After seasons of struggle, Juan Soto’s historic bet on himself is about to pay off


On July 16, 2022, more than 37,000 fans crammed into Nationals Park on a muggy midsummer afternoon. Washington already had 62 losses by that point — still days before the All-Star break — and there was little hope that a second-half surge was coming. Fans were there to see their homegrown prodigy, Juan Soto, and because of a Star Wars-themed bobblehead giveaway: “Juan Solo.”

Soto had helped the franchise win its first World Series in 2019, and became the youngest player to win an NL batting title the following season. On that afternoon, fans clutched their bobbleheads and rose to their feet every time Soto stepped to the batter’s box, as they had for five years. It would have been a mundane 6-3 loss to the Braves — except that a few hours before, The Athletic reported that Soto declined a $440 million extension and the Nationals were going to try to trade him.

Soto, who had been mired in an uncharacteristic slump, had been angry and withdrawn all day. As the game wore on, the MegaMillions jackpot — now north of $500 million — flashed on the JumboTron. In the dugout, one of the Nationals staffers let out a low whistle, turned to one of the coaches and nodded in Soto’s direction.

“Imagine turning down that kind of money?”

Less than three weeks later, Soto was shipped to the San Diego Padres. He cried when he heard the news.

Twenty months after the trade, Soto smiles as he reminisces about his time with the Nationals. He is wearing a three-quarter sleeve gray t-shirt with the Yankees logo scripted on the front, sitting in front of a neat locker filled with gloves and Under Armour shoes ahead of the 2024 season opener. It has been three months since his trade from the Padres to the Yankees, his third team in three seasons.

“That was a real family,” Soto says of the 2019 team. Then his smile faded. “And it will never be that way again.”

Soto was bothered by the criticism he received after turning down the Nationals offer, a decision that caused a rift among some of his family members. But since Soto turned down that $440 million, Yankees teammate Aaron Judge signed a $360 million deal and Shohei Ohtani signed with the Dodgers for $700 million. Soto is about seven months away from a free-agent payday that, given his age (still only 25) and his skills — which have been compared to Ted Williams’ — could reset the market.

He seems happier with New York, playing in a stadium ideally built for him to launch baseballs into the stands, for the richest franchise in baseball. He has moved on from his tumultuous time in San Diego, where he endured a lengthy slump, struggled to connect with teammates and coaches, and knew the Padres were never going to give him the contract he wanted.

Soto made a historic bet on himself. Now, he seems primed to cash in.

Through his first five games in New York, Soto has nine hits and a 1.210 OPS. (Tim Warner / Getty Images)

Soto, multiple team sources believe, never thought the Nationals would actually trade him, even though general manager Mike Rizzo had made it clear when Soto turned down the $440 million that the team would have to explore the possibility. Still, Rizzo might not have pulled the trigger, or been able to justify the return, if it wasn’t for Padres general manager A.J. Preller.

Preller, known as one of the sport’s most active GMs — his 2014 hiring was followed by such an onslaught it was nicknamed “Prellerpalooza” — had long coveted Soto. Rumors flew about other teams’ interest, but the Padres were the only ones willing to part with a handful of top prospects. A deal came together just hours before the Aug. 2 trade deadline.

By his own standards, Soto was already having a down year in D.C the first half of 2022. The 2019 team, on which he’d been the talented wunderkind, had slowly been dismantled. Gone was Howie Kendrick, who retired after the 2020 season, and who Soto and Victor Robles jokingly referred to as their baseball dad. Gone was veteran leader Ryan Zimmerman, who retired after ’21. The franchise-altering trade of stars Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers six months before had made it crystal clear: The 2022 Nationals were rebuilding.

Perhaps the toughest loss for Soto was hitting coach Kevin Long, who left to take the same position with the Phillies before the 2022 season. The Nationals replaced him with Darnell Coles, who had spent the previous three seasons with Arizona. Multiple team sources said it wasn’t a good fit with Soto.

“He didn’t connect with Darnell at all,” said a former Nationals coach. “There’s nothing worse than being a player and feeling alone and like the only guy who can help you is Kevin, who is on the other side of the field. I think it hurt Juan and pushed him into seclusion.”

As the losses piled up, Soto — for the first time in his life — couldn’t slash his way out of a slump. On June 25, nearly 75 games into the season, Soto was batting .215 with a .795 OPS. In the four seasons prior, Soto had never hit under .280. His worst prior OPS? A staggering .923 as a 19-year-old rookie. He became “quiet, more distant” as the season wore on, Nationals sources said. And then the extension offer leaked.

Two days later, Soto was in front of hundreds of media members after a red-eye coach flight to the Los Angeles All-Star game. He answered question after question about the $440 million he turned down, his future, where he could be traded. For the first time in his professional career, Soto was faced with a story that didn’t center on glowing praise about what he could do on the field.

