There’s a lot of talk about the Nationals and money right now, namely how much money they can spend in an attempt to keep Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg. This comes after managing principal owner Mark Lerner, in an interview with former tennis player, lawyer and agent Donald Dell on NBC Sports Washington, claimed the club “really can only afford to have one of those two guys.”
This perhaps caught a lot of folks off guard, if not for the actual message than for the fact Lerner was willing to publicly say it.
The odds of the Nationals re-signing both Rendon and Strasburg have always seemed remote. Conventional wisdom has stated they’re more likely to retain Strasburg and less likely to keep Rendon, who has no shortage of suitors following a brilliant regular season and postseason. But if Strasburg were to surprisingly leave town, it stands to reason the Nats would feel more compelled to go all-in on Rendon and at least emerge with one of the two big-name free agents.
But is it true that the Nationals actually can’t afford to keep both players?
Well, no. Any Major League Baseball club, if it chooses, can afford to keep several high-salaried players on roster. The vast majority of owners aren’t strapped for cash. The reason a club wouldn’t keep all those high-priced players is to keep itself under the league’s luxury tax threshold.
That’s the refrain owners across the sport have been preaching the last few years, with only a couple willing to cross the threshold and pay the tax each season. And those that do pay the tax go out of their way to reduce payroll back underneath the magic number the following season to avoid increasing penalties.
The Nationals, after exceeding the luxury tax threshold in 2017 and 2018, managed to stay under the $206 million figure this season and reset their status heading into 2020 (when the threshold goes up to $208 million). Lerner hasn’t flat-out said it yet, but the insinuation is pretty clear: He intends to avoid paying the luxury tax again next year.
Could the Nationals somehow re-sign both Rendon and Strasburg and still maintain a payroll under $208 million? It might be possible, but it would be awfully difficult. And it would require money to be saved elsewhere.
And yet we’re not talking about a huge sum of money here. We’re talking about perhaps $5 million.
Think of it this way: Before Strasburg opted out of the final four years of his contract, the Nationals were fully prepared to pay him $25 million (by luxury tax calculations) next season. His salary was already established.
And given that they made Rendon an offer worth a reported $210 million over seven years, the Nationals were fully prepared to take another $30 million-a-year hit against the luxury tax to keep their star third baseman.
Strasburg is probably seeking $30 million a year in his new deal, whether with the Nats or someone else. That’s a $5 million-a-year raise over what the Nats were already set to pay him in 2020. In other words, that’s the only unforeseen increase in payroll. And is that really significant enough to keep the club from re-signing one of its most important players?
It should also be noted here that the Nationals already are trimming a healthy chunk of money off the books next season, thanks to other free agents. Ryan Zimmerman, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams, Howie Kendrick and Jeremy Hellickson counted approximately $34.5 million against the luxury tax this year. At the moment, none is returning. Even if they re-sign Zimmerman for a fraction of his prior salary, then re-sign Adams to keep their first base platoon intact, the Nats still would be on the hook for about $25 million less than they were this season.
Yes, there are other roster holes that need to be filled, especially in the bullpen. And there are a handful of other returning players set to receive raises, thanks to the arbitration process. But the point is, the Nationals still have some room to work with this winter, maybe even enough to retain both star free agents.
If we are to take Lerner at his word, that still won’t happen. Not because the Nationals don’t want to keep both Rendon and Strasburg, but because they can’t afford to.
Except they actually can afford to keep both players. Yes, it might lift them over the luxury tax threshold. But not by a ton. And the couple million dollars they’d owe as a result seem like a small price to pay to make sure two of the most important players in franchise history remain with this franchise for many more years to come.