Much like last offseason, things are far from dull for the Washington Nationals right now.
Last winter, the team’s offseason hinged on how they handled the free agency of Bryce Harper. In the end, the Nats put very limited effort into retaining the outfielder, changing the course of franchise history forever as they won the World Series without him.
This time around, the Nats’ offseason will hinge on what they decide to do with two of their other former first-round picks who are now free agents in Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg.
Nationals fans are certainly hoping that both homegrown stars will return to D.C. this winter.
However, if managing principal owner, Mark Lerner, is to be believed, fans might be best off not getting their hopes up.
In an interview with NBC Sports Washington, Lerner spoke about the situation with the two long-time Nats, dropping the potential bombshell that they believe it’s not financially possible to bring back both of them.
“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” Lerner told Donald Dell of NBCSW. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with.”
Yes, Lerner can’t go into a huge amount of detail with regards to specifics around how the negotiations are going. Regardless, that quote seems to make a pretty clear statement: The Nationals don’t have enough money to sign both players this offseason.
Wait, what? Really? Well, actually, no. To put it simply, that’s not the case. Not even close.
First off, the Nationals can definitely “afford” to sign both Rendon and Strasburg long-term. The Lerners are billionaires, Forbes values the franchise at $1.8 billion, and the team is coming off of a historic World Series run that will add more than a few dollars to the coffers.
Unless, all of a sudden, their price tag is up in the hundreds of millions per year, the money is hypothetically there to pay the players that much, should the team see fit to do so.
Obviously, neither player will command anywhere near that much on the open market, but the point stands that the money is there to “afford” it, if they want to.
What Lerner was probably trying to say is that the Nationals likely won’t be able to fit both players under the budget they have for payroll for 2020 and further down the road, which is substantially less than they can reasonably “afford.”
Right, are we glad we got that all cleared up? Well, no, even that doesn’t make much sense.
Currently, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Nationals Opening Day payroll projects to be around $115 million. That’s over $80 million less than it was on Opening Day in 2018.
Also according to Cot’s, the Nats have a projected luxury tax figure of around $129 million, leaving just under $80 million in breathing room between that and the bottom threshold.
So even if the Nationals set the exact same constraints on payroll as last year, which was to stay under the luxury tax threshold, there’s still plenty of money available to get both deals done.
Let’s be generous and say the Nats signed Rendon to the same deal Nolan Arenado got ($32.5 million AAV) and Strasburg to the deal Max Scherzer got ($30 million AAV), they would have around $16 million in breathing room before they hit the luxury tax threshold.
Would it be wise to do that? Probably not, especially when there are other areas — yes, I can hear you saying bullpen under your coughs — that will still need addressing beyond the two stars. But it is definitely still possible to do within the same constraints they had last year.
That’s before we even get to the fact that the Nats shouldn’t be scared of the luxury tax.
After ducking under the threshold in 2019, they were able to reset the monetary penalties and have slightly better draft pick compensation when it comes to signing or losing Qualifying Offer players.
If there was ever a time to go past the threshold again, it would be now to make the most of the young position player core and dominant starting pitching before either fades away.
In fairness, the one factor that still isn’t completely clear right now is exactly how much it’s going to cost to keep the two cornerstones of the franchises World Series-winning squad.
Though both players would seemingly like to come back to the team they just won it all with, it’s going to come down to the dollars. Dollars that both sides are happy with, not just the team.
Later in the interview with NBC Sports Washington, Lerner seemed to put the emphasis on whether either or both free agents would return to the nation’s capital back on the players.
“We’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decided to go elsewhere,” Lerner said.
“Again, it’s not up to us. We can give them a great offer -- which we’ve done to both of those players. They’re great people. We’d be delighted if they stay. But it’s not up to us, it’s up to them. That’s why they call it free agency.”
With Harper last year, the Nationals put multiple offers on the table. None of the offers appeared to be close enough to get the deal done though, so he turned them down.
The last quote implies that the same might be going on now with Rendon and Strasburg.
That being said, there are some very legitimate reasons that the Nationals may not be willing to pay either of the players what it takes to get a deal done though.
Maybe another team comes in with some of that “stupid money” that was fun to talk about last offseason and ends up blowing way past any realistic valuation the Nationals have on either player. Just because the Nats have the money, doesn’t mean they have to spend it.
Or, if the team thinks they can get close enough to the same production from a similar player for less money or less commitment, such as Josh Donaldson, giving them more flexibility.
But neither of those reasons comes down to what the Nationals can afford or not. Those are both choices based on how they perceive a player’s value, not a case of running out money.
Mark Lerner has rightly drawn ire for his quotes yesterday as the Nationals could definitely afford to keep both Rendon and Strasburg. Instead, it’s a matter of whether they will choose to.
Based on these comments though, even if they aren’t entirely true, it might be worth keeping expectations low...