Do the Nationals have one more move left before offseason cedes to spring training? Their recent actions suggest they might. They structured two-year contracts with Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond with a higher salary for 2015, saving about $3 million for the 2014 payroll. They also offered reliever Grant Balfour something close to the two-year, $12 million deal he accepted from Tampa. It seems like the Nationals are keeping options open.
It also bears remembering that the Nationals have provided a late-winter surprise in each of the past two seasons. In 2012, they added Edwin Jackson to a rotation that seemed full. In 2013, the Nationals had a bullpen that included two 30-save closers and then signed Rafael Soriano. As General Manager Mike Rizzo has said recently, the Nationals like to find value this time of year with players whose price has dropped.
If the Nationals strike again, what would the move look like? They could use another backup catcher candidate, but only Koyie Hill and Kelly Shoppach remain on the free agent market, and neither would provide much of an upgrade over what they’ve got.
The Nationals have previously shown interest in right-handed slugger Jeff Baker as a bench player, and signing him would likely only cost somewhere around $4 million for one year. Baker is said to be close to deciding on his 2014 team. Last week, CBSSports.com reported the Orioles and Marlins have also expressed interest in Baker.
Baker, a client of agent Scott Boras, would give the Nationals a powerful hitter capable of playing all four corner spots. Baker has one particularly marketable skill: In his career, Baker has hit .298/.353/.522 against left-handed pitchers. He attended Gar-Field High and in 1999 was named the Post’s All-Met Player of the Year.
As we have seen, though, value sometimes trumps need this time of year. Could the Nationals add to an already loaded rotation and make a play for A.J. Burnett? The 37-year-old decided against retirement last week and would prefer to pitch close his home in Monkton, Md. With four top-shelf starters and a host of candidates, led by Ross Detwiler, for the fifth spot, they clearly do not need Burnett.
But, if he can be had on a one-year deal, it would not be out of character for the Nationals to at least take a chance. Burnett led the National League last year in strikeout rate and groundball rate. He would give the Nationals the best on-paper rotation in the majors, hands down, and would also create excellent depth – all those candidates for the fifth spot would be bullpen arms or waiting in reserve in case of injury.
Now, another question: Do the Nationals have enough money left to make another move? The Nationals’ estimated opening day payroll stands at just more than $125 million, which would be an increase of roughly $15 million over last year’s team-record payroll. The Nationals did not make any expensive free agent splashes, but they doled out several significant raises to players already under contract, either through arbitration or prescribed salary hikes in established deals.
With all of their arbitration cases settled except for Tyler Clippard, we now have a precise feel for where the Nationals’ payroll stands two months from opening day. Here is a player-by-player look, with the total at the end and notes where applicable:
Jayson Werth: $20M
Ryan Zimmerman: $14M
Adam LaRoche: $12M
Gio Gonzalez: $8.5M
Jordan Zimmermann: $7.5M
Doug Fister: $7.2M
Rafael Soriano: $7M (other $7M of $14M salary is deferred)
Ian Desmond: $6.5M
Denard Span: $6.5M
Tyler Clippard $5.4 (midpoint between exchanged salary figures)
Nate McLouth: $5M
Stephen Strasburg: $3.975M
Drew Storen: $3.5M
Ross Detwiler: $3M
Scott Hairston: $2.5M
Bryce Harper: $2.15M (includes prorated portion of signing bonus)
Wilson Ramos: $2.1M
Anthony Rendon: $1.8M
Jerry Blevins: $1.68M
Craig Stammen: $1.38M
Ross Ohlendorf: $1.25M
Matt Purke: $1.04M (part of his big league draft deal)
Putting Purke aside, the Nationals have 21 players who are owed a guaranteed major league salary. The final four players to fill out the opening day roster will likely be zero-to-three players making roughly $500,000, the league minimum. That would add another $2 million to the total.
If a veteran non-roster invitee like Jamey Carroll or Chris Snyder claims one of those final spots, they would make more than a minimal salary. As an estimate, we’ll call this “final four spots” salary $2.5 million.
The Nationals’ final current payroll, using the above math, is $126.475 million. That would rank roughly 10th in the majors. The Nationals do not operate with any hard-and-fast budgetary restrictions, but that number would seem to be approaching their upper limit.
“We’re going to put together the team we want to put together,” Rizzo said November at the GM meetings. “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.”
Where the Nationals’ payroll begins to get really interesting is next season. The Nationals could always make trades to change this situation, but for now they have almost $100 million committed to fewer players than a full starting nine. Werth, Gonzalez, Zimmermann and Desmond are all due raises. Here are their commitments for 2015:
Jayson Werth: $21M
Jordan Zimmermann: $16.5M
Ryan Zimmerman: $14M
Gio Gonzalez: $11M
Ian Desmond: $11M
Nate McLouth: $5M
Bryce Harper: $2.25M (could be decided by arbitration after a grievance hearing)
Adam LaRoche: $2M buyout (or $15 million mutual option)
Denard Span: $500,000 buyout (or $9 million team option)
Rafael Soriano has a $14 million team option, which vests automatically if he records 62 games finished this year.
Without any options picked up, that’s $83.25M for just seven players. Sitting here today, the Nationals’ most likely scenario seems to be exercising Span’s option, cutting ties with LaRoche and preventing Soriano’s option from vesting by any legal means necessary. If that plays out, the Nationals would owe $91.75 million to eight players to 2015.
The total comes without arbitration salaries – which could include big numbers for Doug Fister, Stephen Strasburg, Clippard, Drew Storen and Wilson Ramos, among others – or zero-to-three players or free agents. The Nationals’ payroll grew this winter, and it will force them to make some difficult choices next offseason.