Now that we know the Nationals aren't getting Matt Garza (he's officially headed to the Cubs) and are likely out of the running for a starter (unless they sign someone like Jeff Francis), it looks increasingly likely they will have a smaller payroll than last year.
They have 14 players signed for 2011, at a total cost of $51.5 million. At least two of those players - Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper - have little to no chance of being on the Opening Day roster, so we'll say the Nationals have 12 spots accounted for. They have three arbitration cases in John Lannan, Michael Morse and Doug Slaten, and we'll assume a rough cost of $5 million or so for those players, though that may be a touch high. But if we plan for $5 million being gone, the Nationals are still only at $56.5 million, with 10 pre-arbitration spots to fill. They can likely get those players signed for another $5 million (which could again be a touch high). Even then, though, the payroll would be $61.5 million, or nearly $5 million less than last year's payroll.
I expect the Nationals could spend some more money on another reliever (I wrote earlier in the week they could look for one in the $3 million neighborhood), but they're not likely to have a total increase over the 2010 payroll. They've switched out two players at second base (Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy) making a combined $9.25 million for one (Danny Espinosa) on a pre-arbitration contract, and they saved some money in their Adam Dunn-for-Adam LaRoche switch at first.
In the end, of course, the Nationals' payroll isn't important. Their record is what counts. But the most pertinent point here is how the payroll sets up for next winter's free agency period. At that point, the Nationals will have Jason Marquis' $7.5 million deal and Ivan Rodriguez' $3 million salary coming off the books, as well as another $3.5 million for Livan Hernandez, Chien-Ming Wang and Rick Ankiel. They have $44.6 million committed to seven players, but aren't overloaded with arbitration cases. Even if the Nationals were to add a big free agent, they wouldn't bump the payroll much past $70 or $75 million in 2012.
If the team's ownership is truly ready to spend - and it would seem foolish to back off now that they overpaid for Jayson Werth and LaRoche - they should have the flexibility to do so.