MLB All-Star Game 2022: Juan Soto setting sights beyond Nats to free agency

By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer

LOS ANGELES — Like he often does in the batter’s box, like he did to win Monday night’s Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium, Juan Soto put on quite the performance at his Monday morning Media Day appearance ahead of the 2022 All-Star Game (8 p.m. ET Tuesday on FOX and the FOX Sports app). 

There, the Soto Shuffle described not a celebration of a good swing decision but an artful sidestep of repeated questions about his future.

The questions were prompted, of course, by last week’s revelation that the Washington Nationals were considering trading Soto after he turned down their $440 million, 15-year extension offer. How did it feel when he saw The Athletic’s report about the offer? Does Soto want to be traded? Does Soto want to be traded to a specific team or city — say, New York? Does Soto want to wait it out until free agency? 

Of all those, and many more, Soto really answered only two: It felt “really bad” to see his private negotiations made public, and, yes, he wants to become a free agent.

His agent, Scott Boras, stood to Soto’s side for his entire 45-minute session, seamlessly conducted in English and Spanish. A Boras Corp. employee stood next to his boss, interpreting questions posed to Soto in Spanish and Soto’s answers. 

When it was over, Soto snagged his cardboard nameplate and hoisted it over his head to shield himself from the midday sun.

Boras put his arm around Soto, and Soto reciprocated. The two men walked together toward the outfield at Dodger Stadium, then split as Soto headed for the National League clubhouse while Boras went to stump for him and position the offer as nothing more than a ploy. The overall dollar value would be baseball’s biggest, but the average annual value of $29.3 million would be far short of what Boras and Soto are targeting. 

Soto’s peers also stumped for him.

“My first reaction was: Whatever you read is not the whole answer,” said Trea Turner, Soto’s fellow All-Star, former teammate and close friend. “You don’t know what the contract looks like or what he wants or any context other than a big number, and people focused on that number, too much so.”

Home Run Derby: Juan Soto wins, proves himself on the biggest stage

Ben Verlander reacts to Juan Soto winning the 2022 Home Run Derby after recently turning down a $440 million offer from the Washington Nationals.

Considering his current circumstances, Soto holding out for the free-agent market makes more sense than it does for almost any other player. For one, he has already been guaranteed more than $26 million from the Nationals, and he’s virtually guaranteed another $45 million, at least, through arbitration over the 2023 and 2024 seasons. 

Talented players commit their entire primes to secure the sort of payments Soto already knows are coming his way. At 23, he does not need to sign away his future to find financial freedom. He already has it.

“Whatever decision he makes, he’s gonna have plenty of money,” Turner said. “He needs to make the decision that’s best for him and his family, and that’s where the context and information is lost. You don’t know how the conversations went between them. There’s a lot of information out there that people don’t know, and I think he is gonna make the best decision for himself.” 

What’s more, the Nationals are very much up for sale. Soto signing now — even more than is the case with most decade-long deals — means committing to the unknown. Soto did not go so far as to say that there is no reason for him to do so, but Boras certainly did.

“He was fully aware of what was going to happen and why,” Boras said. “When a team comes and offers one of the greatest players in the game an [average annual value] that is not even in the top 15, the player is fully aware of it. 

“These are things that are done to optimize franchise value. They’re done to show the owner that they’ve got something of great value so that they can optimize their sale. I don’t think any player’s going to sign with an owner he doesn’t know.”

Boras indicated that it had not been his or Soto’s desire to engage in extension negotiations with the Nationals. They merely listened and said no. To hear him tell it, they’d have rejected any offer, no matter how lucrative. 

Boras also argued that the next Nationals owner will want to have the choice of retaining or trading Soto. And whether it is the current or future owner who decides, Boras said he envies them.

“Lucky you being able to make that decision,” he said. 

And lucky for Soto that he has established a resumé so strong that he can aim higher than a half-billion dollars. His play, the first half of 2022 notwithstanding, has been so exceptional that it is difficult to envision the Dodgers, Yankees or any team, with two weeks’ notice, meeting the Nationals’ prospect demands and guaranteeing Soto the fortune that would get him to forgo free agency.

As one example: All-Star right-hander Joe Musgrove said it would be “incredible” if his Padres added Soto within the next two weeks. But in his next breath, he alluded to the record-setting price — in dollars and prospects — they’d have to pay.

“I know we have a lot of big contracts out there,” Musgrove said. “After seeing him turn down $440 million, I’m not sure what that’s gonna look like if he does come to San Diego.”

No one knows where Soto will play next, if there even will be a next place, or how much he’ll make doing it. 

But we know he’ll keep on performing.

Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic and, before that, the Angels and Dodgers for five seasons for the Orange County Register and L.A. Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the Southern California suburbs. His first book, “How to Beat a Broken Game,” came out this spring. Follow him on Twitter @pedromoura.

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