What was once a nonstop Washington Nationals offseason has hit a lull since mid-December, most likely because the roster is nearly set for the coming year.
But activity will return this week — no, that is not code for Bryce Harper news — as the deadline to exchange salary figures with arbitration-eligible players is 1 p.m. Friday. The Nationals have five remaining arbitration-eligible players, including third baseman Anthony Rendon, shortstop Trea Turner, outfielder Michael A. Taylor, starting pitcher Joe Ross and reliever Kyle Barraclough. Left-handed reliever Sammy Solis, who was arbitration-eligible heading into the offseason, settled on a one-year, $850,000 deal. It is expected that the others, or at least most of them, will also settle ahead of the deadline this week because the Nationals typically like to avoid arbitration hearings at all costs.
Teams and players can still work out a contract of any size after Friday’s deadline, but not settling beforehand could indicate some contention. Because an arbiter chooses between the salary figure presented by the team and the one brought by the player, while considering no other options, hearings can often harm relationships. The last time the Nationals went to a hearing was with reliever Jerry Blevins in 2015, and they ended up trading him before the season began. They have shown, year after year, a desire to settle between now and Friday at 1 p.m. This time should be no different aside from one possible outlier.
The Nationals have been discussing a long-term extension with Rendon since last season. They made the star third baseman an offer in the past, according to General Manager Mike Rizzo, and Rendon has expressed interest in remaining in Washington beyond next season. But he will become a free agent in 2020 if an extension is not negotiated before then, and this week could offer hints of where he and the Nationals are in that process. If Rendon settles on a one-year deal, that would mean the two sides could not yet reach an agreement and will need to either negotiate during the 2019 season or after it. That gets Rendon that much closer to becoming a free agent, which agent Scott Boras prefers for his clients. But if Rendon does not settle by Friday’s deadline, it would seem that there is still a possibility Rendon signs an extension before the season begins.
Here is what each of the Nationals' arbitration-eligible players is projected to make this year (according to MLB Trade Rumors, which has a proven track record with these figures):
Rendon (third year of arbitration eligibility): $17.6 million
Turner (first year, “Super Two” status): $5.3 million
Taylor (second year): $3.2 million
Barraclough (first year): $1.9 million
Ross (first year): $1.5 million
These are all players the Nationals will want to maintain strong relationships with into the future, starting with Rendon as a critical middle-of-the-lineup bat. The 25-year-old Turner is a franchise shortstop who appeared in every one of the team’s 162 games last season. If Ross bounces back well from Tommy John surgery, he could become a staple in the back end of the Nationals' top-heavy starting rotation. Barraclough is an established reliever who is under team control until 2022. And Taylor, whose production waned at the end of last season, could provide needed depth or a valuable trade piece if his offensive results pick up.
The Nationals' offseason will not be finished once the week is out, even if all five players settle, because there are still needs to address at second base, in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. Cot’s Baseball Contracts projects the Nationals to spend about $3.5 million more on arbitration-eligible players than MLB Trade Rumors, around $33.9 million compared to the $30.4 accounted for above. If that is the case, and it may be prudent to lean toward the generous prediction, Cot’s has the Nationals about $14 million under the luxury tax threshold.
Because the franchise has vowed to stay beneath the tax in 2019 — a goal that could shatter if a Harper return materializes — arbitration settlements should leave the Nationals with more than enough room to sign a short-term, full-time second baseman, a depth starter and another veteran arm or two between the rotation and bullpen. That’s assuming there are no hiccups this week as Rendon, Turner, Taylor, Ross and Barraclough shake out their short-term futures.
And, as this sport goes, in the winter and summer alike, it is never quite safe to assume.
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