The extent of the Nationals’ pursuit — cursory, serious, hopeful, etc. — was unclear as of Monday morning, as General Manager Mike Rizzo did not provide much clarity at Winterfest Sunday. But it was clear late Monday afternoon that their pursuit was dogged: The Nationals chased Jansen to the end, and in fact offered him more money than the Dodgers, according to a person familiar with the situation. But their offer, like so many of the offers they have made to big-name free agents over the last two years, included deferrals.
The Nationals argue they must defer money because the dispute over television revenue for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) is tying up money they need to chase top talent. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Daniel Murphy all signed deals including deferred money. Jason Heyward and Yoenis Cespedes rejected them. Rizzo has admitted the Nationals must “get creative” when pursuing big-name free agents. Another creative effort fell short Monday, and the Nationals do not have a closer because of it.
Aroldis Chapman signed with the Yankees. Mark Melancon signed with the Giants. The Cubs paid the price for Wade Davis. The Nationals’ external options for closers are dwindling, but not exhausted yet.
One simply cannot fault the Nationals for lack of trying, and that they offered more to Jansen than the Dodgers suggests they are not entirely unwilling to spend. Before this week, Rizzo’s offseason maneuvers have been noticeably cost-conscious. He chose a low-cost option to replace Wilson Ramos by trading for Derek Norris. He non-tendered Ben Revere and replaced him with Adam Eaton, who will be owed $4 million next season. Eaton obviously cost the Nationals a great deal in terms of talent, but he will not cost them financially. Rizzo also offloaded nearly $6 million in 2017 payroll when he traded Danny Espinosa to the Angels on Saturday.
Because Rizzo has been vague about his plans, that miserly approach can be interpreted in two ways: 1) The Nationals are making low-cost moves early to spend big on a free agent, like Jansen, later. 2) The Nationals are trying to cut payroll for some future payout, or no future payout at all, and will continue to spend conservatively all winter. Clearly, it seems, they were leaning toward option one.
Even so, the Nationals still have choices. Former Royals closer Greg Holland is still available — and at a relatively low cost because he missed last season with injury. The Nationals had not had serious discussions with Holland’s representatives as of Sunday, according to a person familiar with the situation, but the expectation around the industry is that they were waiting for the Jansen domino to fall before moving on another closer. Rays closer Alex Colome could be available, too, but would likely come at a high prospect price. White Sox closer David Robertson might also be available, but if the Nationals considered him a top-tier option, he likely would already be on their roster, given the number of discussions Rizzo and White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn had over the past few weeks. Less-heralded options like former Diamondbacks closer Brad Ziegler is also available.
But as Rizzo continues to praise internal options to reporters at the winter meetings and at Winterfest, it seems more certain that the Nationals are considering a scenario in which they do not land a new closer.
“We’re all trying to create our closers in-house. And we feel that we have candidates in-house for closer,” Rizzo said. “We certainly have guys with stuff to close, and the makeup. We just don’t have an experienced guy who’s closed. I think that’s the best way to do it. But when you’re in a position when you need a closer and there’s three elite closers on the market, there’s a supply-and-demand thing that drives up these contracts.”
One person with direct knowledge of management’s thinking suggested that Blake Treinen would close if the season started today. Koda Glover, a never-back-down type, seems to have the most natural combination of stuff and sturdy mind-set to fit the role, though he is working through a torn labrum in his hip. Nationals Manager Dusty Baker mentioned last year’s set-up man, Shawn Kelley, who comes with durability questions, and lefty Sammy Solis as other potential options.
“We’re trying, but if there’s not one out there, then you gotta find him internally, and who knows if we have him in-house or not,” Baker said Sunday. “Most guys don’t come out of college or the minor leagues as a closer. They evolve into a closer. Next thing you know, voilà! We’ve got a closer. That’s how it happens.”
As Baker indicated, the Nationals would rather not bet on “voilà” but do maintain that they could find a way to make it work without a big-name closer. After Jansen signed elsewhere, they will have to.
Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.