ORLANDO — As the Washington Nationals have grown into a team expected to contend annually, they have trafficked each winter in surprise. Now a pillar in their outfield, Jayson Werth existed as a pipe dream before the Nationals swooped in with a stunning offer. They pried Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland Athletics and plucked Edwin Jackson out of free agency with a late deal no one saw coming. Their bullpen seemed set last winter until they signed Rafael Soriano as closer.
The Nationals may have another stealth move in them this winter, but the groundwork they laid for their offseason this week at the general manager meetings came with a slice of certainty. Each successive season, the Nationals’ payroll has ticked upward. This winter, as their homegrown players receive pay bumps and they scour for upgrades in their rotation, bench and bullpen, it will increase again, unburdened by a wealthy ownership eager to chase a title.
“We’re going to put together the team we want to put together,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “The Lerners have been very fair with us and given us all the resources to win if it makes sense. I think they’ll continue that trend.”
Even if the Nationals stood completely pat, their payroll would increase this offseason. The only two free agents who came off their books, Dan Haren and Chad Tracy, made a combined $14 million in 2013. In raises for their eight arbitration-eligible players alone, if they keep them all, the Nationals would dole out an estimated $14.2 million.
The Nationals also owe raises to several players under contract based on the structure of their deals. Werth, Denard Span, Gonzalez and Craig Stammen will combine to make $8.5 million more in 2014 than in 2013.
And so, Washington faces a financial crunch. The Nationals finished 2013 with a $118 million payroll, according to the Baseball Prospectus contract database. If they did nothing but retain their arbitration-eligible players and replace Tracy and Haren with minimum-salaried rookies, their payroll would jump to about $125 million.
Of course, the Nationals will not simply retain all their arbitration-eligible players and replace Tracy and Haren with players making the minimum. They could find salary relief by trading either Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard, both of whom are due arbitration raises. But they know their payroll is going up again, which they view as part of the loser-to-contender process.
“As our own players get better through the arbitration process, the price of being a good team accelerates,” Rizzo said. “This is the case this year.”
The Nationals will approach this offseason with a different approach to one aspect of free agency. Last year, they sacrificed in order to sign Soriano to a two-year, $22 million deal after he had turned down the New York Yankees’ qualifying offer. The acquisition cost the Nationals their first-round draft pick, which would have been No. 28 overall.
This year’s draft is regarded as more flush with talent, and the Nationals will pick 20th overall, if not higher after other teams give up picks to sign free agents who declined a qualifying offer. The Nationals will not be as eager to wade into the pool of 13 free agents with draft pick compensation attached to them.
“Last year, the draft pick was way at the extreme bottom of the first round,” Rizzo said. “It’s a little bit better pick this year. I’d be more reluctant to give a draft pick than I did last year. I would never rule it out. But I’d be more reluctant this year than last year.”
The stance would dilute the Nationals’ interest in free agent starting pitchers who will cost a first-round pick: Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and Hiroki Kuroda. It could pique their interest in right-hander Matt Garza, who was traded midseason and therefore could not be given a qualifying offer by the Texas Rangers. The Nationals have previously shown mild interest in trading for Garza.
Rizzo said he felt no intense pressure to add a starter with Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan and Nate Karns able to fill two spots behind Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Still, it is no secret the Nationals want to upgrade.
If they make a trade for David Price or Max Scherzer, one American League executive said the Nationals would likely need to include infielder Anthony Rendon as the anchor to that deal, reasoning that the Nationals do not possess any other young, controllable pieces that could serve as a centerpiece.
The Nationals would be unwilling to include Rendon in a deal for Scherzer, and it would be difficult for them to move him even for Price, the 2012 Cy Young winner. The Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija would provide an alternative that wouldn’t require giving up Rendon.
“If trading for an upgraded pitcher makes us better, we’ll certainly have to do it,” Rizzo said. “At what price is the question. You go out and get this starting pitcher who’s better than what you got, but will blow away your system in the minor leagues. Is that the way you want to go? You have to weigh the two.”
If the Nationals add to their series of winter splashes, it is easier now to determine what it will not be than what it will. Despite a report to the contrary over the weekend, the Nationals are not considering trading Span. The Nationals have neither made nor received a call from another team about Span. They also do not have interest in would-be possible replacement Jacoby Ellsbury, one of the 13 free agents who will force a team to sacrifice a draft pick.
The Nationals will also not seek to cut ties with Adam LaRoche and upgrade at first base after Laroche’s trying 2013 season. LaRoche struggled as he lost weight, but Rizzo expects him to rebound in the final year of his two-year, $24 million deal. The Nationals, Rizzo said, have checked off first base.
“Adam LaRoche is our first baseman,” Rizzo said. “I think he’s going to bounce back to have one of his career-norm years. That’s the guy we signed, and hopefully that’s the guy we get this year.”
Who else will they get? The Nationals’ recent offseasons have made it a fool’s errand to predict. As the market develops and the winter churns, the safest bet may be the move you haven’t thought of.
“There’s always room to improve,” Rizzo said. “It’s certainly not a perfect team. We’re going to work hard to get it better. We’ve shown a propensity over the last couple years — we’ve improved the club in many different ways, be it free agency, trades. We’re not afraid to do any of it to improve the club.”