The Nationals’ moves so far this winter have almost exclusively involved one-year deals. Only right-hander Trevor Williams (two years, $13 million) got more than a one-year commitment from the Nats, who signed Jeimer Candelario ($5 million), Corey Dickerson ($2.25 million) and Dominic Smith ($2 million) each to short-term contracts.
There are no bad one-year deals. So say many baseball executives, justifying even the high-salary contracts to players who don’t pan out as worthy because of the lack of the kind of long-term commitment that can hamper a franchise.
Some one-year deals, however, are better than others. Sometimes, a team can turn a minimal payout into quality production (and maybe even flip a player at the trade deadline for a prospect). And sometimes, a team can waste a large chunk of money on a guy who doesn’t live up to his potential and loses whatever trade value he might have had.
The Nationals have signed plenty of free agents to one-year deals in their history. Which were the best? Which were the worst? (Note: We’re only talking about free agents who played somewhere else the previous season and signed major league contracts with the Nats. No players who re-signed, and no players who signed minor league contracts included for these purposes.)
Here’s one humble reporter’s take …
BEST ONE-YEAR DEALS
ESTEBAN LOAIZA ($2.9 million, 2005): The inaugural Nationals kept themselves in contention into mid-September because of their pitching staff, and Loaiza was a big part of that. Signed by then-interim general manager Jim Bowden after he struggled to a 5.70 ERA with the White Sox and Yankees the previous season, the veteran right-hander consistently gave his team a chance to win every five days. He finished 12-10 with a 3.77 ERA over a 217 innings and delivered a whopping 24 quality starts. Loaiza never came close to pulling that off again in the final three years of his career. And his post-career days haven’t exactly been pleasant, either. (Feel free to do a Google search on him.)
MATT CAPPS ($3.5 million, 2010)
One of Mike Rizzo’s savviest moves in his long tenure as general manager was the decision to sign Capps after the Pirates non-tendered him following a rough 2009 season. Capps quickly rediscovered his top form and proceeded to notch 26 saves with a 2.74 ERA and earn the lone All-Star selection of his career, all before the end of July. Then Rizzo flipped the right-hander to the bullpen-starved Twins for a catching prospect named Wilson Ramos, who became an All-Star himself in D.C.
ADAM LIND ($1.5 million, 2017)
Signed on the eve of spring training, Lind was asked why he chose to join the Nationals. His reply: “Because I needed a J-O-B.” The lefty slugger proved to be more than worth the modest salary he got. Lind was one of the best pinch-hitters in baseball that season and was a solid fill-in at first base and in left field. Over 301 plate appearances, he hit .303/.362/.513 with 14 homers and 59 RBIs, and he also went 2-for-3 in the playoffs. The Nats didn’t bring him back the following year, and he wound up spending 2018 at Triple-A with the Red Sox and Yankees before retiring, never to return to the majors.
MATT ADAMS ($4 million, 2018)
The reason the Nationals didn’t re-sign Lind: They felt Adams would be more valuable to them and was worth the extra $2.5 million. They weren’t wrong. “Big City” mashed 21 homers in only 337 plate appearances and saw a lot of time at first base when Ryan Zimmerman was injured. When the team fell out of the race following the trade deadline, Adams was placed on waivers and claimed by the Cardinals. But he returned on another $4 million deal the following year, hit 20 more homers and won himself a World Series ring. Four years later, he’ll try to complete a comeback as a non-roster invitee to Nats spring training.
KYLE SCHWARBER ($7 million, 2021)
When the Cubs non-tendered Schwarber after the 2020 season, Davey Martinez immediately vouched for his former player. The Nationals swooped in and signed him to a one-year deal that would help him re-establish his value and hopefully help them return to contention. The former happened, the latter did not. Thanks to a historic power surge in June, Schwarber finished with 25 homers in 303 plate appearances before suffering a major hamstring injury in early July. The Nats traded him to the Red Sox at the end of the month, and he returned in time to help them down the stretch and into the playoffs, parlaying that into a four-year, $79 million deal with the Phillies.
WORST ONE-YEAR DEALS
PAUL LO DUCA ($5 million, 2008)
Bowden thought he was improving both his catching and his outfield positions in December 2007 when he traded Brian Schneider and Ryan Church to the Mets for Lastings Milledge and signed former Met Lo Duca as a free agent. Boy, did those moves backfire. Milledge was a bust, and so was Lo Duca, who produced a .301 on-base percentage and even worse .281 slugging percentage in 46 games before he was released on July 31. Even worse than that was that only two days after the signing was announced, Lo Duca was among the players named in the Mitchell Report, having received hGH from Kirk Radomski while referring other players to the Mets clubhouse attendant. If that didn’t set the tone for a 102-loss season in D.C. …
DAN HAREN ($13 million, 2013)
On the heels of their first division title, the Nationals tried to bolster what already was an elite rotation by adding a quality veteran at a pretty hefty price for one year. Haren had a solid track record in his 20s, but by the time he arrived in Washington he was a shell of his former self. He went 10-14 with a 4.67 ERA over 169 2/3 innings and at one point admitted he was going on the injured list not because he was injured but because the team couldn’t afford to keep him on the roster. Haren’s self-deprecating humor still made him a clubhouse favorite, but his performance was anything but positive.
TREVOR ROSENTHAL ($7 million, 2019)
The Nats knew they needed bullpen help entering the 2019 season. They wound up taking a very aggressive approach early in the winter and signed Rosenthal to a significant salary despite the fact he was coming back from Tommy John surgery. It proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Rosenthal faced 43 batters as a National. He retired only 17 of them. Along the way were 15 walks, three hit batters, five wild pitches and cringeworthy moment after cringeworthy moment. The team finally gave up and released him, eating that salary. To his immense credit, Rosenthal bounced back in 2020 to post a 1.90 ERA in 23 games with the Royals and Padres.
BRAD HAND ($10.5 million, 2021)
Seeking a replacement for Sean Doolittle at the back end of their bullpen, the Nationals again were aggressive and signed Hand, arguably the best available left-hander on the market. It wasn’t all bad; Hand notched 21 saves and finished with a 3.59 ERA. But his meltdowns were epic, and they came at the worst possible time for a Nats team that was trying to stay in the race and avoid a trade deadline teardown. Instead, Hand’s late-July struggles helped push Rizzo and ownership to do the unthinkable and deal away Max Scherzer and Trea Turner (not to mention Hand, who went to the Blue Jays for catcher Riley Adams).
NELSON CRUZ ($15 million, 2022)
Looking for a proven power bat to protect and mentor Juan Soto in the heart of the lineup, the Nationals dished out a $12 million salary (plus a $3 million buyout) for the 41-year-old Cruz just as spring training was getting underway. Cruz was the veteran clubhouse presence the team thought it was getting, but he was not the big slugger or lineup protection he used to be. Looking every bit his age, he managed only 10 homers, 16 doubles, a .337 slugging percentage and .651 OPS. He didn’t even command anything at the trade deadline, so in the end it was Soto who was dealt while Cruz stuck it out the rest of the season on a 107-loss team.
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