Over the 15 years that they’ve resided in D.C., the Nationals have signed four free agents to deals of at least $120 million: outfielder Jayson Werth and starting pitchers Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg. With the exception of Strasburg, each of those deals came as a surprise.
Washington acquired Werth when the club was still in the midst of a rebuild. Scherzer joined the team even though it already had a full five-man rotation. The Nationals signed Corbin while outfielder Bryce Harper was still available in free agency. Even the Strasburg contract was considered surprisingly expensive given the right-hander’s injury history.
So when considering who the Nationals’ next big free-agent signing will be, perhaps the best places to look would be what’s least expected. But before we can look ahead to the future, we first must look back to get a sense of how much money Washington would be willing to take on.
The Nationals’ Opening Day payroll broke $100 million for the first time in 2013, so let’s start there. In the list below, the number on the left corresponds to the team’s Opening Day 25-man (or in the case of 2020, 26-man) roster payroll for that season. The number on the right is the sum of Nationals’ five largest salaries that year—not including performance bonuses.
2013: $118.3 million / $64.7 million
2014: $137.4 million / $69.2 million
2015: $162 million / $82.4 million
2016: $145.2 million / $80.8 million
2017: $164.3 million / $89.7 million
2018: $180.8 million / $93.6 million
2019: $197.2 million / $125.5 million
2020*: $171.8 million / $105.5 million
*These figures will be prorated based on the number of games played this season, but let’s keep it extrapolated over a normal 162-game season for comparison’s sake.
Even as the Nationals’ overall payroll varied from season to season, their investment in star players grew steadily every year—until this past offseason. Despite inking Strasburg to a $245 million deal at the Winter Meetings, Washington’s overall spending on its top stars decreased for once thanks to the expiring contracts of Anthony Rendon ($18.8 million 2019 salary) and Ryan Zimmerman ($18 million).
The loss of Rendon and savings on Zimmerman left room for the Nationals to spend in future free agent classes. Here’s what their investments in their top five players will look like over the next three years, assuming salaries return to their normal amounts next season.
2021: Scherzer ($34.5 million), Strasburg ($35 million), Corbin ($24.4 million), Adam Eaton ($10.5 million), Turner (~$10 million in arbitration) = $114.4 million
2022: Strasburg ($35 million), Corbin ($23.4), Turner (~$12 million in arbitration), Juan Soto (~$10 million in arbitration), Will Harris ($8 million) = $88.4 million
2023: Strasburg ($35 million), Corbin ($24.4 million), Soto (~$18 million in arbitration), Victor Robles (~$8 million in arbitration), Carter Kieboom (~$3 million in arbitration) = $88.4 million
Even when assuming some generous raises in arbitration, it’s clear the Nationals will have an opening to spend big again beginning with the 2021-22 offseason. There are still a lot of factors that could change this outlook—extensions for current players, depressed spending as a result of the coronavirus, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement changing payroll structure—but all things equal, the Nationals will be poised to add a big name again after the 2021 season.
Luckily for the Nationals, the 2021-22 free agent class will be an impressive one. On the pitching side, Scherzer, Noah Syndergaard, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Charlie Morton, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, Lance Lynn and Lance McCullers will all be available.
As for the hitters, the group is even more impressive: Nolan Arenado (opt-out), Freddie Freeman, Francisco Lindor, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, Eduardo Escobar, Corey Seager, Tommy Pham, Starling Marte, Kyle Schwarber and Michael Conforto.
If the Nationals don’t sign any of their current players to extensions, then they will have holes in right field (Eaton) and the rotation (Scherzer) with another one at shortstop (Turner) coming the following year. Any major upgrade is likely to come in one of those three areas.
Outfield may seem like the logical choice given the lack of players Washington has coming up through the farm system to fill Eaton’s spot. However, the looming contract decisions of Soto and Robles would likely dissuade the Nationals from making any major investments there. Verdict: They pass on the top outfielders like Pham and Conforto, looking elsewhere for a cheaper solution.
As for the rotation, Scherzer may very well earn a second contract from the Nationals to finish out his career in D.C. Such a deal could allow Washington to push back the deferred payments it will owe the three-time Cy Young winner, which would mean a little-to-no increase in actual spending.
The Nationals will also hope to have some combination of pitchers Austin Voth, Ben Braymer, Wil Crowe and Tim Cate contributing in the rotation while on cheap contracts with top prospects Mason Denaburg, Seth Romero, Jackson Rutledge and Cade Cavalli on the way. Verdict: The aging Scherzer re-signs on a three-year deal that’s still expensive but allows the Nationals to sign another top free agent.
That leaves the infield, where the Nationals will have plenty of options. If things go according to plan, their 2021 starting infield will be Kieboom, Turner, prospect Luis Garcia and Ryan Zimmerman in what will likely be the final year of his career. It’s impossible to say how Kieboom and Garcia will perform in the majors, but for argument’s sake we’ll assume one of them pans out as an everyday player.
So who will the Nationals target? They could just extend Turner, which might be the cheapest path as Washington would fill in the remaining two infield spots with bargain signings rather than big names. But that’s too predictable. With Turner still having one year remaining, the addition of a top free agent would give the Nationals a formidable infield group for 2022.
Here are some infield scenarios that could play out for that one season:
Option No. 1: 3B: Kieboom/Garcia, SS: Trevor Story, 2B: Trea Turner, 1B: cheap player
Option No. 2: 3B: Kieboom/Garcia, SS: Trea Turner, 2B: Javier Báez, 1B: cheap player
Option No. 3: 3B: Kris Bryant, SS: Trea Turner, 2B: Kieboom/Garcia, 1B: cheap player
Option No. 4: 3B: cheap player, SS: Trea Turner, 2B: Kieboom/Garcia, 1B: Anthony Rizzo
If the Nationals are going to spend big, these are probably the four most likely paths they would take. Arenado and Lindor would be the prize players of the class, most likely pricing them out of the range Washington would be comfortable spending. Freeman probably wouldn’t sign with the Nationals after spending his entire career with the Atlanta Braves while Correa, Seager and Escobar would be options if they didn’t land one of the above players.
Verdict: The Nationals sign Kris Bryant to a deal similar to the $245 million contract Rendon agreed to with the Los Angeles Angels. They’ve showed interest in acquiring the Chicago Cubs third baseman in the past and he would fit well in the middle of their lineup. Bryant could fill the spot at third while also presenting an option in the outfield should injuries arise. Eventually, he could slide over to first base (or perhaps designated hitter) should his defense deteriorate.
Bryant presents the most attractive option of this group because of his projectability and the expensive yet reasonable price it would take to sign him. Story has played his entire career with the Colorado Rockies, making his production more difficult to project away from Coors Field. Báez is younger than Bryant and has more positional flexibility, which will likely make him more expensive. Meanwhile, Rizzo is two years older and plays a less valuable position—his contract has a higher chance of being a burden several years into it.
There is a lot that will happen both in D.C. and across baseball as a whole by the time the 2021-22 free agent class gets its turn. But if there’s one thing for certain, it’s that the Nationals value their stars. As the team tries to continue its run as a perennial contender, Bryant would be an enticing option to don the Curly W while playing out the second half of his career.
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