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Pitchers and catchers descend on Spring Training; Bryce Harper does not

Pitchers and catchers descend on Spring Training; Bryce Harper does not

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Ted the rental car shuttle driver was spirited. “Welcome to this beautiful south Florida day,” he announced over a crackling speaker system Tuesday. “We hope you enjoy your stay.”

Similar greetings went out to a variety of folks who descended on West Palm Beach and various other Florida locales this week. Reporters, fans, players, all come thinking of warmth and cold: first Florida tosses in Spring Training and year-end chances for glory in October.

Nationals pitchers and catchers officially reported Wednesday morning. Most of them. Word is three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer made it to FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches back in the first week of January. Being different is an unending priority for him.

Trailing everyone in the baseball world out in the desert or next to breeze-filled palm trees is the stagnant scent of the offseason. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned, two screaming symbols of the winter’s biggest storyline, which is it didn’t really produce one.

Washington offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract in its exclusive negotiating window at the end of last season. He declined it. The Nationals removed the offer before free agency began to go about the business of building a roster without him. They roll into West Palm Beach with the belief holes are filled, the roster could produce 90-plus wins and Harper’s leverage is dissipating. 

General manager Mike Rizzo is watching the late value market like the rest of the league. Starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel and dominant closer Craig Kimbrel join Harper and Machado in unemployment. Keuchel and Kimbrel could be more fetching options for teams with aspirations and financial wiggle room below the competitive balance tax. The Nationals want to remain under the mark this season. They also have room to breathe there, at the moment. Perhaps as much as $10-20 million (a quick note about determining payroll: there’s never a precise view of it outside the organization, so everything is an estimate to some effect).

Two new players expected in the Nationals facility are catchers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki. They were key to the Nationals offseason moves since their addition filled the team’s most glaring gap. Gomes was so ready to go, he attended Patrick Corbin’s introductory press conference at Nationals Park back on Dec. 7. After he watched Corbin’s formal hello, he walked into the home clubhouse for the first time then retrieved a video-filled iPad to begin his familiarization with the pitching staff.

Prospect intrigue is also a part of camp. Not just the upper reaches with Juan Soto following a potent rookie season and touted Victor Robles, who starts on a path to a full-time job, but the next layer as well. Infielders Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia have been summoned to the major-league side of spring training as non-roster invitees. Relief prospect Wil Crowe will be in attendance, too. 

An old head will be joining them. Reliever Aaron Barrett, 31, has been grinding through years of arm trouble in an effort to return to the big leagues. His first Tommy Johns surgery was Sept. 5, 2015. Ankle surgery followed three months later. Barrett fractured his right elbow July 23, 2016, during rehab. The Nationals signed him to a minor-league contract in 2017. Last season, he went  2-0 with a 1.74 ERA in 20 games for short-season Single-A Auburn. That he’s even back at major-league spring training as a non-roster invitee is a form of personal victory.

But this year’s stop at West Palm Beach continues to be about who is not here. A tease-filled winter has given way to a star-crossed spring which starts with Harper and Machado marooned. It’s not just them. Mid-level free agents are waiting to find a home, last-chance guys are hoping for a call. The situation continues to rankle players, making this spring not just about now, but hinting at the grumpy future of baseball. Players will demand changes. Owners are likely to shrug. 

The good news? A game that counts is just six weeks away. The bad news? No one knows where Harper will be playing it.  

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Nationals owner Mark Lerner says team can’t afford Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon

Nationals owner Mark Lerner says team can’t afford Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon

The prime question as soon as Stephen Strasburg opted out of his contract was this: Could the Nationals afford to bring back Strasburg and Anthony Rendon? According to managing principal owner Mark Lerner, the answer is no. 

“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” Lerner told Donald Dell in an exclusive interview. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with.”

Lerner’s public stance suggesting Strasburg and Rendon is an either-or proposition for the defending World Series champions is new. Is it surprising? Not necessarily. Lerner could flatly state the organization is going to find a way to pay both. However, that’s poor negotiating. Being in between serves multiple needs: It keeps the door open on each player; it stirs the market without roiling it; it prepares fans for an outcome they don’t prefer.

Lerner has not hesitated to comment on pending and enormous free agent situations since becoming the more outward face of the team’s ownership group. His father, founding principal owner Ted Lerner, has stepped back, though remains the patriarchal voice on large expenditures. Here, like last year, Mark Lerner has answered early December questions about free agency with eyebrow-raising candor. His declaration about Strasburg and Rendon comes almost a year-to-the-day after he said about Bryce Harper, “I don’t really expect him to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on.”

An owner talking with a blend of tactfulness and openness -- when asked a direct question by an interviewer -- drew irritation from Harper’s agent, Scott Boras. Boras also represents Rendon and Strasburg. Hearing an owner speak in a way which counters possible price increases by reducing prospective market competition won’t make any agent happy. It happened here.

So, is there a path for the Nationals to pay both players? Of course. But, it’s a matter of how. In Lerner’s view, whether both players return is up to them, not the organization.

“We’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decided to go elsewhere,” Lerner said in the interview with Dell. “Again, it’s not up to us. We can give them a great offer -- which we’ve done to both of those players. They’re great people. We’d be delighted if they stay. But it’s not up to us, it’s up to them. That’s why they call it free agency.”

