While the Nationals continue their search for a manager and coaching staff, let’s turn our attention for a nanosecond to the people that group will oversee in 2018.
The Nationals don’t appear to have any significant holes to fill on their roster this offseason. Of course, they could always go out and make a splash, particularly in the starting rotation, which we touched on earlier this month. Washington has a history of doing — and trying to do — just that. But the necessary additions are relatively minor: They need to find a fifth starter, fill out the bench and add some pieces to the bullpen.
Second baseman Daniel Murphy’s status for the start of the season is unclear after he underwent knee surgery last week. But, besides that, the Nationals don’t face many questions. They have the starting lineup, 80 percent of the starting rotation and the back end of the bullpen in place from a 97-win club. The core — and then some — is there. And that core isn’t cheap, which could have costly consequences.
As of now, Washington has $129,146,000 committed to 10 players next season. That group doesn’t include pre-arbitration players, arbitration-eligible players or players with options. It includes — in descending order of 2018 salary — Max Scherzer, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Madson, Adam Eaton, Shawn Kelley and Sean Doolittle.
Matt Wieters will almost definitely exercise his $10.5 million player option after toiling through the worst season of his career, which will bump the payroll to $139,646,000. Add Baseball-Reference.com’s estimates for pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players, and the tally climbs to $167,756,000.
Adam Lind’s $5 million mutual option isn’t nearly as certain. If the sides agree to exercise it, the Nationals’ payroll, including Wieters’s option, will stand at $172,756,000. If one or both don’t (the decision must be mutual), the Nationals will pay Lind a $500,000 buyout. If Washington goes that route, the payroll will be $168,126,000. Again, that’s assuming Wieters chooses not to test the free agent market. Lind’s camp and the team will agree on a date to decide by after the World Series.
So what do those numbers mean? Some context: The Nationals fielded their most expensive 25-man Opening Day roster last season at $164,335,444, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That figure ranked in the top 10 in baseball and eclipsed the 2016 payroll by a little more than $2 million. The Nationals are on track to smash both marks. The 2018 club will most likely be the most expensive in franchise history.
Major League Baseball’s competitive balance tax threshold for 2018 will be $197 million — a $2 million hike from 2017. So one would think the Nationals, even if Wieters and Lind opt in, are comfortably below the penalty. But they’re not. That’s because the competitive balance tax is based on the average annual value (AAV) of a contract, not what the player is making that season. And that poses a significant difference for the deferred money-loving Nationals, who eclipsed the threshold in 2017 for the first time and paid a 20 percent tax on the overages for it.
For example, Scherzer is slated to make $22,142,857 next season. But his AAV is $28,689,376. That’s a difference of more than $6 million. The difference for Strasburg is nearly $7 million. The difference for Zimmerman is more than $2 million. Murphy’s salary offsets some of the discrepancies because his situation is inverted in 2018 – he’ll make $17.5 million but his AAV is just $12.5 million – but a gulf remains.
According to Cot’s, the Nationals’ payroll is projected to climb over $193 million for competitive balance tax purposes with Wieters’s option, 40-man roster minor league players and estimated player benefits included. That leaves the Nationals, again according to Cot’s figures, only $3.7 million below the tax threshold.
The Nationals undoubtedly planned on having more room because they didn’t expect Wieters back on the books. But Wieters performed below expectations, so they won’t have much room to work with — as presently constituted. And if they hit the mark again in 2018, they’ll have to pay a 30 percent tax as a repeat offender. If they stay below the threshold, the penalty level will be reset.
Perhaps the Nationals will, as a result, not add much salary this offseason. Maybe they’ll try to shed salary via trade. Or maybe they’ll proceed unconcerned about surpassing the threshold again, knowing 2018 may be their best chance to win a World Series with Harper, Murphy and General Manager Mike Rizzo in the final years of their contracts. But first they’ll need to hire a manager and coaching staff.