Nationals

Nationals

Mookie Betts is off to Los Angeles to beam there for a year. He’s gracious, skilled and under-marketed, falling into the same public relations space so many of baseball’s elite are mired in.

He’s there because the Dodgers were willing to do something the Nationals were not: Take on enormous risk for the prime payoff. Out is intriguing Alex Verdugo, solid Kenta Maeda and hot-and-cold Joc Pederson. In are Betts and David Price, bringing superlative cost to Los Angeles, as well as exceptional firepower to a legacy franchise choking on 1988 and losing to a cheating organization in 2017. Price needed a do-over after poor returns and PR in ever-rumbling Boston. Betts can become a free agent after the 2020 season.

He’s a star, but his twinkle in Los Angeles could be brief. The Dodgers won’t care if they win the World Series.

Meanwhile, on South Capitol Street, well-invested pragmatism reigns. The Nationals did not meet Josh Donaldson’s final number. They low-balled Bryce Harper with full knowledge the offer was the equivalent of sitting on, then zipping, his suitcase to make sure everything fit before he left. They chose Stephen Strasburg over Anthony Rendon, and to avoid the competitive balance tax over everything else. They spend. A lot. Then they stop.

Los Angeles spends, too. Betts becomes the second-highest-paid player on the team. Price is fifth. The Dodgers now stack up as No. 2 in payroll -- only behind the cash-distributing New York Yankees -- a year after being one of four teams to pay more than $200 million in total payroll last season. However, this process is a pivot.

 

The Dodgers like short deals. Each big-name free agent is naturally tied to Los Angeles. Maybe the player will take a higher average annual value to go there? Maybe the allure of winning quickly will change things? Legacy? Glamour? None of these brought players to Chavez Ravine the last three years. Homegrown players populate the roster. The longest contract still going? Kenley Jansen’s five-year, $80 million deal (two years remain). Clayton Kershaw signed a three-year extension. He’s done after the 2021 season.

Justin Turner is in the final season of a four-year deal. Los Angeles doesn’t do long deals, and that approach has cost it players.

Which is why Tuesday’s reports about acquiring Betts were such a jolt. This is an enormous swing by the Dodgers, taking on payroll plus sending out a young player -- though from a deep farm system and not their top prospect. More than 20 years without a title tweaked a patient front office into a big-name move. The Dodgers' most significant offseason move before the deal? Signing Blake Treinen to a one-year, $10 million deal. A chance for Betts finally woke Los Angeles from its slumber. And the cost for a new leadoff hitter who won the American League MVP in  2018 was $96 million owed to Price over the next three years. Boston is reportedly handling a portion of that. Regardless, it’s an out-of-character deal for the Dodgers to slap on their books. They are paying for past performance from Price for one year of Betts. This is a gamble. 

The Nationals are again structured under Mike Rizzo’s team-building philosophy: starting pitchers matter most. Flexibility may be second. Providing a team which can win 88-93 games and find a way to the postseason is the goal. The process graduated from effective in past years to championship-winning last season.

Washington will not be the favorite in the National League. It could well not be the favorite in its division. Only two more years remain of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin working together. Winning a title allows a buffer against failure-produced anxiety. So, the Nationals did not pay Donaldson or Rendon or send a prospect somewhere to solve third base (yet). They did what they always do. The Dodgers? They decided Betts was too good to pass on, a rare commodity valuable enough to break protocol for.

The question is which approach will turn out to be correct in October. 

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