LOS ANGELES — It takes remarkable self-assurance to show down $440 million. No baseball player has ever earned that much in a single contract. Most of us would eagerly sign.
But most of us should not major leaguers, and even inside that tight community, there is simply one Juan Soto. Few can match his talent, and possibly none can match his showmanship.
The fans didn’t vote for Soto to start out within the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday. Five outfielders finished ahead of him within the balloting, with Ronald Acuña Jr., Mookie Betts and Joc Pederson winning the starting spots. Soto has not quite played to his profession norms for much of this season, and his team, the Washington Nationals, has baseball’s worst record.
Yet Soto is here, and when Soto shows up at a ballpark, remarkable things are likely to occur. He found a approach to dominate All-Star eve on Monday together with his slugging and his fielding — of questions. After spending about an hour within the early afternoon discussing his future with reporters, Soto spent the early evening winning the Home Run Derby.
As an announcement of his value, it was hard to be more emphatic.
“It’s one other thing that I add to my trophy case, and I’m going to have it there endlessly,” said Soto, who outlasted Seattle’s Julio Rodríguez within the finals, after eliminating Cleveland’s José Ramírez and St. Louis’ Albert Pujols. “And I can be a Home Run Derby champion endlessly.”
The Nationals would really like to maintain Soto of their uniform endlessly, or a minimum of for the subsequent 15 years. They’d hoped to entice him by making a proposal more lucrative than Mike Trout’s record $426.5 million take care of the Los Angeles Angels. Nevertheless it’s all within the perception.
To Soto and his agent, Scott Boras, the more relevant measure is the typical annual value of the proposal: $29.3 million, far below Max Scherzer’s record $43.3 million in his three-year, $130 million take care of the Mets. Soto can’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season, so for now he waits — for a greater offer, perhaps, or possibly for a trade.
The Nationals dealt Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner to the Dodgers last summer, officially signaling a reconstruction. The franchise is up on the market and would really like to construct around Soto, who is simply 23. But in the mean time he’s something like a Rembrandt at a third-grade art show, a masterpiece painfully misplaced.
The Nationals have publicly vowed to not trade Soto, but that was before contract talks collapsed. Boras has made many deals with the Nationals, but on Monday he chastised them for putting Soto on a industrial flight to Los Angeles while other teams paid for charters. The connection between player and team seems strained, at best.
“All of the conversations that they’ve, they’re going to have them with him,” Soto said, referring to Boras. “I’m just going to be here to play baseball. I’m just going to go to Nationals Park and provides my hundred percent each day.”
He’s got his clichés down, but otherwise Soto has an aversion to the mundane. He guards the strike zone with such intensity that even taking a pitch could be compelling. And no one can match his production: Of the 87 major leaguers to look in 500 games across the last five seasons, Soto ranks first in on-base plus slugging percentage, at .968.
“Competing against Juan, because the day he walked into the massive leagues and walked into that Nationals clubhouse within the Show, he’s taken the league by storm,” said the Mets’ Pete Alonso, who lost to Rodríguez within the second round on Monday, ending his streak of two derby victories.
“I like him personally, but competing against him, it’s not enjoyable, because typically he’s doing what Juan does. He’s a wonderful player and he’s been there for thus a few years. He’s a championship player.”
Soto, who helped the Nationals win the 2019 World Series, was hitting .215 as recently as June 25. Since then he has been almost unstoppable — a .411 average with as many homers as strikeouts (six) and 22 walks. The Home Run Derby should only help.
Last summer in Colorado, Soto spoiled the hyped-up derby debut of the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani, knocking him out in the primary round and blasting the night’s longest homer, at 520 feet. By deliberately attempting to elevate the ball, Soto said, he unlocked a fly-ball swing that mainly turned him into Ted Williams after the All-Star break, with a .348 average, .525 on-base percentage and .639 slugging percentage.
Alonso — perhaps probably the most enthusiastic participant in derby history — also disputes the speculation that the event results in bad habits.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I mean, truthfully, my second-half performances after doing it have been really, really good. Actually stellar. I believe, in a way, the derby type of locks me in and gets me able to go for the second half.”
Soto has nothing to prove to interested teams, but a locked-in version could only raise his extraordinary trade value before the Aug. 2 deadline. If the house run derby was any indication, he won’t be distracted in any respect.
“I’m a lone survivor,” Soto said. “I’ve been going through all these things and I’m still here standing up with my chin up, on a regular basis. And that shows you I can undergo anything.”