How much might Nats' payroll increase in 2024?

After a sustained run as one of baseball’s highest-spending clubs, the Nationals have morphed into one of the sport’s lower-spending clubs over the last 12 months. Given the state of the franchise’s rebuild, that’s not unexpected. Teams focused on identifying young pieces for the future don’t boast high payrolls.

But the question remains on the minds of so many right now: When will the Nats decide it’s time to spend big again, and what will that look like?

Reading tea leaves from club officials, it doesn’t sound like a splurge is coming this winter. They’re still focused on identifying those long-term parts to the puzzle. Once they have a better sense what they already have, they may be more inclined to spend money to acquire what they don’t have.

But even if they don’t go big yet, there’s reason to believe payroll will increase in 2024. Not by a lot, but some.

First, some background: From 2013-21, the Nationals ranked in the top 10 in the majors in end-of-season payroll every year, with a club record $205 million payroll (fourth-highest in baseball) during the 2019 World Series run.

The subsequent roster teardown and rebuild changed all of that. The Nats ranked 18th in the majors with a year-end payroll of $136 million in 2022. The official year-end totals for the 2023 season haven’t been reported yet, but they opened the year ranked 22nd at $101 million and likely dropped a couple of spots by year’s end after once again selling at the trade deadline.

So, where do things now stand as they enter the offseason?

At the moment, the Nationals have five players signed at set salaries for 2024: Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Trevor Williams, Keibert Ruiz and Ildemaro Vargas. Strasburg and Corbin each have a base salary of $35 million, though each has a sizeable chunk of salary deferred until later years ($11.4 million for Strasburg, $10 million for Corbin). (There’s also the matter of Strasburg’s pending retirement and financial negotiation with the team to potentially lessen the blow.)

Those five signed players are due to make a total of $84.875 million next season ($21.4 million of which is deferred). Seven other players are due to earn various raises via the arbitration process: Lane Thomas, Kyle Finnegan, Dominic Smith, Victor Robles, Luis Garcia, Hunter Harvey and Tanner Rainey. Those seven are projected to make $25.1 million, which combined with the five already-signed players brings the total up to $109.975 million (minus the $21.4 million that’s deferred to Strasburg and Corbin).

That leaves 15 more spots for healthy players to round out the Opening Day roster. If the team makes no more moves this winter, those players all will be pre-arbitration and make at or near the league minimum salary of $740,000 for a total of $11.1 million.

Put that all together, and you’ve got a projected Opening Day payroll right now of $121.175 million (minus the deferred $21.4 million). That would be about $20 million higher than the Nats’ 2023 Opening Day payroll.

How did that number grow so much without the team having added anyone of consequence from the outside yet? Well, it includes the sizeable pay raise Ruiz got when he signed his eight-year extension during spring training. He’ll earn $6 million (plus a $2 million signing bonus) next season after making only $1 million this season.

It also takes into account the raises the arbitration-eligible players are due to receive. Thomas, who made $2.2 million this season, could earn roughly $7 million next season. Finnegan, who earned $2.325 million, could get bumped up to about $5 million.

The Nationals, of course, aren’t going to sit idle all winter and make no moves. They are likely to pursue a corner outfielder, possibly a third and/or first baseman, a starting pitcher and at least one reliever.

Last winter, they signed Williams, Smith, Jeimer Candelario and Corey Dickerson for a combined $15 million. It stands to reason they’ll at least match that total this winter, if not exceed it.

So the Opening Day payroll could wind up somewhere in the neighborhood of $140 million. That’s not where it used to be. And it’s not where most hope it will be in another year or two. But at the very least, it should signify the Nats’ first payroll increase since the rebuild began.

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