“I think that number leaking out really burned him,” said a Nationals source. “Once it was out, he felt like he was already gone. He’s always been a big trust guy, and he was really hurt that the Nationals did that. I think he felt betrayed.”

“Why is Juan wearing headphones?”

Some of the Padres coaches were at their wits’ end. They had called former Nationals coaches, teammates, anyone who knew Soto and might have any insight into how to assimilate him into San Diego’s system. Some of Soto’s teammates also sensed that he was distant.

When closed-doors hitters’ meetings began before each series, Soto would often have his AirPods in his ears, three team sources told The Athletic. Teammates were perturbed, even though he had a legitimate reason: The early minutes were often spent on opposing pitchers’ “tells,” or signs they might be tipping pitches. Soto, who has always been a cerebral hitter, told the coaches he didn’t want those details floating around his brain in the batter’s box.

The headphones were a small oddity, but the situation reflected the Padres’ broader issues, which ranged from the clubhouse to the top of the front office, as detailed by The Athletic last year. No one could agree on how to reach their newest star. Some in the organization thought Soto should be left alone, that a hands-off approach was best. Others thought they should be in more contact with Soto, checking in with him daily, assessing his moods and trying to find workarounds in hopes of a breakthrough.

In D.C., Soto had been the only star remaining. In San Diego, he was initially unsure of his place, sources say. And he saw the writing on the wall, given the team’s other financial commitments: The Padres were just going to be a pit stop.

“There’s no money for me here,” Soto said, according to numerous sources within the team, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. He was referring to the trio of $300 million contracts the Padres already had on the books in Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis and Xander Bogaerts.

The blockbuster deal to land Soto immediately improved the Padres’ playoff odds. But the problem, at least initially, was that Soto wasn’t Soto.

“It was all still on my mind,” Soto said of the way his Nationals tenure ended. “I didn’t know, in San Diego, how was it going to be? Was it going to be three years or two ? Are we going to be talking about trades again?”

In 52 games with the Padres in 2022, Soto hit .236/.388/.390, for a .778 OPS. It was easily the worst stretch of his career. Regardless of how he hit, Soto’s positive energy in the dugout was still infectious, according to multiple sources who were there. If you didn’t know Soto was struggling, you wouldn’t have guessed by watching him interact in-game.

“It would be easy to sit here and say, ‘He’s an a——, but he’s really good’. He’s not. He’s got a heart of gold,” said one Padres source. “He just has trouble trusting people.”

Soto denied having issues trusting Padres people, but said the distance away from his family in the Dominican Republic was a major drawback of the trade. In D.C., his parents would often visit for long stretches of time. His mom would cook for him. Soto’s dad was his earliest coach.

After a sluggish start in 2023, Soto, who played in all 162 games, ended the season with a .275/.410/.519 line, good enough to finish sixth in NL MVP voting. But the Padres, a legitimate World Series contender, watched the losses pile up and missed the playoffs. Soto took losses particularly hard.

“I always try to be the happy, carefree Juan. I always tried to have fun,” Soto said. “They were a great group of guys and a very talented team. The thing is, we were losing big games that we shouldn’t have, and it’s tough to smile when that happens.”

It’s the million-dollar — or the $440 million-dollar — question: If Soto really was so upset to leave D.C., a place where he had bought a house, where he knew everyone and was beloved, why didn’t he just take the Nationals’ offer?

“He could have had a key to the White House without telling the president he was coming over,”  said a Nationals executive. “That’s what he meant to those people (in DC).”

Asked if he ever regretted not taking the money, or wondered how life would have been had he stayed in D.C., Soto said no. He gestures a few lockers down to Aaron Judge, who turned down the Yankees extension offer in the spring of 2022, set a new American League record in home runs and then cashed in with his nine-year deal.

“You cannot be selfish. You have to think about the guys who come in behind you,” Soto said. “That’s what Judge did (in opting to test free agency). He made a great deal. Corey Seager, Ohtani, all these guys are setting the market for the guys after them. And if I were to take anything down there (with what the Nats offered) it would make it different, tougher for guys coming up.”

“Setting the market” is popular agent-speak, and Soto is represented by Scott Boras, one of the game’s most powerful –and controversial– agents. There is a faction of executives who believe Boras wields perhaps too much influence over Soto, that believe he has significant input on, for example, where Soto should hit in the batting order and what Soto should say to the media.

Said a San Diego source: “He’s been fully Boras-ized.”

In 2021, Soto and Long (left) attended a Dodgers playoff game, wearing Nationals jerseys and cheering on Scherzer and Turner, along with Boras (right).

In New York, when the subject of forgoing free agency came up, Soto told reporters the Yankees “know who to talk to.” Yankees GM Brian Cashman has said several times on the record that the organization knows Soto is almost certainly headed to free agency this fall.

