With their signing of Howie Kendrick to a two-year deal Monday, the Washington Nationals solidified their bench. With their starting eight set, the back end of their bullpen stable and a rebuilt veteran bench, they look nearly Opening Day-ready, a month before spring training.
This time last year, the Nationals were still hunting for relief help. In fairness, they always are, and no one should rule out a late bargain addition this year. Last year at this time, the Nationals didn’t seem to have plans to add a big-name catcher, though they eventually signed Matt Wieters in February. The same is true this year: The Nationals could move forward with the catchers they have, but don’t count out anything.
Perhaps the only remaining thing on the Nationals’ to-do list is acquiring a proven fifth starter, and exactly who that will be — and how high-profile he is — could depend on the way the free agent market begins moving — or not. But generally speaking, for the second straight winter, the Nationals have checked the boxes on a relatively short to-do list.
The difference between this winter and last, however, is their payroll situation. The Nationals ended last season with a payroll of $202,240,951, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts — the fifth-highest payroll in baseball and their highest ever. They surpassed the competitive balance tax threshold for the first time, not concerning when it happens once (the Nationals owed 20 percent of their overages, which was less than $1 million). But now, after they signed their three arbitration-eligible players to contracts worth nearly $20 million combined and Kendrick to a deal worth $3.5 million, the Nationals are already projected to exceed the competitive balance threshold of $197 million by at least $3 million. Should they add more salary this offseason, or at the trade deadline, they will be adding to their penalty, which is 30 percent this time and 50 percent next time.
Still, if the Nationals exceed the threshold by even $10 million at a 30 percent penalty, they would not seem to be crippling themselves financially. But analyzing their finances always requires a different lens than one might take for others. Nationals ownership is, to put it diplomatically, careful with its spending. Though no one can argue the organization is unwilling to spend (particularly in the wake of a season that ended with the fifth-highest payroll in baseball), those in charge do take notice of seemingly small sums. The exemplary story, told by many in the organization, is that ownership took weeks to approve just $3 million to sign Stephen Drew last winter. A competitive balance tax penalty of $3 million will not go unnoticed.
But competitive balance tax is computed using the average annual value of contracts — in other words, including deferred money — and also player benefits. Given the Nationals’ propensity to defer money, their actual payroll is far different from the one used to compute the tax. Even after the Kendrick signing, then, their 2018 payroll sits just below $180 million, according to Cot’s.
In other words, if the season started now, the Nationals’ payroll would be $20 million less than it was at the end of last season. While they may not want to exceed the luxury tax further, they are not exactly handcuffed, despite the fact that the money tied up in the MASN dispute is not coming any time soon, and their pursuit of a naming rights sponsor has been fruitless so far. Then again, according to reports, each team received about $50 million from MLB Advanced Media this winter. The Nationals are spending more money than they ever have, but they are not stuck.
So if the Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen trades dislodge the pitching and position player free agent markets, the Nationals can watch comfortably, knowing they have addressed most of their needs already. They can also watch with interest, because they are not necessarily unable to jump. Early indications from those familiar with the situation suggest that ownership sees no reason to spend big on a free agent as they have in offseasons past. But early indications in those offseasons suggested the same thing.
For now, the Nationals could spend the rest of their offseason signing relief long shots to minor league deals, hoping someone hits this spring. They need not reach to fill a need. They are well-stocked already. But if they want to pounce, they can. Quite frankly, they often do.
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