The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anthony Rendon is finally an all-star. But his Nationals future remains uncertain.

Anthony Rendon can become a free agent after this season. (Nick Wass/AP)

Here’s a secret about Anthony Rendon: He does care.

The Washington Nationals third baseman cares about being an all-star. He cares about being respected by his peers. He cares about his future and being paid every dollar he is worth. He just shows it differently than most people.

“I definitely think about those types of things,” Rendon said in Miami last week. “I just try not to too much, try not to get too caught up in what’s next, because it’s all going to happen either way.”

In the short term, such as the next two weeks, Rendon will be an all-star for the first time in his seven-year career. He has repeatedly said in the past month that he’d rather not go to Cleveland for the game. He said Sunday that there’s a chance he’ll skip it to heal up for the second half. He’s half-joking and almost certainly serious. That’s Rendon.

And the long term is, well, anyone’s guess at the moment. Rendon will be a free agent after this season if he does not sign an extension in the next four months. There was once light traction toward that — when both sides expressed interest before the season — but there has been little to no progress since, according to multiple people with knowledge of the negotiations. Many signs point toward Rendon hitting the open market in the offseason. When discussing that possibility in Miami, ahead of a game against the Marlins, the 29-year-old leaned far back in a chair in front of his locker. Negotiations with Washington are “out of my hands,” he said. He appeared content with that, relaxed, ready for whatever direction he goes from here.

That’s Rendon, too.

“I’m not going to be the one going out and trying to pursue it,” he said with a shrug and his usual grin last Tuesday. “At this point, if they present something and both sides are happy, then cool. If not and it doesn’t happen, then no hard feelings.”

Before the Nationals began spring training in February — and well before Rendon tore up the first half with a .311 average, 19 home runs and 58 RBI — negotiations had a clear starting point. Second baseman Jose Altuve and the Houston Astros agreed to a five-year, $151 million extension in March 2018. Rendon’s representation, headed by agent Scott Boras, believed that was a good benchmark for premier infielders. They also believed Rendon was in that class, a charge that advanced metrics have agreed with for the past three seasons. But the Nationals didn’t value Rendon like Altuve, according to a person with knowledge of their thinking, and were vocal about working those numbers down.

Then Nolan Arenado signed a mega-extension with the Colorado Rockies, and Rendon’s situation got a lot more complicated. Arenado, perhaps baseball’s best third baseman, agreed to an eight-year, $260 million extension in February. That carries an average annual value of $32.5 million. The deal came as many of baseball’s best players — Mike Trout, Chris Sale, Paul Goldschmidt, to name a few — locked up long-term futures with their current teams.

But Rendon didn’t, letting uncertainty linger into the season, and any further discussions will probably center on Arenado’s figures. Arenado will start for the National League at third base in Cleveland and has blocked Rendon from many accolades in the past half-decade. Arenado is having a slightly better year. But an argument for Rendon is Arenado’s career numbers away from the Rockies’ hitter-friendly Coors Field. Rendon, the logic goes, has shown consistency in all parks. Three position players have more wins above replacement than Rendon since the start of 2017, according to FanGraphs, and they are Trout (considered an all-time talent), Mookie Betts (the reigning American League MVP) and Christian Yelich (the reigning NL MVP).

Now the Nationals have to decide how they value Rendon, as a pillar of their franchise and as a player they drafted and helped develop into a star. They made an offer in late February, after Arenado’s extension was signed. A person familiar with the figures, who declined to share them specifically, said they were “not close.” Rendon then met with General Manager Mike Rizzo and managing principal owner Mark Lerner at Nationals Park on April 17. But it was a casual check-in, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation, and mostly took place because Lerner had not been around the team for a few weeks. Contract discussions were “minimal at best,” the person added, and Boras is expected to be present for any serious talks.

When told that negotiations with Rendon would be described as having not progressed much since spring and Rendon as “angling toward” free agency, a Nationals spokesman issued this statement: “We have long valued Anthony’s contributions both on the field and in the community. We continue to have conversations with Anthony and his team, but we don’t have anything new to report at this time.”

“We’ve had discussions throughout the year, and we’ve traded proposals back and forth; we haven’t had a deal yet,” Rizzo said in Miami last week. “We certainly would embrace if we can get a deal done. We certainly continue to talk, and we’ll see where it leads us down the road.”

In the spring, Rendon instructed Boras to work on a deal with the Nationals. Yet there is still limited precedent for Boras clients signing extensions before hitting free agency. Those who have done so in recent years: Altuve, Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg, Jered Weaver, Elvis Andrus, Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Gomez and, in April, Xander Bogaerts. But none of those agreements came this close to free agency. Rendon is now roughly 120 days from having teams bid for him. His value could only increase with many top players already off the board.

In the meantime, the Nationals have exclusive rights to negotiate with Rendon. At 42-41 and just 1½ games out of a wild-card spot, they are very unlikely to consider trade offers for Rendon ahead of the July 31 deadline. Last season with Bryce Harper, another Boras client, Washington declined a trade with the Houston Astros and kept Harper through the end of the year. That was both to stay competitive and maximize their chances of retaining Harper without competition — both failed initiatives — and Harper ultimately signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Nationals had offered a 10-year, $300 million contract, with a ton of deferred money, at the end of September. Harper was destined to become a free agent since he debuted in 2012. But it was also too little, too late.

“You got to ask them,” Rendon said, referring to the Nationals’ front office, when asked whether he expects discussions to pick up between now and the fall. “I play baseball. I don’t deal with trades, free agency, any of that stuff. I care about my future, of course, but whatever happens, happens.”

What’s happened, at least right now, is that Rendon has been selected by coaches and peers as an all-star. When first asked about being an all-star last week, Rendon stuck to the same script. An extra game, and all the media obligations, will only tire him out. It wouldn’t change anything. As long as other players respect him and he’s helping Washington win, that’s the only recognition he needs.

But then he relented and noted that there’s a part of him, however small, that likes the validation.

“As a human, yeah, it’s awesome,” Rendon said in Miami. “You grow up and you are in Little League, and you want to make the all-star team; you go to college, and you want to make the all-star team. So any normal person would want to do it on the biggest stage and highest level. And I’m a normal person. I haven’t changed there.”

Rendon paused for a moment, pulling on his batting gloves for some pregame swings, and kept his eyes on the floor. Then he offered one last thought that felt aimed at two games he never wanted to play.

“It’s about being respected, really. That’s all.”

Read more on the Nationals:

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