SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Mike Rizzo said not to read anything into this, but he and his contingent at the General Managers’ meetings are doing things differently this year. They are scheduling more formal meetings with agents and other teams’ representatives, eschewing informal conversations for more official appointments.
“There’s a lot more avenues we can go,” Rizzo said, “so there’s a lot more people we want to talk to.”
Throughout the early portion of this offseason, Rizzo has lauded his team’s flexibility. They do not have one set plan, because their roster begets options. They can add at shortstop or in center field, in the corner outfield and in the bullpen, add a closer or a few back-end relievers from a less expensive bullpen tier. The team that won 95 games returns nearly all its key components besides Wilson Ramos and Mark Melancon. They can spend or remain conservative. They can deal or sit relatively dormant. They will probably do something in between.
But Rizzo admitted Tuesday that the one thing the Nationals cannot do is spend wildly. Their payroll jumped to $160 million in 2015, and began the 2016 season at $145 million. Including projected arbitration salaries, the Nationals’ payroll currently sits around $140 million. Though they have chased big-name free agents in recent offseasons — Max Scherzer, most successfully — they have become famous for structuring contracts around significant amounts of deferred money.
When they pursued Yoenis Cespedes last offseason, for example, they did so with a deal competitive in total value that included deferred money. Cespedes signed with the Mets, but opted out of that deal and is a free agent again. Rizzo said Tuesday that Cespedes “scared” him whenever he came to bat against his Nationals this year. He admitted interest in Cespedes, though in the vaguest terms possible.
“We’re looking to improve the club any way we can,” Rizzo said. “If it makes sense for us, he improves any team he plays on.”
But Cespedes rejected the deferred-money deal last offseason. Could the Nationals afford to go after him, or a big name free agent like him, this offseason?
“I think we would probably have to make some maneuvers to get us in a payroll position where it’s more feasible for us,” Rizzo said. “But we’ve always been given the resources here by ownership to field the best team we can put on the field.”
Those resources are more limited than they could be, because the ongoing MASN dispute remains unresolved. The Nationals’ point person for the three-year fight filed a sworn affidavit earlier this year in which he claimed that the television right fees being withheld from the organization affect their pursuit of free agents. The deal seems no closer to a resolution, a fact best illustrated when MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was asked in October for his thoughts, he said the whole case is an example of why baseball hopes teams will never litigate against one another in the first place.
“[The MASN money] affects us,” Rizzo said. “… it’s something we’ve had to manage now for four offseasons. It’s something that needs to get rectified quickly.”
But, as of early November, the dispute is no closer to a resolution. As of early November, the Nationals have the roster flexibility to pursue a variety of players at a variety of positions this offseason. But as of early November, the Nationals will once again have to be creative if they decide to pursue the most expensive free agents. They are not ruling anything out.