“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” Lerner told Donald Dell of NBC Sports Washington, referring to Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, two franchise pillars testing the open market as free agents. A snippet of the interview was posted on the outlet’s website Thursday evening. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with. So we’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decide to go elsewhere."
There is a lot to unpack here, even if Lerner is limited in what he can say. Both Strasburg and Rendon will require huge contracts, and the Nationals already have a substantial amount of money committed to a handful of players. The Nationals were always going to explore contingency plans in case Strasburg and Rendon were to leave, so that is par for the course. But the assertion that Strasburg and Rendon can’t fit on the same payroll and only one can return gives a window into how Lerner wants to handle the books moving forward.
Cot’s Baseball Contracts projects the Nationals’ 2020 payroll at just over $129 million. That leaves them with nearly $80 million under the competitive balance luxury tax threshold, which is set at $208 million for next season. These numbers could fluctuate a bit based on the final salaries for arbitration-eligible players because Cot’s is only projecting what Trea Turner, Michael A. Taylor, Joe Ross and Roenis Elías will make. Yet it does give a loose idea of the parameters Lerner is referencing.
“It’s not up to us,” Lerner told Dell. “We can give them a great offer, which we’ve done to both of those players. They’re great people, we’d be delighted if they stay, but it’s not up to us. It’s up to them. That’s why they call it free agency.”
Both Strasburg and Rendon probably are looking for deals with an average annual value that exceeds $30 million. The baseline for Strasburg’s negotiations is Max Scherzer’s contract, according to people with knowledge of discussions, which is for seven years and $210 million.
Scherzer signed that deal when he was 30. Strasburg is 31 and coming off a season in which he led the National League in innings pitched and was named World Series MVP. He opted out of the four years and $100 million remaining on his previous contract. He has met with the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, according to those with knowledge of his free agency, and will be courted by more teams in the coming weeks.
While Rendon doesn’t have such a set starting point, his agent, Scott Boras — who also represents Strasburg — has long seen Colorado star Nolan Arenado as a viable comparison. Arenado signed an eight-year, $260 million extension with the Rockies last spring. That puts his average annual value at $32.5 million. Rendon is coming off an MVP-caliber season, and in turn, Boras expects him to beat Arenado’s contract in terms of yearly salary.
So if the Nationals want to stay beneath the tax threshold for a second straight season and avoid 20 percent overage taxes, retaining both Strasburg and Rendon would take up most of their remaining budget. That further complicates roster-building when they still need a first baseman (or two, should they opt for a platoon again), a couple of bench pieces, a few arms in the bullpen and, depending on how this shakes out, talent to replace Rendon or Strasburg or both.
But if they were willing to exceed the threshold because last season’s payroll enabled them to shrink the overage fees from 50 to 20 percent, bringing back Rendon and Strasburg becomes increasingly realistic. It’s rarely a question of what a team can “afford” in free agency. It is much more often a question of how much it’s willing to spend.