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Were the Washington Nationals’ massive contracts a mistake?

Will the Nationals’ big contracts hamper their attempt to retool and get back into postseason contention.

New York Mets v Washington Nationals - Game One Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Some teams simply don’t care about paying exorbitant amounts of money on players, like the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers. Add the Washington Nationals to that list, it seems. For fans, team payroll is inconsequential so long as ownership doesn’t care about footing a large bill, but does there come a point where a lot is too much?

Going into the 2021 season, the Nationals’ front office still has a lot of contract issues to figure out, ranging from signing pre-arbitration and arbitration players to figuring out solutions to deficiencies by signing free agents on the open market.

Luckily for Washington, it’s a buyer’s market, given the budgetary constraints placed on teams due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But the Nationals already have massive contracts that they’re on the hook for, including Max Scherzer ($34.5 million adj.), Patrick Corbin ($24.4 million adj.), and Stephen Strasburg ($23.5 million adj.). That’s a combined total of $82.4 million in adjusted salary payable to three players on a 26 man roster.

For perspective, let’s look at 2019 team payroll around Major League Baseball. (2019 is used instead of 2020 to show a truer reflection of payroll over the course of a full season instead of adjusted for a shortened season.) The Nationals’ bill for three players is more than what four teams paid their entire roster in 2019, including the Tampa Bay Rays ($64.1 million), Pittsburgh Pirates ($72.7 million), Baltimore Orioles ($73.3 million), and Miami Marlins ($75.5 million). If you add Trea Turner’s expected $13 million, according to Spotrac, you can add two more teams to that list: Chicago White Sox ($91.3 million) and Oakland Athletics ($93.3 million).

If a team has got the money and they’re willing to spend, who cares? The question is: How deep into their own pockets is the front office willing to go? With $141 million on the books that’s either to be paid or expected to be paid, the Nats are nearly $70 million shy of 2021’s competitive tax balance cap ($210 million). When you see numbers that high, it might be time to start wondering whether or not the Nationals will be able to fill out a competitive roster, especially when you look at past history.

In 2019, a World Series year, the Nationals had the seventh highest total payroll in baseball, coming in at $172 million. If the Nationals are to come in under the wire this season, it’s likely they’ll have to be a little creative in filling out the roster, with room for perhaps one major free agent and then a bunch of discount veterans.

All that to say, payroll shouldn’t be an issue for the Nationals this season and if they want to, a pretty good team could still be pieced together. As far as big contracts go, however, I would be wary to continue on that path if I were in a decision-making position. For players like Strasburg, I understand. He’s a guy that’s been around since his career began and has been good. As for players like Corbin and Scherzer, I would be reluctant to sign them to such long-term deals, especially when those contracts will run well into their 30s. Scherzer will be 37 by the time he becomes a free agent again. While it may have worked out this time (or to this point), those aren’t moves with a tremendous track record in organizations.

I still think the Nationals have at best a couple more years of contention, especially if expanded playoffs stick around. But with the Atlanta Braves and the behemoth being built down south, it’s unlikely that an NL East title is within close reach anytime soon. At some point, the Nationals are going to have to shift their sight to building from within, something that will need a lot of work from an organization that currently ranks 30th in minor league system. At some point, barring a necessary trade, those huge contracts are going to be on the books during a time when the Nationals start overhauling the system. We’ll see how easy it is to unload such big contracts in the future.