After cautious free agency, when will Nats spend big again?

Mike Rizzo

For the Nationals, the 2022 season will be all about patience.

They’ll need patience with Stephen Strasburg, who’s taking his time with his injury rehab and likely won’t be ready for Opening Day. They’ll need patience with Josiah Gray, a pitcher with both a bright future and a pitch repertoire still being developed. They’ll need patience with struggling infielder Carter Kieboom, especially now that he’s sidelined with an elbow injury.

Despite being interrupted by a 99-day lockout, the 2021-22 MLB offseason was the most lucrative free agency period in the history of the sport. Spotrac estimates that 125 free agents have signed for a total of $3.185 billion this winter. Eleven players signed for at least $100 million and five teams have handed out at least $200 million in free-agent deals.

Where do the Nationals fit into all of this? Their total spending in free agency added up to just $24.75 million, most of which went to DH Nelson Cruz ($15 million). For the second-straight offseason, they signed only one-year deals. In fact, they haven’t signed a contract for more than $25 million since Patrick Corbin inked his six-year, $140 million deal ahead of the 2019 season.

“We’re trying to make moves to win games and we know where our landscape goes and what the big picture looks like,” President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo said in a press conference at the start of spring training. “The moves we’re gonna make are going to be with winning this year in mind but also with a bigger picture to getting back to being that 10-year window of being one of the best teams in baseball.”


Around the NL East, the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets both spent over $200 million apiece in free agency to challenge the reigning World Series champion Atlanta Braves. Even the Miami Marlins outspent the Nationals with their three-year, $36 million deal for outfielder Jorge Soler alone. If there was any pressure for the Nationals to pull out the checkbook and spend competitively, they weren’t feeling it.

Instead, the club opted for patience. Rizzo envisions his roster as being competitive, and that’s certainly not out of the question. However, it would require a lot of things going right. Some of them — like Cruz, Juan Soto and Josh Bell forming a lethal trio in the middle of the order — are very plausible. Others, such as both Strasburg and Corbin making 30 starts and returning to 2019 form, might not be.

The Nationals are hoping to be in the playoff hunt this year, but they held off on spending big this winter and, in doing so, hedged little on the success of their 2022 team. Instead, they can prioritize giving opportunities to players such as Gray, catchers Keibert Ruiz and Riley Adams, outfielders Lane Thomas and Victor Robles, and a slew of young relievers. Top prospect Cade Cavalli should make his big-league debut at some point this season too.

If the team’s young core takes tangible steps forward, the Nationals will be in prime position to spend in free agency next winter. As their payroll stands, the club is set to begin the 2022 season about $50 million below its usual standards. Another $45 million or so in yearly salary will come off the books in November with the expiration of all their one-year deals as well as their contracts for Josh Bell, Will Harris and Joe Ross.

In what could be an offseason where other teams show restraint a year after spending a record-setting amount, the Nationals will have the resources to make a splash. The free-agent market will be headlined by Aaron Judge, Mike Clevinger and Noah Syndergaard in addition to former Nationals shortstop Trea Turner. Jacob deGrom, Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Anthony Rizzo and Carlos Rodón all have opt-outs that would allow them to join them.

Of course, this all has to be taken in the context of convincing Soto to sign an extension. As Rizzo put it, he’s the team’s “No. 1 priority.” The Nationals haven’t put a timeline on when they hope to open up a new championship window, but it would be in their best interests to do so before Soto’s contract is up after the 2024 campaign. They certainly don’t want his last impression of the team to be three consecutive losing seasons before he hits free agency.


To make that happen, the Nationals need to know which of their young players they can count on in 2022 and beyond. Making a run for a playoff spot this year would be a pleasant surprise, and an indicator that their retool is going according to plan.

For now, though, patience.

“We feel that we have a good blueprint of getting us to that championship form in the near future,” Rizzo said. “But again, we’re about winning games this year and we’re going to be quietly plugging away to win each and every game we have. There’s 12 playoff teams and we wanna be one of them.”