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Last offseason’s big spenders, the Nationals exploited a market that devalued veterans

The Washington Nationals had one of the busiest offseasons of any team in baseball last winter, and the veteran movement they employed has paid dividends.

MLB: NLCS-St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Back before the Washington Nationals punched their ticket to the World Series, before they shook off their demons of years past and won a playoff series, before they came back from a 19-31 start to clinch a Wild Card berth, they entered the 2019 season with a new-look roster.

The team lost Bryce Harper to free agency, but didn’t waste any time spending the money it had set aside to sign him. Washington ended up inking eight players to MLB free agent contracts, more than any other team in the league. Those eight contracts added up to $190,500,000, making the Nationals the third-highest spending team of the offseason behind only the two clubs that signed $300M+ megadeals.

But in an era when teams are desperate to get under the luxury tax—a goal the Nationals themselves set this year—and front offices are more focused on the bottom line than ever before, the Nationals gamed the system. Mike Rizzo and Co. saw value in several veterans on the free agent market and signed many of them to contracts much smaller than their counterparts received in years past.

Of the 112 free agents to sign major-league contracts last winter, 64 were over the age of 31. Only three teams signed at least five of those players: Nationals, Yankees and Rangers. Two of those five Nats (Jeremy Hellickson and Tony Sipp) didn’t make the postseason roster, but they were only owed about $1.3 million each this season. The other three (Aníbal Sánchez, Kurt Suzuki and Brian Dozier) have all played integral roles in the Nats’ season and were each signed for moderate prices.

The biggest signing was perhaps that of Sánchez, who agreed to two years and $19 million with a team option for 2021. After the veteran righty returned from a hamstring strain in late May, he went 11-2 with a 3.42 ERA the rest of the way. And that’s not to mention his stellar postseason, which saw him deliver 7.2 innings of one-hit ball in Game 1 of the NLCS.

Suzuki, who also signed a two-year deal, has played a bit of a disappearing act in the postseason (1-20 at the plate), but he was easily the team’s best catcher this year (.809 OPS) and developed a strong rapport with several of the team’s starters. Dozier would be considered a disappointment by most standards (.238/.340/.430), but still hit 20 home runs this season and is a well-liked character in the clubhouse.

All three of these players were available for salaries of less than $10 million a year, which came as the result of a slow-moving free agent market where front offices opted not to target veteran players and instead retain the younger, cheaper fringe roster players who might not be as good or experienced—but kept the payroll down. Rizzo pounced on those players, understanding that while he’d be paying more for Sánchez than he would for Erick Fedde, Joe Ross or Austin Voth, his performance and effect on the ballclub would be worth it.

Just for kicks: The youngest player Washington signed last offseason—and the only player under 30—was Trevor Rosenthal, who was cut after accruing a 22.74 ERA in 12 appearances with the team.

Then there’s Patrick Corbin, who at 30 years old signed the largest contract of any pitcher this offseason when he committed to a six-year, $140 million deal with Washington. It was widely reported that the Nats landed him in part because they were willing to include that sixth year while the Yankees and Phillies were not. The team can’t reasonably expect him to be pitching like an ace at age 36, but the Nats showed the willingness to pay a player well past his prime in order to get him on their roster.

Of course, the team already employed the services of Max Scherzer (now 35), Ryan Zimmerman (35), Sean Doolittle (33) and NLCS MVP Howie Kendrick (36). It’s since also added Fernando Rodney (42) and Asdrubal Cabrera (33) off the scrap heap. All of these viejos, as Scherzer calls them, have helped make Washington the oldest team in baseball with an average age of 31.1.

That’s not to say the Nationals haven’t relied on younger stars to help carry the load. Juan Soto and Victor Robles are among the youngest players in baseball and make up two-thirds of the team’s starting outfield, and 26-year-old Trea Turner is the starting shortstop. But the presence of these veterans has made for a clubhouse culture that’s unlike any other D.C. has ever seen.

And sure, some of that blame may fall on Harper—if not because of him as an individual, then for the fanfare that follows his every move. Yet the presence veterans have had on the Nationals’ roster is undeniable. Why else would Stephen Strasburg be dancing in the dugout after hitting a home run? How else could a children’s song about sharks have become the team’s signature ballpark celebration?

Those aren’t effects that stats are going to quantify, and fans will probably argue until the end of time about just how important those things are. But the results are right there in front of you: The Washington Nationals are going to the World Series, and they wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t for some of those viejos over on South Capitol Street.