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Juan Soto rejected Nationals’ $350 million pre-lockout offer, hints he will test free agency

Juan Soto's offer from the Nationals did not include payment deferrals, according to a person with knowledge of the terms. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The biggest question of the Washington Nationals’ present and future is whether they can keep star outfielder Juan Soto beyond the next three seasons. And while the answer is not expected anytime soon, Soto turned down a 13-year, $350 million offer before the ongoing lockout, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.

There was no deferred money in the offer, according to a person with knowledge of the terms, which breaks from the Nationals’ tendency to coat long-term contracts with payment deferrals. Soto also confirmed these details to ESPN’s Enrique Rojas, who was first to report the offer Wednesday. In an interview conducted and published in Spanish, the outfielder told Rojas that he and his agent, Scott Boras, are currently leaning toward going year-to-year and waiting for free agency.

Soto, who turned 23 in October, can hit the open market after the 2024 season. Thirteen years and $350 million carry an average annual value of about $27 million. With Major League Baseball in a lockout, Soto and the club — a combination of General Manager Mike Rizzo’s front office and an ownership group headed by Mark Lerner — cannot restart discussions until the work stoppage lifts.

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Soto finished second in National League MVP voting in 2021, slugging 29 homers and posting a batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash line of .313/.465/.534. He is considered one of baseball’s best hitters, making it apt to frame his future earnings in comparison with that of the game’s top stars.

Outfielder Bryce Harper, the NL MVP, signed a 13-year, $330 million deal in 2019 with the Philadelphia Phillies at 26. Shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who finished just behind Soto in MVP voting, signed a 14-year, $340 million extension with the San Diego Padres at 22 in February 2021. In the spring of 2019, outfielder Mike Trout, then 27, signed a 12-year, $430 million extension with the Los Angeles Angels that stands as the richest contract in the sport’s history. And earlier this offseason, 37-year-old pitcher Max Scherzer, Soto’s former teammate with the Nationals, broke the average annual value record by inking a three-year, $130 million deal with the New York Mets (more than $43 million annually).

What does all of that mean for Soto? It’s hard to tell.

If he eventually goes to free agency, he will be a year younger than Harper was when he signed with the Phillies. Tatis, on the other hand, opted for lucrative security rather than betting on himself for an even bigger payday down the line.

Some have floated that Soto will ultimately command a record-setting $500 million deal. It is a staggering number that would put the annual value and the length on the player’s terms. Often, players have to sacrifice one of those to juice the other. Soto may be the rare talent who can command both.

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In his interview with ESPN, Soto said he still envisions his future in Washington. He has shared similar sentiments over the past few years. The difference here was that, instead of just saying negotiations are Boras’s job, as he typically has, Soto publicly stated his interest in testing free agency in three years. The Nationals would then have to compete against other teams and Soto’s and Boras’s valuation.

In the meantime, putting the critical factor of money aside, they can begin to lure the young star with a swift and effective rebuild.

“Juan Soto wants to win,” Boras said at MLB’s general managers meetings in November. “So the first thing that’s going to have to happen is that he knows that he’s working with an ownership that’s going to annually try to compete and win.”