The Nationals’ lengthy run as one of baseball’s most consistently successful franchises coincided with ownership’s willingness to spend like one of the sport’s richest franchises.
In each of the last nine seasons, dating back to 2013, the Nats had one of the majors’ 10 highest payrolls. They peaked, appropriately, in 2019, spending more than $205 million on players’ salaries en route to their first World Series championship.
And while the final tally has fluctuated a bit year to year, it has always been safe to assume the Nationals will rank among the top one-third of Major League Baseball clubs in payroll entering each season for nearly a decade now.
What, though, can we reasonably expect in that regard in 2022? Is a franchise admittedly in the early stages of a reboot going to spend as much as it did while chasing its first title three years ago?
“We’ve been an excellent team for more than a decade, and we have an ownership group that wants to win,” general manager Mike Rizzo said on the season’s final day. “We have a front office that wants to win. We’ve got a GM that hates to lose more than he likes to win. So we’re about winning, and we’ve always been about winning. We’ve been as successful as any team in baseball over the past 11 years, and I don’t see a willingness to change that.”
Rizzo, of course, had to say something along those lines. He wasn’t going to openly admit his team won’t be trying to win next season, even though it’s safe to say there won’t be nearly as much emphasis on assembling a 90-win roster as there has been in every prior season over the last decade. (Sorry, but you don’t trade Trea Turner - who was under club control for 2022 - if you intend to contend again.)
The reality is this: The Nationals currently have far less money committed to next season’s roster than they have at this stage of the winter in a really long time.
Only four players at the moment are signed for 2022 with already agreed-upon salaries: Stephen Strasburg ($35 million), Patrick Corbin ($23.4 million), Will Harris ($8 million) and Alcides Escobar ($1 million).
Ten more players are under club control but have the ability to set their salaries via arbitration: Juan Soto, Josh Bell, Joe Ross, Erick Fedde, Victor Robles, Wander Suero, Austin Voth, Andrew Stevenson, Tanner Rainey and Ryne Harper. From that group, only Soto ($16.5 million) and Bell ($10 million) are projected to make considerable money, with each of the rest of the bunch earning as little as $800,000 and as much as perhaps $3 million.
The rest of the 26-man roster would be filled out with players who have fewer than three years of service time in the big leagues and thus will make something near the league minimum salary, which was $570,500 in 2021.
Add all of those salaries up, and you get a grand projected 2022 opening day payroll of roughly $112 million, down a whopping $71 million from the previous year and almost certain to fall into the lower half of the league.
In theory, the Nationals could go hog wild this winter and sign multiple high-priced free agents, boosting payroll back to its previous level. That doesn’t appear to be a likely outcome, of course.
Which isn’t to say the Lerner family won’t spend anything this offseason in an attempt to improve the roster. There is still the ability to improve the rotation, bullpen and lineup with some calculated additions, especially in the form of one-year contracts that don’t hinder future spending, give the club a better chance to win more than 65 games next season and (even in a worst-case scenario) have some coveted free-agents-to-be who could net even more prospects come the July trade deadline.
“Each case is individual,” Rizzo said in October when asked about the possibility of long-term contracts vs. one-year deals. “If you see the right move that’s going to sustain you through the rebuild and the championship years, that makes sense. Some really good one-year deals make sense. We implemented that last winter. We signed a couple of really fine one-year contracts with some players. We’re going to be open-minded about both of them.”
Maybe the Nationals will add a big bat at third base or left field on a one-year deal. Maybe they’ll sign a veteran starter who can pitch 160 quality innings, or a closer who can take pressure off the bullpen’s less-experienced members.
It might not turn them back into immediate contenders, but it might position them to be in much better shape one year from now, at which point the front office could be convinced it is time to spend big again.
“This offseason’s going to be exciting for us,” Rizzo said. “We’re looking at putting together a roster in a different way this year, so I’m excited about the challenge, and I think the coaching staff is, also.”