On Monday, MLB Trade Rumors released their Projected Arbitration Salaries for 2022. The Washington Nationals have ten players who are eligible for arbitration heading into this offseason. I first noticed that they’d put this up when I logged onto twitter and saw this tweet:
It felt like something that required more of a long-form response, so we’re going to break this down player by player. Some of these are obviously easy calls. The ideal situation with Juan Soto and possibly Josh Bell would involve the Nationals coming to terms on a longer term extension than just the 2022 season. There are a handful of arbitration-eligible players on the roster who may not be worth keeping around. Let’s have a look one by one to see if there’s any chance that the Nationals may let any of these players head to free agency.
Juan Soto - If Soto were to hit the open market this year, he’d likely be looking at an Average Annual Value of $40 million or more on a long-term deal. This is obviously a no-brainer. The real question is whether the Nationals realize that the fanbase is unlikely to react quite as positively as they did during this summer’s fire sale if the Nationals follow the same path with Soto that they did with Trea Turner. We all know that Scott Boras almost always recommends his clients get to free agency as quickly as possible, so the Nats need to make Soto an offer he can’t refuse. Now is the time to do it. His salary is going to be depressed a bit for the next three years because of the arbitration process. He’s only going to get more expensive and be less willing to let the Nats buy out free agent years as he gets closer to free agency.
Josh Bell - Bell comes in at $10 million according to MLB Trade Rumors’ projection. This would be a $3.65 million raise over what he made in 2021. This is Bell’s final year of arbitration eligibility, which means that he’d figure to get pretty close to his full market value if they don’t settle on a deal. Bell had a rough start to the 2021 season, but rebounded in the second half to manage a .261/.347/.476 line on the year. This was good for 118 wRC+ and it was right in line with Bell’s career averages. Bell just turned 29 in August and is flat in the middle of his prime. He’s the perfect type of hitter to try and lock up for a few years beyond his arbitration years. Even if they can’t come to terms on a three or four year extension, it’s a sure thing that the Nats will tender Bell a contract rather than let him test free agency.
Joe Ross - In baseball terms, $3 million isn’t incredibly expensive for a player. Among pitchers who threw more than 50 innings for the Nationals this past season, Ross ranked third (behind Max Scherzer and Kyle Finnegan) in ERA. He had his best season since 2016 as he went 5-9 with a 4.17 ERA and a 109:34 strikeout to walk ratio in 108 innings. Still, this is the first player on this list who might be in a bit of a gray area. Ross, who had Tommy John surgery in 2017, was shut down in August with a partially torn UCL. He opted for rehab rather than having a second Tommy John surgery, at least for now. The assumption is that he’s going to be ready to go for Spring Training, but the partially torn UCL only adds more injury risk to a pitcher whose 108 innings this past season were a career high. If not for the injury, the 28-year-old Ross would probably have been a reasonable candidate to try and lock into a three or four-year deal. As it stands, he’s probably worth bringing back on a relatively cheap one-year deal.
Erick Fedde - A lot of people fall into the camp of non-tendering Erick Fedde, but it’s hard to imagine the Nats not bringing him back. The 28-year-old former 18th overall pick had his ups and downs in 2021, as did many members of the Nats. Fedde’s biggest issues seemed to happen the longer he pitched, both in individual games and on the year as a whole. Fedde allowed a .297 wOBA the first time through the order this season. The second (.366) and third (.364) times through were a significant problem. It’s astonishing to see a pitcher whose overall ERA (5.47) is more than 2 full runs higher than his first time through the order (3.34) remain in the rotation for the whole season.
His year-long production took a similar hit, though. In the first half, Fedde’s 4.59 ERA wasn’t anything special, but it’s not bad for a back of the rotation starter. In the second half, it was 6.29. Fedde’s 133.1 major league innings (toss in the 5 inning stint on a rehab outing) were more than he’d ever thrown in a professional season. Perhaps there was some fatigue setting in. Either way, the Nats will almost certainly tender Fedde a contract. Hopefully they give him a real shot at moving to the bullpen full time to see if they can limit his exposure a bit more and maximize his value.