Important to note: Lerner said the organization cannot afford both, then said it’s up to the players -- not ownership -- whether the players return. The suggestion is if they take lower deals, which both sides know they won’t, they could come back, which in fact would make the players solely responsible for deciding the process. That’s now how free agency works, which everyone involved here understands. 

Lerner could process the offseason in Steinbrennerian fashion. Pay, pay, pay. He won’t. It’s not how the family runs the team. They operate more as well-heeled pragmatists. 

Payroll is consistently high. Washington has been in the top seven four of the last five seasons. Twice, it has reached the No. 5 spot in team payroll. The Nationals gave Max Scherzer the years and total other teams would not. The same happened for Patrick Corbin last offseason.

However, the team also took extensive measures to dip back under the competitive balance tax threshold in 2019 in order to avoid financial and draft pick penalties. It is also already driving down next season’s payroll by renegotiating with Yan Gomes (declined $9 million option; re-signed for two years and $10 million) and reworking Ryan Zimmerman’s contract (declined $18 million option; likely re-signing for around a third of that).

Costs outside of the two big-ticket items of third base and an upper-tier starter should be moderate. The bullpen needs help. Relievers are not bank-breakers. Second base could well consist of a veteran and rookie Carter Kieboom. Those spots influence the immediate math and save money.

Looming are the contracts of Trea Turner (free agent in 2023; also receiving a raise this season), Juan Soto and Victor Robles (free agents in 2025). Though that trio is egregiously outperforming their contracts while wading through MLB’s oppressive early career salary scale, which means opportunity exists now to spend because of emphatic savings via those three players.

Lerner also suggested the free agency process is generally misunderstood outside of baseball circles.

“They think you’re really back there printing money and it’s whoever goes to the highest bidder,” Lerner said. “It’s not that way at all. You give these fellas -- there’s a negotiation that goes on, but...We’ve been pretty successful in free agency over time. You’re not going to get everybody. Certain players may want to go home, closer to where their home is. You never know the reason why people move on. But, we’ve been very successful. Probably one of the most successful teams in free agency the last 10 years. We’re very proud of our record. But, again, I think people have to realize, it’s not all up to us.” 

It nearly can be. The money can be level or more. A public emphasis could be put on the organization’s desperation to bring back two homegrown, upper-tier players at distinct positions of need. No, teams can’t control everything with just cash (as Zack Wheeler recently demonstrated by taking less money to sign with Philadelphia). However, if the organization contends it owns the environmental tiebreakers -- which is a stance the Nationals hold with both players -- then it does become a matter of money and whether it’s found. In this case, the owner says it won’t be. 

See more of the interview on the next episode of The Donald Dell Interview, which debuts December 17 at 7 PM on NBC Sports Washington.
 

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Anthony Rendon's best options and the chances he returns to the Nationals

Anthony Rendon's best options and the chances he returns to the Nationals

Discussions and speculation surrounding how the Nationals will look on Opening Day of their first World Series title defense begin and end with free agents Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. 

Considered two of the top three players available along with Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole, Rendon and Strasburg will both command massive paydays wherever they decide to sign. 

To this point, reports have suggested a marriage between Strasburg and the Nationals could happen as soon as the start of the winter meetings. 

But what about Rendon? Jesse Daugherty of the Washington Post and Jamal Collier of MLB.com joined Todd Dybas on the Nationals Talk Podcast to break down his best options and the level of interest he could have in returning to DC. 

"I think the one most intriguing option for me that seems to make sense is that Justin Turner has said he'll move off third [base] for LA [Dodgers] and the Dodgers are known to offer low-year, high AAV deals which is something that probably seems attractive to Rendon, who has told us many a time he'd like to retire by 35," Daugherty said. 

If we can take Rendon's word on retiring at 35, this contract may be his last. One major hurdle for him could be the depth at third base across the league, especially on contending teams. 

"Most teams don't need [a third baseman]," Daugherty said. "The Phillies need one, the Braves need one, I guess the Dodgers need one if Turner's willing to move, but [the third base market] really is hard for me to gauge."

Meanwhile, Collier speculates that a natural fit for Rendon would be his home-town team. 

"A team that potentially could be a player for Rendon and one that makes a lot of sense is Texas [Rangers]," Collier said. "Obviously the home state, coming into a new ballpark, they should have money to spend, and I think it's a place that he would want to play at."

Every player wants to get paid, but there are often intangible factors that convince them to take a discount. Whether it's comfortability, saving your owner money to keep a contender together or playing close to home, not every player is won over by a huge contract offer. 

While that may be the case with Strasburg, it doesn't appear Rendon puts as much stock in those things. 

"All those things we said about Strasburg in the comfort and the idea that he likes it [in Washington], I think those things are also true for Rendon," Collier said. "I think if all things were equal, I think the Nats would hold some sort of tiebreaker over most teams. The comfort of DC is probably in his factors but probably won't weigh as heavily as it will with Strasburg. 

"The money has to be equal if the Nats are going to be there," Collier said. 

So no matter how much the Nationals may want to bring both Rendon and Strasburg back for a team-friendly price, they'll have to play by the same rules as everyone else. 

If they don't want to pay up for Rendon, their options to replace him are notably slim. 

"Someone is going to throw a lot of money to Rendon," Collier said. "He’s been a 5, 6 win player per season and probably will be for the next few years. One of the best players in baseball is going to get some play, but not sure where."

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