LOS ANGELES — Before Juan Soto met with reporters on Monday ahead of the 2022 Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium the following day, he pulled out his cellphone and made a call. A few moments later, his agent, Scott Boras, appeared, also on the phone. With a few assistants in tow, Boras stood a few feet away from Soto as he answered questions, many of them about his future.
Soto, a 23-year-old Washington Nationals outfielder, is one of the biggest stars in the sport. He is a two-time All-Star. He won a batting title in 2020 and the World Series in 2019. In five seasons, he has 118 home runs and a .968 on-base plus slugging percentage. Since his rookie season, in 2018, only seven players have accumulated more wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.
The Nationals have tried to sign Soto to a long-term contract extension, but those efforts have proved unsuccessful. The latest proposal — a 15-year, $440 million extension, which would have been the largest contract in M.L.B. history — was rejected. As a result, reports emerged on Saturday that the Nationals would entertain trades for Soto, who reaches free agency in 2025.
How does a franchise properly assess and then acquire the talent needed in exchange for Soto? And, in the first place, how does a team navigate the treacherous public relations battle of parting ways, either via free agency or a trade, with a popular young superstar?
“For me now, I’m just concentrating on baseball,” said Soto, who is hitting .250 with 20 home runs and a .901 O.P.S. “You can’t do anything about it. I have my hands tied. I’m just going to play as hard as I can and play baseball and forget about anything else. I don’t make the decisions. They take the decisions. If they want to make the decision, I got to just pack my stuff and go. Now I’m going to keep playing baseball as hard as I can.”
Soto was clearly peeved that the latest extension offer became public. He said it was “pretty tough and pretty frustrating because I try to keep my stuff private.”
Asked if the Nationals and Soto would continue discussing an extension, Boras’s answer on Monday was telling. He said, “When we do these things, we want all of our discussions to be private. We now know that they’re not, so I’m sure Juan will take that into advisement as he goes forward.”
In June, Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ longtime general manager, said that the team was “not trading” Soto and “we’ve made it clear to his agent and to the player.” On Monday, Soto said no one had told him why that had changed, if at all.
“It feels really uncomfortable,” he added. “You don’t know what to trust. But at the end of the day it’s out of my hands.”
But why would Soto reject such a large amount of money?
“This is a very unique setting,” Boras said before alluding to Alex Rodriguez, the former star infielder. “I haven’t had a player that’s a superstar since A-Rod who is going to be a 25-26-year-old free agent. They just don’t come along that often where you have that level of performance for their teams. They offer clubs a surplus value that may be as much as a billion dollars in performance.”
Boras, who generally prefers that his clients establish their value in free agency rather than negotiate with just one team, added that baseball is about billions while players are about millions, and that Soto is “at the top of the food chain.”
There are many complicating factors, though. The Lerners, who own the Nationals, are entertaining offers to sell the team.
Since they won the 2019 World Series, the Nationals have not posted a winning season and have an M.L.B.-worst 31-63 record this year. They are in the midst of a rebuild and it is unclear how soon they will contend again. And last month, the Nationals exercised the contract options on Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez, but those extensions are only through the 2023 season.
Soto said he would like to get to know the new team owner and see what is on their mind and how to help the team win.
“He’s in a position where he’s a huge asset to a major league franchise and that franchise is going to be sold,” Boras said. “I don’t think anybody wants to work for someone they don’t know. So it’s kind of a ghost contract. We don’t know who’s going to pay it. Consequently, when you’re a player like Juan, you’re a winning player and you want to make sure there’s a lot more things than dollars and cents involved and who you’re going to work for and where you’re going to be for the majority.”
Soto said he had not been thinking about playing for another team and wanted to claim another title with the Nationals. He called the team’s lack of winning “very frustrating.” He admitted that the negotiations and added attention have weighed on his mind. He also said that he would probably want to pause in-season discussions because “it’s very hard with all this talk and trying to make a winning team.”
Soto, who signed with the Nationals out of his native Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old, insisted that his relationship with the team had not changed. Time, though, will tell.
“I’ve been a National since Day 1,” he said. “Why should I want to change? I’ve been here my whole life and my career. I feel great where I’m at.”