The 2020-21 MLB offseason officially kicked off Sunday night to little fanfare, quietly transitioning into a new segment of the league’s yearly calendar without so much as a single rumor lighting up the hot stove. Ten of the nearly 200 players to hit the open market this winter played for (or opted out of) the Nationals in 2020, giving them among the most free agents in the majors.
In a series of moves Wednesday, the Nationals declined team options for both outfielder Adam Eaton and starter Aníbal Sánchez while also declining their side of mutual options for first basemen Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames. The decisions were expected, though potential returns for 2019 World Series contributors Eaton, Sánchez and Kendrick can’t be ruled out if they’re willing to sign cheaper deals.
That quartet of players joined an already-sizeable group of Nationals in free agency made up of first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, closer Sean Doolittle, catcher Kurt Suzuki and utility infielders Brock Holt and Asdrúbal Cabrera. Outfielder Michael A. Taylor cleared waivers and elected to test free agency as well.
Washington’s 40-man roster will be down to 30 players once the team reinstates Stephen Strasburg, Seth Romero and Starlin Castro from the 60-Day Injured List and starter Joe Ross rejoins the teams after opting out for the 2020 season. The Nationals have already made one move, signing utility man Josh Harrison to a one-year deal Oct. 22. But the team has several holes to fill on its roster if it hopes to improve upon the 26-34 record Washington posted as its World Series title defense.
Despite their slew of free agents, it’s still not immediately clear how active the Nationals — or any other team, for that matter — will be this winter. Following a shortened 60-game season that saw MLB reportedly accrue about $3 billion in debt, a majority of teams are absorbing significant losses that have prompted furloughs and layoffs across the league.
The Nationals reportedly made a few cuts in their baseball operations department shortly after the World Series ended, signaling the state of their finances as the offseason begins. It also doesn’t help that MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players union expires in 12 months and teams have already been accused of cutting back on free-agent spending to remain under the luxury tax threshold.
However, the Nationals have been one of the highest-spending teams of the last few years. Using Spotrac’s publicly available payroll data, the Nationals had the sixth-highest average payroll from 2017 to 2019 before the reduced salaries were put into effect for 2020. They exceeded the luxury tax threshold in both 2017 and 2018 but worked back under it in 2019 to reset the penalties.
A new CBA in 2021 could spell the end of the luxury tax system, so teams are also tasked with anticipating the unknown as they navigate this offseason. The Nationals have a host of needs to address this winter but their finances have never been in a greater state of flux. As the next few months unfold, they will have to find a way to balance their desire to cut back on spending with the moves required to make another push at winning the World Series.