The Nationals’ coming payroll challenge

brushback_harperThe state of the Nationals-Braves rivalry is strong, and it only figures to grow stronger. They have traded the NL East title back and forth the last two years, both powered by mighty collections of young talent. Yesterday, Baseball Prospectus came out with its organization-by-organization ranking of the best 25-and-under talent in baseball, a turbo-charged version of farm system rankings. The Nationals were rated second, behind only the Cardinals. The Braves were third.

Where the teams differ is the process of making sure all that talent stays put. The Braves, as you can read in today’s Post, secured five players with a flurry of February contract extensions, four of them for at least four seasons. The Braves not only bought out a handful of free agent years, but they also gained cost certainty for their best, youngest players.

The Nationals cannot say the same. They have their core of players under contractual control, but not under defined contracts. They are at the mercy of the arbitration system. Aside from Ryan Zimmerman, they have not given out any contract extensions to homegrown players that have covered a player’s free-agent seasons.

The Lerners will soon have an inevitable choice. Either their payroll will skyrocket more than it already has and push past $150 million, or that young core will begin to break apart.

The Nationals will have about $90 million committed to eight players in 2015 depending on which team options they pick up. Many players – Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche, Rafael Soriano, Doug Fister, Ross Detwiler – will come off the books after that season. But they will try to keep Zimmermann or Desmond, or both, at a high cost. By that time, the Nationals will be facing steep raises and potential extension negotiations with Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos.

They will not be able to avoid the rising costs. And those costs are largely undefined, which makes it more difficult for the Nationals to plan future rosters.

Recent reports about Mike Trout’s contract negotiations may spark optimism among Nationals fans that Harper can reach a similar deal. Harper, though, will receive different advice from Scott Boras than what Trout is getting from his agent, Craig Landis. Boras is content to let his players turn down life-changing money in the belief – often verified – that a larger pile of life-changing money will come by signing arbitration contracts year-to-year and cashing in at free agency. Boras has signed pre-arbitration extensions before. But there will be no discount, and you can be sure he will not view Trout as a model for Harper.

Tyler Clippard is another good example of the kind of decisions the Nationals will have to make. Clippard will likely make in excess of $7 million next year in arbitration. If the Nationals cannot strike a multi-year deal – something like $18 million over three years – that offers Clippard extra security while offering them a lower 2015 salary, Clippard may well be a non-tender candidate, for reasons in no way related to performance.

The Nationals have combined excellent scouting and player development work with the good fortune of drafting Harper and Strasburg to gather young talent. The next part, keeping it all together, is the next challenge.

FROM THE POST

The Braves put themselves in an enviable position by signing five players to contract extensions in less than three weeks.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Detwiler’s first start, etc.

Harper to return today

Walters’s hot start.

MATT WILLIAMS’S QUOTE OF THE DAY

“A small bird will fall frozen dead from a bough, having never felt sorry for itself.”

DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY

27

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