Nats' Opening Day payroll may not reach $100 million

There’s still time for things to change – for the team to sign another player or two, for others to make the club off minor-league deals, for someone to get hurt – but with eight days to go until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we have a pretty good idea what the Nationals’ payroll is going to look like this season.

What it’s going to look like: A lot less than we’ve been accustomed to seeing from this franchise over the last decade.

Monday’s announcement that Victor Robles had avoided arbitration and agreed to a $2.325 million salary was the final significant piece to the puzzle. At this point, everybody who figures to make the Nats’ Opening Day roster either has a set salary or will be making close to the league minimum of $720,000.

And when you add up the salaries of the projected 26-man roster, plus a couple guys who will probably begin the season on the injured list, you get a grand total of $99,291,667. That’s a dramatic drop-off in salary commitments in the span of only two years.

The 2021 Nationals boasted an Opening Day payroll of $183,122,247, which ranked sixth out of 30 Major League Baseball clubs, according to Cot’s Contracts. That marked the ninth consecutive season they ranked among the top 11 teams in the sport in Opening Day payroll, the highest number coming in 2019 when they ranked fourth with a payroll of $197,203,691.

The July 2021 trades of Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Daniel Hudson, Yan Gomes and others proved to be the beginning of the downturn. The Nationals entered the 2022 season with a $135,427,318 payroll, which ranked 16th out of 30 clubs.

Now, following the trades of Juan Soto and Josh Bell, plus the departures of Nelson Cruz and Will Harris, the number has plummeted even more. A $99 million payroll would’ve ranked 22nd in the majors last Opening Day. It could rank a few slots lower than that this year.

Perhaps most striking about the Nationals’ dispersal of salaries right now is the fact nearly 60 percent of their payroll is going to Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin alone. Strasburg, due to make $35 million in salary and pro-rated signing bonus, is entering the fourth year of his seven-year contract, with no guarantee he’ll ever pitch again. Corbin, making $24,416,667 in the fifth year of his six-year contract, has led the league in losses and earned runs allowed each of the last two seasons.

Nobody else on the roster is set to make more than $6 million this season, with only new free agent signees Trevor Williams and Jeimer Candelario set to make more than $2.325 million.

All told, the Nationals are set to enter the season with their lowest payroll since 2012 and are likely to rank in the bottom-third of the majors in payroll for the first time since 2011.

That’s not necessarily a surprise, given the current state of the organization. Few franchises still in the early stages of a full-scale rebuild would boast a hefty payroll. Young players earn far less than established veterans, and this year’s roster is going to be littered with inexperienced players making less than $1 million a piece.

But it’s also a reflection of the uncertainty that continues to hover over the entire franchise nearly one year after the Lerner family made its intention to explore a possible sale of the team public. General manager Mike Rizzo said he was given “payroll clarity” from ownership in December, and the ensuing transactions make clear how tight his budget was.

The Nationals signed five free agents (Williams, Candelario, Corey Dickerson, Dominic Smith, Erasmo Ramirez) to major-league deals this winter. Their combined salaries total only $16.25 million. Only Williams was given more than a one-year contract.

Several other veterans (Sean Doolittle, Matt Adams, Alex Colome, Wily Peralta) agreed to minor-league deals with a chance to make the club out of spring training. The addition of any of them to the Opening Day roster could bump the payroll figure up a bit, but not by a substantial amount.

An important note to all this: A team's Opening Day payroll doesn't represent the actual amount of money it spends on payroll during the season. It's a constantly changing amount based on roster changes, with the possibility of players being added or subtracted throughout the six-month season. It's also a different figure than is used by MLB for the purpose of calculating a team's luxury tax status.

That said, here’s how a potential 26-man roster (plus players on the IL) looks from a salary perspective …

^Stephen Strasburg: $35,000,000
Patrick Corbin: $24,416,667
Trevor Williams: $6,000,000
Jeimer Candelario: $5,000,000
Kyle Finnegan: $2,325,000
Victor Robles: $2,325,000
Corey Dickerson: $2,250,000
Carl Edwards Jr.: $2,250,000
Lane Thomas: $2,200,000
Dominic Smith: $2,000,000
#Sean Doolittle: $1,500,000
^Tanner Rainey: $1,500,000
Erasmo Ramirez: $1,000,000
Ildemaro Vargas: $975,000
Victor Arano: $925,000
Hunter Harvey: $870,000
Paolo Espino: $745,000*
Luis Garcia: $740,000*
Josiah Gray: $735,000*
Keibert Ruiz: $735,000*
Riley Adams: $735,000*
MacKenzie Gore: $730,000*
CJ Abrams: $725,000*
Alex Call: $725,000*
Joey Meneses: $725,000*
Cade Cavalli: $720,000*
Stone Garrett: $720,000*
Thad Ward: $720,000*
TOTAL: $99,291,667*

*-Projected salary
^-Projected to open season on IL
#-Non-guaranteed, minor-league deal

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