We raised the question Sunday of the Nationals’ approach to this winter, whether they might be willing to go against the expected grain of most of the league and aggressively pursue free agents while everyone else attempts to drag the process out and save money.
We have no idea at this point if it’s even within the realm of possibility, mostly because we haven’t heard a word from the front office about the financial state of the organization at the end of a year in which there were no fans and limited revenue.
What we do know, however, is that the Nationals have several roster holes that need to be filled one way or the other. They need to add another prominent bat to their lineup, preferably a corner outfielder. They need another starting pitcher. They need a catcher. They need one or more first basemen (whether new additions or old friends returning). They need a left-handed reliever.
And all of that is going to cost money. Which impacts the 2021 payroll. But where does that payroll currently stand?
Glad you asked, because we’re going to try to break it all down today.
First, a reminder that the Nationals’ opening day 2020 payroll was $176 million. Sort of. That’s how much they would have paid their players if the season was 162 games. Because it was only 60 games, they paid a prorated portion of that big number: Approximately $69 million, according to Cot’s Contracts.
The Nationals have already committed $121 million to eight returning veterans in 2021 (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Will Harris, Starlin Castro, Daniel Hudson, Yan Gomes and Josh Harrison). They have three more players eligible for salary arbitration (Trea Turner, Juan Soto, Joe Ross) who could end up earning a combined $21 million.
So that’s 11 players making roughly $142 million. If the Nats don’t sign any free agents or trade for any big leaguers, they would fill out the remaining 15 holes on their roster with young players making at or near the league minimum, which totals another $9 million or so.
Add all of that together and we can say the Nationals’ opening day 2021 payroll will be at least $151 million.
How much beyond that are they willing to go? That’s the real question.
Obviously, they’re going to sign multiple free agents this winter who will make more than the league minimum and thus raise the total payroll figure. And under normal circumstances, you would think it’s safe to say they’ll exceed the previous year’s payroll by at least a marginal amount.
What about the luxury tax? Major League Baseball has already set that threshold for next season at $210 million. The Nationals surpassed the threshold in 2017 and 2018 and paid taxes, then got back under it in 2019 and 2020. Again, nobody from the front office has publicly stated their intentions for 2021, but let’s assume they’re unlikely to exceed it again.
So the opening day payroll most likely falls somewhere between $151 million and $210 million. That’s a big gap, and the difference between the two extremes is really significant.
If ownership is willing to approach the high end of that spectrum, general manager Mike Rizzo has the ability to sign a big bat (like George Springer), a quality starting pitcher (like Charlie Morton) and several other role players. If ownership insists on staying at the low end of the spectrum, Rizzo is going to have to get more creative and perhaps go with a bunch of lower-priced free agents to fill all the holes. Or maybe go the trade route to address a need.
Maybe the ultimate answer lies somewhere in the middle. Maybe Rizzo can sign one big name but piecemeal the rest together.
We don’t know yet how this will play out. We can only assume Rizzo has been given parameters and is about to proceed as best he can to work within them.
If and when the Nationals make their first move of the offseason, we should begin to get a sense of the plan.