of him in the voting, with Ronald Acuna Jr., Mookie Betts and Yoc Pederson winning the starting spots. Soto hasn’t played at his career highs for much of this season, and his team, the Washington Nationals, have the worst record in baseball.

But Soto is here, and when Soto appears on the ballpark, remarkable things happen. He found a way to dominate the night before All-Star Monday with his teasing and questions. After spending about an hour in the afternoon discussing his future with reporters, Soto spent the early evening winning the Home Run Derby.

As a statement of its value, it could hardly have been more emphatic.

“It’s something else I’m adding to my trophy case and I’ll be there forever,” said Soto, who outlasted Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez, Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez and St. Louis’ Albert Pujols in the finals. “And I’ll be the Home Run Derby champion forever.”

The Nationals want to keep Soto in shape forever, or at least for the next 15 years. They hoped to land him with a more lucrative offer than Mike Trout’s record $426.5 million deal with Los Angeles. But it’s all in the perception.

For Soto and his agent, Scott Boras, the more relevant measure is the average annual value of the proposal: $29.3 million, well below Max Scherzer’s record $43.3 million in a three-year, $130 million contract with the Mets. Soto can’t be a free agent after the 2024 season, so now he’s waiting — for a better offer, perhaps, or perhaps a trade.

The Nationals dealt Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers last summer, officially signaling a rebuild. The franchise is for sale and wants to build around Soto, who is only 23 years old. But at the moment it’s like a Rembrandt at a third-rate art show, a masterpiece painfully out of place.

The Nationals have publicly vowed not to trade Soto, but that was before contract talks broke down. Boras has made many deals with the Nationals, but on Monday he chastised them for putting Soto on a commercial flight to Los Angeles while other teams paid for the charters. The relationship between player and team seems strained at best.

“Every conversation they have, they’re going to have with them,” Soto said, referring to Boras. “I’ll be here to play baseball. I’m just going to go to Nationals Park and give my hundred percent every day.”

It doesn’t have its clichés, but otherwise Soto has a disdain for the mundane. He defends the strike zone with such intensity that even going out on the field can be convincing. And no one can match his production: Of the 87 major leaguers who have appeared in 500 games over the last five seasons, Soto ranks first in on-base plus slugging percentage at .968.

“Competing with Juan, from the day he made it to the big leagues and walked into the Nationals clubhouse on the show, he took over the league,” said Metz’s Pete Alonso, who lost to Rodriguez in the second round on Monday. Ended a two-game winning streak in the Derby.

I like him personally, but competing against him is not fun because he usually does what Juan does. He is a great player and has been there for so many years. He’s a champion player.”

Soto, who helped the Nationals win the 2019 World Series, hit .215 on June 25. Since then, he’s been nearly unstoppable, hitting a .411 average with as many homers as he has hits (six) and 22 walks. Home Run Derby just has to help.

Last summer in Colorado, Soto spoiled the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani’s Derby debut, striking him out in the first round and blasting the longest homer of the night, 520 feet. By making a conscious effort to elevate the ball, Soto said, he opened up a ball swing that basically turned him into Ted Williams after the All-Star break, with a .348 average, a .525 on-base percentage and a .639 slugging percentage.

Alonso – perhaps the most enthusiastic participant in the history of the derby – also disputes the theory that the event leads to bad habits.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “Honestly, my performances in the second half after that were really, really good. Actually stellar. I think, in a way, the derby shuts me down and prepares me for the second half.”

Soto has nothing to prove to interested teams, but a lockout could only increase his extraordinary trade value before the Aug. 2 deadline. If the home derby was any indication, he won’t be distracted at all.

“I’m a lone survivor,” Soto said. “I’ve been through it all and I’m still here with my chin up, always. And it shows you that I can go through anything.”

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