Asked how he dealt with the tumultuous past two seasons, Soto said: “I really trust my agent. It was a really tough time when I was in DC when they (leaked) the offer. (Boras and I) want to do everything together and push together.”

Boras pushed back on the idea that he has a strong influence on Soto. “Juan Soto makes his own decisions and own choices,” he told The Athletic. “He’s a man beyond his years and is more than capable of making decisions his own way.”

Boras, who estimated he’s had about 50 meetings with Soto about his future, said as an agent his job for clients is to give them information. “We operate as lawyers and let them decide what they chose to do,” he said. “And Juan is very much an in-depth and independent thinker.”

“I was hoping to keep negotiating (with the Nationals),” Soto said. “But they just told us, that’s it. At least they were clear about, if you don’t take it, we are trading you.”

Things weren’t as clear in San Diego, even as rumors swirled this past offseason that the Padres, tasked with cutting payroll, would have to move Soto and his $31 million salary, a record amount for an arbitration-eligible player.

“I kept asking and they were (saying) no, no, no,” Soto said of being traded out of San Diego, “and then out of nowhere, it’s done.”

Asked what he would tell the Soto of two years ago, he says: “Be prepared. Be prepared for anything.”

Other position players who have received $300-million plus deals — stars such as Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Judge and Machado — are players who can impact the game on both sides of the field. But if Soto gets paid, it will be for one thing: his bat.

He has long been obsessed with his swing, meticulous about every detail. When Soto struggled in the early part of the 2019 playoffs, he made Long and a team staffer stay at the park until after midnight so he could get extra reps. When he had COVID in 2020, Soto spent his time quarantining watching Nationals games on TV with a bat. He would dig in and pretend to face each pitcher.  His swing is a work of art, his preparation invokes surgical precision. Soto doesn’t keep physical notes on pitchers. Everything is in his head.

That Soto opted out of the Yankees spring training exhibition games in Mexico City to fine tune that swing is not a surprise. Never mind that he hit .529 with a 1.365 OPS in 17 spring games; Soto is a perfectionist.

In D.C. he would sometimes fly in Jorge Mejia, who coached Soto in the Nationals Gulf Coast League and now trains athletes in the Dominican. “He wants someone who knows him as a hitting coach or assistant,” said a Nationals source. “He likes familiar faces around him. He doesn’t trust a lot of people.”

Perhaps the shrewdest hire the Yankees made this offseason, then, was the addition of Pat Roessler as an assistant hitting coach. Roessler, who spent nearly a decade working in Yankees player development, from 2005-14, was the Nationals’ assistant hitting coach for the past four years. In the time he overlapped with Soto, the outfielder won three Silver Slugger Awards, twice finished in the top five in MVP voting and twice led the National League in on-base percentage.

The Yankees, who traded five players for Soto and Trent Grisham, need Soto to have a monster year, and he’s off to a sensational start with a .450/.560/.650 line and 1.210 OPS in the first week. A career season would certainly drive up his price, but it also could endear him to the organization and give the Yankees a leg up in the open market, where Cashman and Co. figure to be interested in signing Soto long-term.

Soto has family in New York, and expects his parents to visit frequently. With a move back over to right field — where he played the last two seasons in DC — Soto has showcased improved defense; Yankee Stadium’s shallow dimensions could be another selling point.

Ultimately, it seems Boras and Soto are after records. The number, many in the industry expect, will start at $500 million.

“He’s got big eyes,” said a source who was with Soto in D.C. “I think he’s after the AAV (average annual value) Ohtani has, without the deferrals.” (Ohtani’s current contract, accounting for its record deferrals, is valued at $46 million a year, good for the highest AAV in the sport this year.)

How many teams will be interested in that kind of a mega-deal? On one hand, clubs have grown increasingly wary of mammoth contracts that can weigh down a payroll for decades. But Soto projects to age well because of his eye, his  steady on-base percentage and the ripple effect his at-bats have. Teammates marvel about the way Soto works, how he never seems to take a pitch off.

Of the half-dozen executives The Athletic polled, only one was wary of committing that much money to Soto, whose age and skill set — he already owns a 28.5 WAR — have virtually no free-agent comparison.

Boras is coming off an uncharacteristically brutal offseason in which several of his most notable clients had to settle for shorter, cheaper deals than projected. It’s difficult to imagine that happening to Soto, barring a disastrous injury.

“If his OPS has the number 1 in front of it,” said one executive, “he will get paid.”

Soto is months away from a massive payday somewhere. Of course he’s smiling.

He bet on himself two and a half years ago. And, now, here comes the payoff.

(Top image: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Denis Poroy / Getty Images; Julio Aguilar / Getty Images; G Fiume / Getty Images)

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