Has it really been just over three weeks since the Los Angeles Dodgers hoisted their piece of metal? Time is still not making sense in a pandemic world, but apparently that is the case.
That means that Major League Baseball’s offseason is well underway.
Qualifying offers have been made and accepted or rejected by pending free agents. We’ve even seen a couple of early free agent signings already after the Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves doled out one-year deals to Robbie Ray and Drew Smyly respectively.
The Washington Nationals will eventually join in the frenzy this winter and plenty of fans have dreams of some of the marquee free agents such as former World Series MVP, George Springer, and NL Cy Young winner, Trevor Bauer, donning the Curly W in 2021.
Unfortunately, it probably wouldn’t be wise to expect the team to be spending big this offseason.
The rumblings so far about MLB’s free agent market have been troubling. ESPN’s Jeff Passan described the scene as a potential “bloodbath” based on what he had heard from executives and players around the league.
Now, that’s just a league-wide assessment. Usually, the Nationals are among the top spenders in baseball, right? Will they go against the league’s trend and still spend heavily?
Well, before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, the Nationals weren’t exactly splashing the cash at their usual level ahead of a potentially normal, 162-game 2020 season.
Even with the undoubted revenue boost that comes with winning the World Series, the Nats were actually set to sport a payroll around $23 million lower than they did during their title-winning campaign. That’s a cut in payroll of around 12% from the previous year.
According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Nationals would’ve been just the fourth team to win a World Series this millennium and have a lower payroll the following year, along with the 2003 Florida Marlins, as well as the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox.
The size of the cut in the team’s payroll, however, exceeded those three instances. The $23 million cut dwarfs the Marlins’ cut of around $3 million (6%), and is much greater than either of the $3.7 million (3%) and $9.6 million (7%) cuts the title-winning Red Sox made.
Yes, the team shouldn’t spend money just for the sake of it and overpay for players, but there were certainly free agents out there who could’ve improved them enough to make it worth it.
Maybe after a normal season and with some more natural fits with their team on the free agent market, the Nationals would be more willing to raise their payroll again to their pre-2020 level where they were one of the biggest spenders in the league.
2020 wasn’t a normal season though. Owners are now looking to slash costs to accommodate for the fact MLB played their 60-game slate behind closed doors and player payroll is understandably the biggest cost of all and easiest place for them to be cheaper.
That thought is backed up by Brittany Ghiroli, The Athletic’s Nationals writer, who wrote that she thought the team would be “in the middle of the pack” this offseason with regards to spending.
This likely means the payroll that could’ve been taken on again ahead of the 2021 season might now be canceled out by cutbacks that appear as if they are about to be common around the league.
If that’s the case and they plan to enter next season with a similar $176 million payroll, the Nats don’t appear to have much to work with.
As of now, according to Cot’s, they have around $150 million committed in payroll for the 2021 season, a number which already accounts for projected arbitration salaries, leaving a difference of just $26 million.
There is one other factor to consider when contemplating the Nats’ offseason likely activity this winter, and that’s how adverse the current regime is to handing out larger contracts to position players in general, but even more so toward those that are free agents.
The Nationals haven’t signed a free agent position player to a contract longer than two years since signing Daniel Murphy ahead of the 2016 season. And ever since Mike Rizzo became the team’s GM, the only other position player to receive such a deal has been Jayson Werth.
Rizzo has only given out bigger deals to pitchers, not hitters, in his time at the helm.
That would make bucking that trend and signing someone like Springer, DJ LeMahieu, or Marcell Ozuna pretty unlikely despite the Nationals’ pressing need for a middle-of-the-order bat.
Perhaps the position player on the free agent market most likely to be another anomaly in that regard would be J.T. Realmuto as he’s already been a target of the Nats’ and would help get the most out of the team’s biggest contracts in the starting rotation.
Ok, but what about another big-name starting pitcher I hear you say? Well, good luck.
The only marquee-type pitcher in the same mold as Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, or Patrick Corbin — the three star players who Rizzo has given huge free agent contracts to — is Bauer, and the right-hander would likely command a contract that will top $30 million per year.
Signing that deal would immediately put the Nationals over last year’s pre-pandemic projected payroll figure, which in the current climate, seems highly unlikely for them to do.
After that, there are a lot of good pitchers who could be a fit in Washington. They just aren’t quite a big headline attraction like bringing in a reigning NL Cy Young winner would be.
All of this isn’t to say that the Nationals won’t be active in the free agent market this winter. They could well be one of the most active in terms of the volume of mid-to-low-cost players they bring in with several holes that need filling.
However, it just might be a bit of a fallacy to expect one of the huge stars of the market to come in via free agency...