Friday, August 19, 2022

Will Juan Soto sign MLB’s first $500 million deal? Four reasons why new Padres star could hit milestone

Juan Soto, now of the San Diego Padres, is no longer the story of the 2022 MLB trade deadline. That is because the 2022 MLB trade deadline has passed. Soto, however, remains the story. He’s the story in large measure because of what he means to the San Diego lineup and their postseason hopes. He’s also the story on account of the very real possibility that he will eventually become baseball’s first $500 million man. 

Whether Soto threatens or surpasses that once unimaginable mark via free agency or contract extension with San Diego remains to be determined, but regardless of the specific path he takes he has a real chance at fetching a guarantee of, yes, half a billion dollars (or more!). If your baseball fandom dates back several years, then that’s a pretty stunning premise – one that perhaps merits further exploration. Let’s do just that and explore the reasons why Soto may soon make MLB salary history on a massive scale. 

1. Soto is a rare hitter

Soto this season is batting .246/.408/.485 with 21 home runs and an MLB-leading 91 walks in 101 games. For his career, he now owns a slash line of .291/.427/.538 across parts of five big-league seasons. He’s also put up an on-base percentage of .400 or greater in every season of his career thus far, which occasions this: 

Even more impressive is that Soto has authored these numbers despite playing his home games in a ballpark that suppresses offense. Look at OPS+, which corrects for ballpark and league influences, and we find that Soto for his career has a park-adjusted OPS of 160, which means it’s 60 percent better than the league-average of 100. This puts him in elite company among players age-23 or younger with a minimum of 500 games played: 

Ted Williams

190

Ty Cobb

171

Mike Trout

169

Juan Soto

160

Eddie Mathews

157

Mickey Mantle

156

Jimmie Foxx

154

Mel Ott

153

Rogers Hornsby, Arky Vaughn

150

Yes, Soto’s career OPS+ of 160 is the fourth-highest ever for a player age-23 or younger and a minimum of 500 games played. Peruse the list above and you’ll find that the only players on it who aren’t presently Hall of Famers are Mike Trout and Soto. Enviable company, that. 

His exceptional contact skills and mastery of the strike zone also suggest he’ll age well as a hitter. Even though he hits for power and puts up excellent exit-velocity numbers, Soto has many more walks – 464 total – than strikeouts – 412. Not surprisingly, he’s in the 99th percentile when it comes to laying off pitches outside the strike zone. What you want out of a true heart-of-the-order batsman is power mixed with patience – or, if you prefer, high slugging averages mixed with on-base percentages. Soto provides those things better than almost anyone in the game today. 

On top of all those merits, Soto has also been durable. This season, he’s on pace to register his third season of at least 150 games played within the last four years. The exception, of course, is 2020, when the regular season was abbreviated to just 60 games. 

2. He’s also still very young

When Soto made his big-league debut in 2018, he was a mere 19 years and 207 days old. Reaching the highest level of baseball at such a young age is itself a sign of future greatness, and it also puts the player in line to reach important service-time benchmarks long before most peers do. For instance, Soto achieved arbitration eligibility – aided by the “super two” system – going into the 2021 season. At the time he was just 22. If he signs an extension during the current season, then he’ll do so at age 23. If it happens over the winter, he’ll be 24. If Soto eschews doing so, then he’ll become a free agent at age 26. 

When a player combines excellence with youth – particularly as free agency looms – he’s going to make a great deal of money. That’s because he already promises an established level of high performance, and he figures to sustain that level or thereabouts for many years to come. When you’re as young as Soto is, there’s also the tantalizing possibility that he’s still pre-peak. Teams will pay for that. 

3. Soto and his camp turned down $440 million from the Nats

Let’s acknowledge the obvious. The only reason we’re having this discussion is because Soto reportedly passed on a 15-year, $440 million extension offered by the Washington Nationals, the team that traded him away on Tuesday. Soto had been Nats lifer since he inked with them as a 16-year-old international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2015. In addition to spending almost one-third of his life under the Nationals banner, he also won a World Series with them in 2019. All of this is to say, there’s nothing to suggest that Soto turned down the offer because of unhappiness with the organization or a prevailing desire to play elsewhere. Rather, he very likely turned it down because he has estimated the going rates for his services to be quite a bit higher. Typically, players and their representatives are right about that, just as teams typically overestimate the scale of any “hometown discount.” 

What Soto is worth is really unknowable until he signs his next contract, but here’s a semi-recent informed estimation that fits quite nicely with the premise at hand: 

Value is a fluid concept, of course, and at this writing Spotrac pegs Soto’s current market value at a bit more than $483 million. That’s obviously shy of $500 million, but it’s very much within range. And as you saw above Soto has a $500 million valuation in his recent past. 

4. An extension could be the most likely route

Germane to this discussion is that the four biggest contracts in MLB history have been extensions and not free-agent pacts: 

*You’ll occasionally see Trout’s extension listed at lower value, but the $426.5 million total value figure reflects the fact that the extension replaced the final two seasons of Trout’s prior contract. 

Relatedly, it’s a hefty price when teams buy out free agent years, and in Soto’s case they’d not only be getting cost certainty through his final two arbitration years; they’d also be paying for 10 or more free agent years. As well, the Padres have heavy incentives to do what it takes to secure Soto’s services beyond the current horizon because they paid a massive price in young talent to get him. 

At this point, it’s again worth emphasizing his uncommon youth. Of the four record contract extensions you see above – the four biggest contracts in MLB history, you’ll recall – only his new teammate Tatis Jr., at 22, was younger than Soto at the time of his extension. Trout, Betts, and Lindor were all 27 – much older than Soto is right now. 

The total value of Tatis’ contract might seem to be a point against Soto’s signing for $500 million or more, but don’t forget the context. Tatis signed his extension in early 2021, when revenues were still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the looming expiration of the collective bargaining agreement also added to the uncertainties in play. As well, Tatis had already dealt with serious lower back issues, which are a worrisome thing in a young player who plays a demanding defensive position and was surely reflected in the final price tag. Throw in multiple years of salary inflation, and Tatis’ deal doesn’t really look like all that much of a framework for Soto. 

In fact, it may look like a harbinger of Soto’s becoming, yes, MLB’s first $500 million player.

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