The end of the World Series last night meant the start of the offseason today, and the Nationals wasted no time making the first of many consequential decisions they’ll face during what should be a busy winter.
The Nats declined to pick up the 2021 contract options they held on Adam Eaton and Aníbal Sánchez and declined to pick up their portions of the 2021 mutual options on Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames. All four veteran players immediately become free agents and are allowed to begin negotiating with other clubs at 5 p.m. Sunday.
The moves did not come as a surprise, and they don’t preclude the Nationals from re-signing any or all of the players to lesser deals. One year ago, the club declined its option on Yan Gomes and then re-signed the catcher to a two-year contract at a lower annual salary.
Of the four players who had their options declined today, Kendrick probably has the best chance of returning in 2021, though the Nats can’t proceed until they know if the 37-year-old infielder wants to play another season or retire. Kendrick said last month he had no idea what he would do, wanting first to go home to Arizona, rehab his injured hamstring and talk with his family before making a decision.
Today’s moves save the Nationals a significant amount of money, though they do owe buyout payments to each player. Sánchez’s option was for $12 million; his buyout is $2 million. Eaton’s option was for $10.5 million; his buyout is $1.5 million. Kendrick’s option was for $6.5 million; his buyout is $2.25 million. Thames’ option was for $4 million; his buyout is $1 million.
Given each player’s performance and health this season, the Nats weren’t in a position to bring any of them back at their original salaries, even though three of them were integral parts of their championship run in 2019.
Sánchez would’ve been the costly player to retain, and though the Nationals would’ve happily paid $12 million for a quality No. 4 starter like they had in 2019, they likely saw enough regression this season to be scared off. The 36-year-old right-hander saw his ERA and WHIP skyrocket from 3.85 and 1.271 (in 30 starts) to 6.62 and 1.660 (in 11 starts) as opponents began hammering his four-seam fastball (.864 slugging percentage) and sinker (1.000 slugging percentage) with consistency.
Eaton’s on-base percentage plummeted from .365 to .285, his OPS from .792 to .669 and he rated as one of the worst defensive right fielders in the majors before a fractured left index finger brought an abrupt end to his season with two weeks to go. With the Nationals desperately in need of another big bat to protect Trea Turner and Juan Soto in their lineup, they couldn’t justify paying $10.5 million to a 32-year-old corner outfielder who couldn’t fill that role.
Thames wasn’t part of the 2019 championship club, signed last winter to replace Matt Adams as the left-handed portion of a first base platoon with Ryan Zimmerman (and, at times, Kendrick). The 33-year-old slugger never found his groove at the plate and finished with a .203 batting average, .300 on-base percentage, .617 OPS, three homers and 12 RBIs over 140 plate appearances.
These four players immediately join the 147 other major leaguers who officially became free agents today. That list includes five more members of the 2020 Nationals: Zimmerman, Kurt Suzuki, Sean Doolittle, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Brock Holt.