LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — An annual tradition commenced Tuesday morning, when rumors of Scott Boras trying to engage the Washington Nationals on one of his biggest free agent clients began to swirl around the halls of baseball’s winter meetings.
Boras sent Nationals owner Ted Lerner his extensive binder of arguments for signing right-hander Jake Arrieta, one of two elite starters on this year’s market. Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com first reported the arrival of the lengthy binder, which was sent to other owners, too. A person familiar with the situation confirmed the team has had contact with Boras about Arrieta but described its interest in the right-hander as “tepid.”
“We’re in the information-gathering stage right now,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo told reporters in his daily meeting, before joking that he had 48 pages to go in the binder. “He’s a great pitcher, but we’re nowhere close to doing anything.”
As explosive as it may sound, Boras trying to sell the Nationals on Arrieta was all but a foregone conclusion. As someone with direct knowledge of the Nationals’ plans said, “We’ve seen this dance before.” Boras’s relationship with Lerner has facilitated more than one deal for an expensive player the Nationals did not initially pursue with much gusto, something that has happened often enough to qualify as a tradition.
Rizzo did not pursue closer Rafael Soriano but suddenly found himself signing the reliever before the 2013 season. The Nationals had the best rotation in baseball before the 2015 season, then signed Max Scherzer to the biggest contract in team history. The Nationals had traded for an everyday catcher in Derek Norris last winter, then inked Matt Wieters to a two-year deal before spring training. As more than one industry insider has said this week about the Nationals and Arrieta, given Boras’s relationship with the Lerners, “You can never rule it out.”
But unlike the cases of Wieters or even Scherzer, when the Nationals had no glaring need for either, they do have a hole in the rotation this winter. Rizzo has used the word “depth” when describing what he is looking for, but what he really needs is a fifth starter — or someone to slot in the middle of the rotation and bump Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark down a spot. Gonzalez’s contract is up after the 2018 season, meaning the Nationals will have to fill another spot in 2019, too. Joe Ross should be healthy by then, and Erick Fedde should be ready. But Rizzo has never been one to add mediocre options just to add them, or one to rely on unproven options when he can find proven ones. Whether because of his plans or ownership’s tendency to bet on Boras players, these Nationals have established themselves as more likely to reach for a big name before a need emerges than to settle for a lesser one in the meantime. Arrieta would fit that mold.
Yet Arrieta is a greater risk than Scherzer, or even Wieters. Crasnick’s report suggested Boras is asking for $200 million for Arrieta, who is 31 and showed signs of decline in 2017. If the Nationals were to sign him, they would have committed $210 million to Scherzer, $175 million to Stephen Strasburg and another $200 million or so to Arrieta. That would be more than half a billion dollars for three starters, two of whom (Scherzer, who dealt with a variety of ailments last season, and Arrieta) have shown signs that demand concern, and all of whom are represented by Boras. The Nationals would have three starters with massive contracts heading into their mid-to-late 30s — a major risk with the potential to cripple them financially.
The Nationals crossed the competitive tax threshold for the first time this season and have more than $170 million committed to 2018 payroll already, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Rizzo said Monday he does not expect the Nationals to be restricted financially this offseason, but signing Arrieta would almost certainly guarantee they cross the threshold again, thereby incurring greater penalties than the eminently tolerable ones levied on first-time offenders. Plus, the Chicago Cubs made Arrieta a qualifying offer this winter. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, because the Nationals crossed the competitive balance threshold last season, they would surrender their second- and fifth-highest picks in the 2018 draft, as well as $1 million in international bonus pool money. The Nationals treasure their draft picks, particularly as they try to restock their system with young pitching, and would be unlikely to part with two lightly.
Arrieta certainly would help for the short term. With Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and others entering their final seasons before free agency, 2018 might represent the last chance for this core group of Nationals to push for the World Series. Arrieta, the 2015 Cy Young Award winner who bounced back with a 2.28 second-half ERA, would slide behind Scherzer and Strasburg to create the kind of super-rotation the Nationals built before the 2015 season, too. Gonzalez could be their fourth starter, and Roark their fifth, a formidable short-term setup, despite the financial risks it would present long term.
The Nationals could get a younger, more cost-effective third or fourth starter on the trade market. Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole and Detroit Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer are among those available, and would cost prospects, not long-term financial instability. The Nationals have not been explicitly linked to either yet. Less expensive free agents such as Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb could also be available.
Then again, Arrieta has a long history with new Nationals Manager Dave Martinez, who was his bench coach in Chicago. More importantly, Boras has a long history of engaging the Nationals on his big-name clients, regardless if the Nationals would have looked at them otherwise. Discussion was inevitable. A deal is far from it. But with Boras, Lerner and the Nationals, you just can’t rule it out.
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