Victor Robles - Hey... Lane Thomas was great this season and all, but there’s no way that the Nats non-tender Robles. His 2021 batting line unfortunately followed the trend that began in the COVID shortened 2020 season. After hitting for a solid .165 ISO as a rookie in 2019, Robles’s ISO was under .100 for the second straight season, cratering to .092. He failed to hit the ball with any authority at all, managing just 2 home runs and 24 extra base hits in 315 at-bats. His baserunning this season was reminiscent of Nook Logan. While Robles showed an improved walk rate, it wasn’t enough to overcome the rest of his performance at the plate or on the basepaths. He did look more like the stud he was expected to be when he was sent down to Rochester late in the year, batting .301/.370/.566 in 83 AB. He hit twice as many homers in those 83 AAA at-bats as he did in the majors. He’s still just 24. There’s still a lot of upside. $1.7 million is pretty cheap. He’ll compete for playing time in 2022, even if he starts the year as the fourth outfielder.
Austin Voth - As you may have noticed, we’ve started with the top projected earners and worked our way down. To be honest, once we got past Soto and Bell, the question changed from, “Are they worth the money?” to “Are they worth a roster spot?” When Voth first got more than a cup of coffee in the majors in 2019, he was serving as rotation filler when the Nats were dealing with injuries. That, combined with the mess that COVID left us gave Voth a shot to stick in the rotation in 2020. He didn’t pan out, finishing with a 6.34 ERA in 49.2 innings over his 11 starts. 2021 saw him move to the bullpen. He looked great for the first three months (seriously, ERA of 3.18 or lower in April, May, and June) before collapsing in July. He struggled badly in September/October as well. The biggest obstacle to bringing Voth back may be that he’s out of minor league options. The $1 million projected pricetag isn’t anything that would keep them from bringing him back. He’ll likely be back with the club next season, but being out of options leaves a little doubt.
Wander Suero - There are a lot of people who are bigger fans of Wander Suero than I am, but it’s hard to deny that he was a pretty solid reliever over the first three years of his big league career. There’s nothing spectacular about him. He’s a strikeout an inning guy, but not much more than that. His walk rate is average for a reliever, hovering fairly consistently in the 3.00-3.50 range from year to year. There was one massive difference in his profile this year compared to his first few seasons. After steady above average HR/9 (~.7) and HR/FB (~7.8%) ratios in his first two seasons, he was a little homer lucky in 2020, allowing just 1 home run in the shortened 2020 season. In 2021, Suero became one of the more homer prone pitchers in the league. He allowed 11 homers in 42.2 innings (compared to 10 combined in his first three seasons). That’s a 2.32 HR/9 ratio and an insane 19.3% HR/FB percentage. He needs to remember how to keep the ball in the yard, but it’s safe to say they’ll bring him back... particularly considering that he still has a minor league option for next year.
Andrew Stevenson - At this point, it’s safe to say that Stevenson is never going to be a regular. For a rebuilding team, though, he’s a useful enough asset. He’s cheap. He’s a good defender. He finished third in the league with 15 pinch hits this season (one of the two that tied for the lead with 16 was former Nat Wilmer Difo!), and the Nats don’t necessarily have another left-handed bat to come off the bench. He’s worth a roster spot, and $900K isn’t enough to keep the Nats from giving him one.
Ryne Harper - There was a time when Ryne Harper was the most popular member of the Nats’ bullpen this summer. He’s still going to be the only player on this list that I’m going to say they shouldn’t bring back. Different pitchers have different styles, and Harper’s curveball-fastball arsenal isn’t one that you see very often. His fastball has fallen off a tick and he’s become even more reliant on his curveball than he was the previous two seasons. He threw his curveball 78.1% of the time this season, using his 86 MPH fastball as his change of pace. It worked for a time, but the league adjusted to it in a big way as the season moved on. At 32, Harper doesn’t really figure to improve next season. Deception can be great, but at some point, big league hitters tend to figure out how to deal with pitchers who don’t have plus stuff. It doesn’t matter how cheap he is. He’s probably not worth a roster spot next season.
Tanner Rainey - Neither WAR nor ERA back it up, but there were times during 2019 and 2020 when it felt like Rainey was the best pitcher in the Nationals’ bullpen. That was what made it so surprising when he completely imploded all throughout the 2021 season. Rainey did seem to look like he turned a corner late in the year after a stint in Rochester, but his last two outings were pretty rough (4 runs, 3 walks in 2 innings). There’s no doubt that the Nats will tender him an offer for next season. Hopefully he can find the form that he had in 2019 and 2020. If so, he’s probably going to get some of the highest leverage spots of anyone in the bullpen.