How much money do the Nationals have to spend this winter? It seems like a simple question, but the answer isn't even close to simple.
Major League Baseball payroll calculations have become far more complicated than they used to be, thanks to the luxury tax (officially known as the competitive-balance tax), deferred salaries and bonus clauses that are cropping up more and more in players' contracts.
But we're going to do our best to try to figure this one out here, because it's kind of an important starting point for the Nationals as they embark on a most significant offseason.
If the biggest question facing the Nats this winter is whether or not they re-sign Bryce Harper, the corollary question that must be asked is what kind of budget Mike Rizzo has at his disposal. If the Lerner family is giving its general manager unlimited resources, then he can offer Harper as much money as it will take to keep him. If, however, ownership has spelled out restrictions on payroll, then there's only so much that be offered to Harper without spoiling any chance of addressing the club's other needs.
Neither anyone in the Lerner family nor Rizzo ever divulges these kinds of important monetary details to the public, so it's impossible to say with 100 percent certainty. But let's proceed under a few perfectly reasonable assumptions ...
* Having increased payroll in each of the last 11 seasons to varying degrees, ownership is probably good with at least another slight increase from this year's actual payroll of approximately $181 million and luxury tax figure of approximately $203 million.
* Having surpassed the luxury tax threshold each of the last two seasons, ownership ideally would like to avoid doing it again (and thus being subject to a hefty 50 percent tax as a three-time offender) but might be willing to go slightly over the 2019 threshold of $206 million if it clearly puts the team in a better position to win an elusive championship.
So what does that all mean in practical terms? Let's say the Nationals are aiming for a 2019 actual payroll in the range of $185 million to $195 million, with a legitimate attempt to keep the luxury tax payroll calculation under $206 million. (For those who don't know, a team's luxury tax payroll includes not only the salaries of big leaguers but the average annual value of contracts for all players on the 40-man roster, plus an addition $14.5 million or so for health and pension benefits. Thus, the total ends up higher than the actual payroll figure.)
How much have the Nationals already committed to their 2019 payroll?
* Seven veterans (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Eaton, Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Howie Kendrick) are already under contract for a grand total of $118.14 million ($88.06 million for luxury tax purposes).
* Another seven players (Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Michael A. Taylor, Tanner Roark, Kyle Barraclough, Joe Ross, Sammy SolÃs) are arbitration-eligible and due to earn raises that are projected to total $43.65 million.
* That leaves 11 more roster spots that - if no more transactions were made - would all go to players with fewer than three years' service time each making at or slightly above the league minimum salary of $555,000. Combined that would add another $6.325 million to payroll.
So add those all together, and you get a current 25-man roster with a payroll of $168.115 million. Unless somebody is traded, the Nationals are guaranteed to spend at least that much on payroll in 2019.
That's not an insignificant number. And if we're going to presume that the final opening day payroll will fall in the $185 million to $195 million range, that's not a room left to maneuver.
For these purposes, we're talking about perhaps only $20 million to $30 million of available money to spend the rest of the winter. And the Nationals have yet to add a starting pitcher, catcher, second baseman or left-handed reliever, let alone re-sign Harper (who very well may surpass that available budget entirely on his own).
All of which leaves the front office choosing one of the following scenarios ...
* Let Harper walk, spend wisely to fill those remaining needs (perhaps using a trade or two to help keep costs down) and keep the payroll under $195 million.
* Re-sign Harper, try to fill the other holes with bargains and maybe trade away someone already making a significant salary (Eaton? Roark? Taylor?) to help defray the cost and stay under $195 million total.
* Go for broke and push the payroll past the $200 million mark, risk surpassing the luxury tax threshold for the third consecutive year and hope it all results in a World Series title (or at least appearance) to make it all worth it.
Maybe this is all a little simplistic, and there are variations of all three scenarios (or several other scenarios) that all could play out over the winter and into the 2019 season. It's probably not worth stressing too much over the specific dollar amounts presented here, because most are estimates.
The bottom line is this: The Nationals only have so much money to spend this offseason, and they have more than a few areas of need. And unless ownership is willing to break the bank in a manner it hasn't quite done before, something's going to have to give.