Ask Anthony Rendon to explain his tear of a start to this season, to reveal what’s clicking with his swing, to maybe even compliment himself, and the response falls flat. That’s Rendon. That comes with the screaming doubles and the diving stops, the six home runs and 17 RBI in his first 14 games.
“I think just trying to stay within my approach and trying to get my foot down early and trying to be ready to hit and just get in a good position,” Rendon said after a two-hit game in Philadelphia last week. “Simple. And boring.”
But the results aren’t simple or boring. Rendon’s 1.333 on-base-plus-slugging percentage — considered one of the best measures of a batter’s production — is third in all of baseball, behind only Cody Bellinger and Mike Trout.
And neither is the context. Rendon will become a free agent when this year is over unless he signs a contract extension. Negotiations on a deal have slowed since the start of the season, according to three people with knowledge of the situation, even if fans’ chants of “Lock him up!” have not. There was incremental progress Tuesday, when two people said General Manager Mike Rizzo, principal owner Mark Lerner and Rendon met before a game against the San Francisco Giants. But the meeting took place in the family room by the Nationals’ clubhouse and, according to one person familiar with it, was impromptu and did not set an agenda for where negotiations will go next.
The Nationals made an offer to Rendon in late February, right after fellow third baseman Nolan Arenado signed a massive contract extension with the Colorado Rockies. One person with knowledge of Washington’s terms said the offer was “not in the right neighborhood.” Rendon, 28, is open to more discussions and has instructed agent Scott Boras to listen to Washington, though not necessarily actively negotiate until the team presents an offer.
This all hangs a cloud of uncertainty over each double, home run and game that Rendon lifts the Nationals onto his shoulders. Both sides have expressed interest in keeping Rendon in Washington far into the future, but that only gets the conversation so far. The Nationals have to decide how much they value Rendon, how they view him compared with Arenado, how much they are willing to spend to keep this homegrown talent at home. Every night brings Rendon closer to free agency and a potential bidding war among multiple teams. The market, though slow and tricky after this past winter, has been thinned by a flurry of extensions signed in recent months, and that may make Rendon more expensive. The departure of Bryce Harper — who agreed to a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies in February — only magnifies the importance of Washington retaining Rendon.
Bundle all of that together — comparisons to Arenado, Rendon’s start to the 2019 season, the chance that he is the last big free agent standing next offseason — and you get a complicated situation and a ticking clock. Arenado signed an eight-year, $260 million extension with the Rockies in late February. It was the fourth-largest contract ever in terms of total guaranteed money, and the average annual value ($32.5 million) was the second biggest in history. Trout surpassed both numbers with his 12-year, $430 million extension with the Los Angeles Angels. But Arenado still set a benchmark for infielders of this generation, building on the five-year, $151 million extension Jose Altuve signed with the Houston Astros in March 2018.
That mattered for Rendon. His side will sell him as a peer to Arenado and cite Arenado’s road splits as a reason Rendon is an even smarter bet. Rendon is slashing .400/.460/.873 in the first 14 games of the year and has six homers, eight doubles, 17 RBI and 18 runs scored. Last year it took him 33 games to hit six home runs, and he still finished with 24 in an injury-shortened season. He is hitting the ball hard more often than any player in baseball. His defense has already saved the Nationals a few runs.
“You just try to ride this wave as long as you can and not try to get too high when you’re high,” Rendon said of his start. “Because you know the lows are going to end up coming in a 162-game season.”
That’s why his career consistency will be much more important than this stretch. From 2016 to 2018, Rendon had the seventh-most wins above replacement among position players, according to FanGraphs, behind only Trout, Mookie Betts, Altuve, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor and Christian Yelich. He has an .839 career OPS, and it was above .900 each of the past two seasons. Arenado, considered baseball’s best third baseman by many, has a .981 career OPS at hitter-friendly Coors Field and a .783 career OPS away from it.
The argument in Rendon’s favor is that his production is smoothed out across a full season and is less influenced by the ballpark. The counter is that Arenado was signed to play 81 games in Denver for the next eight seasons, he just turned 28 while Rendon turns 29 in June, and he has four all-star appearances and six Gold Glove awards. Rendon has somehow never made an All-Star Game and has been blocked by Arenado in Gold Glove voting. Their careers have been quietly intertwined and have now collided in Rendon’s contract year.
“I’ve said this before, even coming in on another team, that for some reason he doesn’t get the hype that he should get,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said of Rendon, answering a question not related to a potential contract extension. “He’s one of the best in baseball. He really is.”
Martinez has made this point repeatedly, that Rendon is underappreciated, that within their clubhouse they know there are few better players. That also matters for Rendon moving forward, into the rest of this season and the next step of negotiations. There is an overload of big contracts for big-name players that can be used as precedent. How Rendon is viewed by ownership, in relation to those recent deals and otherwise, will determine whether an extension is agreed upon before the Nationals lose their exclusivity and bidding can begin.
Until then, he will be fixed in the third spot of the Nationals’ order and at the center of their short-term plans. Teammate Patrick Corbin likened Rendon to Paul Goldschmidt, the star first baseman he played with in Arizona, because it feels as if Rendon has the ability to shift games with his bat. Right now he does. The looming question is whether that’s enough, on top of everything else he has done, for Rendon to land the deal he’s seeking.
“I’ll talk to Anthony about being here for as long as he wants to talk about it,” Rizzo said March 13, his last public comments about Rendon’s future with Washington. It’s been a month, and there aren’t many of those left.