When the Washington Nationals traded for (or, more accurately, bought in exchange for international money) Kyle Barraclough from the Miami Marlins earlier this week, they bought low on a reliable major league reliever who had a rough second half and will be under team control for three more seasons.
Relievers like that do not generally come cheap, but Barraclough does. He is arbitration-eligible for the first time this year, and MLB Trade Rumors projected he will earn $1.9 million next year. For reference, the Nationals paid Joaquin Benoit $1 million for the 2018 season, and he never pitched.
Whether the acquisition of Barraclough is indicative of the kind of deal this team will make this offseason — trading for less-heralded, cheaper, stabilizing options instead of signing big ones — remains to be seen. Perhaps General Manager Mike Rizzo simply saw an opportunity to acquire the kind of middle relief depth his team lacked without trading prospects or major league talent. Perhaps the Nationals want to make more cost-effective deals with their eye on a bigger purchase …
In either case, the Nationals enter this offseason with more financial flexibility than they have had in the past, but perhaps not as much as it seems.
The Nationals began the 2018 season with a payroll of more than $180 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. As of Thursday night, they had roughly $112 million committed to 23 players for next season. Should all of their arbitration-eligible players make something near the projections of MLB Trade Rumors, the Nationals will commit roughly $40.2 million to those seven players: Barraclough, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Tanner Roark, Michael A. Taylor, Joe Ross and Sammy Solis. By that time, they would have $152 million committed to next year’s roster, not counting those players making the major league minimum, which could add roughly $5 million or so.
Asked whether the Nationals would put all of the money they saved with the departure of free agents back into the roster next season, Rizzo said only that the Lerner family has always provided him with plenty of resources to build a strong roster. But the consensus internally is not only that the Nationals do not want to eclipse the competitive balance tax threshold for a third straight season, but they do not want to come close.
That said, the competitive balance tax calculations are different from the general payroll. By those calculations, for example, the 2018 Nationals eclipsed the CBT threshold of $197 million — a number inflated by the salaries of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, which paid both players less than the average annual value of their deals last year and therefore made the Nationals' actual payroll far less than what counted for CBT purposes.
In 2019, the Nationals' commitments to both players balloon to more than $35 million each before dropping again in 2020 because of deferred money. The average annual value of their deals, which is the number used to calculate the competitive balance tax, is $28.7 million and $25 million, respectively. Say the Nationals have $152 million committed in salary after signing their arbitration-eligible players. By competitive balance calculations, that number will only be around $140 million.
Still, ownership must be willing to spend real money to push that payroll back toward $180 million or beyond. And even if that happens, given the commitments already on the books, the front office is in no position for a free-spending winter. Assuming team officials push the payroll back to $180 million, they will need to acquire a catcher, a second baseman, a few starting pitchers, bench depth and more relief help for somewhere around $30 million. If they sign one player for $30 million or more annually — such as, say, Bryce Harper — they might not have nearly as much breathing room as it seemed they would have entering this offseason.
More deals like Barraclough’s could help. But the Nationals have too many substantial holes to stay out of the expensive free agent fray entirely. They can spend substantial amounts of money and still remain under the competitive balance tax threshold, if that is their goal. But if they are not willing to spend as much actual money as they did this season, they will have to get creative as they renovate their roster.