If the Nationals do not recognize the near-perfect parallels between Tatis and their own wildly popular Soto — both are 22 and would-be free agents after the 2024 season — they may regret it for decades.
If they do see the obvious comparisons and offer the sort of many-years-before-it’s-necessary contract they never have before, they may be able to nail down a career-long bond that helps define and elevate the franchise for generations.
To clarify for the non-MLB follower, since arriving in mid-2019, the flamboyant, joyous Tatis, whose father once hit 34 homers for the St. Louis Cardinals, has played 143 games. He has hit 39 homers with a .301 batting average, .374 on-base percentage and .582 slugging percentage while stealing 27 bases and playing a scintillating and, for his age, sufficiently steady (21 errors) shortstop.
For comparison, in the past two seasons combined, the similarly joyous Soto played 197 games and slashed .297/.421/.580 while, per 162 games, averaging more than 120 runs, RBI and walks.
From the Nats’ perspective, such a deal would be simple but scary, brave but, in sports where nothing is certain, as good a chance as they will get to embrace and enjoy Soto through age 35. They should try to do with Soto what they did with homegrown Stephen Strasburg, who is sure to earn $355 million through age 37.
Unless you’re the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Yankees, you can’t afford to “keep ’em all.” Painfully but for sane reasons, the Nats already have watched Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon walk away as free agents. Trea Turner, who’s exceptional but unlikely to be a Hall of Famer, may be hard to keep after 2023. Like his buddy Rendon, he seems content but not in love with D.C. Will the Nats be able and willing to keep Max Scherzer, who is headed to Cooperstown, after this season? Considering he will be 37 then, should they? That’s a lot of emotional pain for fans to absorb and stay loyal.
You must decide which ones to hold; the earlier you decide — the more faith you show and the more risk you assume — the more likely you are to keep ’em.
For me, Soto is the “Just Do It” one. The others? Hug ’em, take your best shot. Hope for one of two.
On Thursday in Nats training camp, General Manager Mike Rizzo said what you would expect him to say and what he has to say: Soto is fabulous. The Nationals discussed a long-term deal with Soto and his representation in the spring, but the talks “didn’t go very far” and have yet to resume. Every player, every situation is different. Nothing to see here — for now.
That was easy to say — before the Tatis typhoon. Oh, to be a bug in the Nats’ offices now.
If Soto’s career arc is seriously damaged by injury or just “life” in the next four seasons, when he would have remained under team control at bargain prices ($8.5 million in 2021), then paying him $25 million a year through 2034 will look like a sad financial mistake.
But flip the coin. That’s why Soto should consider such a deal, just as Tatis did. The Sotos would be set for generations, and Juan could focus on playing the game he loves in a city that adores him for a franchise with which he already has won a ring. All the angst of the free agency chase would be gone. No matter what happens, Nats fans will know why the team took a chance on him. And they will buy in.
Two central elements of a 14-year deal to a 22-year-old need to be brought into sharp focus. First, with the caveat that all sports money is crazy, $340 million spread over 14 years isn’t nearly as much money as it seems. The “present value” of Tatis’s $340 million, made in equal payments over 14 years, is “merely” about $232.9 million — or $16.6 million a year.
As long as Soto stays vertical, and nothing in his history suggests he won’t, he’ll be a bargain at Tatis prices through age 35. He’ll probably have earned the whole value of the entire contract by the time he’s 30.
Worth noting: Soto reached arbitration this year, a season sooner than Tatis, so that boosts Soto’s fair asking price a bit.
The final argument to the jury — in this case, the Lerner family — is to take a look at a list of the amazing players, the franchise definers, who are not in the top 40 in career wins above replacement (WAR) in MLB history. Leave out the fantasy comparison for whom Soto might be.
Al Kaline, George Brett, Chipper Jones, Jeff Bagwell, Joe DiMaggio, Brooks Robinson, Robin Yount and Johnny Bench all spent their entire careers with one team and are synonymous with that brand. They still sell tickets, though long retired or dead.
Drop down to names that fall between 75th and 125th in total career value — certainly a place where knowledgeable evaluators could imagine Tatis or Soto, just as they could the Atlanta Braves’ 23-year-old Ronald Acuña Jr. Who is there, at least by WAR: Derek Jeter, Barry Larkin, Mr. Expo Gary Carter, Mr. Padre Tony Gwynn and Mr. Cub Ernie Banks.
Icons such as Yogi Berra and Willie Stargell, synonymous with Yankees titles and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ family, are not among the top 150 players.
Juan Soto does not have to max out his career similars. He does not have to get better. He can even regress somewhat and mix in a couple of “off years,” then start getting old after age 30. And he would still be worth $350 million for 14 years right now.
Like most owners, the Lerners hate to “bid against themselves” for years, trying to reach long extensions with young stars. Oh, they have “talks.” But the team has no public record of a blow-away offer to anyone several years before it needed to “go big.” That’s part of why the 10-year, $300 million offer to Harper in September 2018 was too late.
Perhaps Soto is like Harper appears to have been: a player who wants to be the national focus during his free market winter and to set a new salary record.
But you never know until you try — really try.
The Tatis contract gives the Nats a chance to say, “This is what the market says a 22-year-old who may be an all-time great is worth, four years before we need to offer you such an enormous, long and risky deal.”
Maybe it doesn’t work. It’s Soto’s life and his decision. No hard feelings. But to me, as they say in D.C. these days, it’s time to “Go big or go home.”