On the surface of Anthony Rendon’s uncertain future with the Washington Nationals, one mostly set aside by Bryce Harper’s ongoing free agency, are sentiments that could be viewed as truth or spin or, as is so often in the case with contract negotiations, something between the two.
The Nationals have repeatedly said they want to sign Rendon to a long-term extension. And Rendon, who is set to become a free agent following the 2019 season, has expressed interest in remaining in Washington. Those are the simplest elements of the equation. How the two sides get there, when they will — or, most importantly, if they will — is where the complication rests.
Rendon is in his fourth and final year of arbitration eligibility, and Friday is the deadline for teams to exchange salary figures with arbitration-eligible players. It is common for the Nationals to agree to a deal with players before the deadline and avoid arbitration hearings, which occur if a salary is not agreed upon heading into February. Teams can still negotiate a deal of any size once the deadline passes, but it is typical for players to settle on a number this week and not let talks run too close to a hearing.
This could all have greater implications for Rendon, the 28-year-old third baseman who has quietly established himself as one of the best players in baseball. He and the Nationals have been discussing a possible extension since last season, and General Manager Mike Rizzo said in early December that the team made an offer in the past.
If Rendon settles on a one-year deal this week, extension negotiations would likely spill into the season and, from there, he would get closer to becoming a free agent next winter. If he and the Nationals do not settle this week, there seems to be a better chance of an extension being agreed upon before the season begins.
While not settling on a salary figure between now and Friday could indicate a potential hearing, that is probably not the case with Rendon. Hearings are often contentious, as an arbiter decides between the two figures (with no other options) and teams have to talk poorly of their player to win. The last time the Nationals went to one was with reliever Jerry Blevins in 2015, and they wound up trading him before the season. That does not seem like a situation in which Rendon and the Nationals will find themselves. Waiting until after this week to strike a one-year deal, if that’s the short-term direction the two parties decide to go in, would feel like a chance to further discuss a possible extension.
Then there is the looming factor that could also influence Rendon’s situation, which could be influencing all of the Nationals' immediate plans, which is thought to be influencing the entire free agent market. Until Harper signs, in Washington or elsewhere, it is hard to imagine the Nationals making a long-term commitment to Rendon. That does not mean signing Harper makes it so the Nationals cannot afford both players after next season. Rizzo has continually disconnected the two players, saying that Rendon’s salary for 2019 — he is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make $17.6 million in arbitration — would not be too much different from the annual average value of an extension, and therefore having him and Harper on the same payroll is not out of the question.
But Harper’s potential contract, which could pay him anywhere between $30 million and $50 million a season for up to a decade, would be such a big investment that it seems unlikely the Nationals would make any more major moves until they know where the star outfielder lands. The Nationals have reasserted themselves in the Harper sweepstakes, most notably by meeting with Harper and agent Scott Boras (who also represents Rendon) for five hours on the Saturday before Christmas. The Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees are thought to be the other teams in the mix.
If the Nationals don’t re-sign Harper — a prospect that seemed near definite on Dec. 7, when principal owner Mark Lerner said, “I don’t really expect [Harper] to come back at this point” — locking up Rendon becomes all the more important. Boras likes to bring his clients to free agency because bidding between teams helps him drive prices up. But Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg, another Boras client, signed a seven-year, $175 million contract in May 2016, six months before he would have hit the open market.
So Rendon could sign an extension before Opening Day, do so during the season or wait until next offseason to plot his future. Those are the three options with a lot of nuance running among them. This week could offer some indication of where he and the Nationals stand.
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