“That was a while ago,” Rizzo said, “so you never know.”
You never know. Those three words would be a sound motto for baseball’s offseason. Tracking the free agent market, and the Nationals’ approach to it, often feels like a game of fact or fiction. And that applies, maybe especially, to what they may or may not do at third base.
Rendon is the best available player in a group that includes him, Josh Donaldson, possibly Kris Bryant via trade and not much else. At the end of last week, managing principal owner Mark Lerner said the Nationals could not “afford” both Rendon and Stephen Strasburg. After bringing back Strasburg on a record-shattering, seven-year deal worth $245 million, it would seem Rendon’s time in Washington is finished. But Boras, who represents both players, feels that the structure of Strasburg’s contract — and the built-in payment deferrals — gives the Nationals flexibility to make a run at Rendon.
Rizzo has not ruled that out. He indicated, as recently as Monday, that ownership has always provided the resources to make a player such as Rendon fit. But the Nationals remain interested in Donaldson, according to multiple people with knowledge of their plans, and are prepared to pivot to chasing him as a relatively cheaper option if Rendon is beyond their budget. Rizzo has spoken with Donaldson’s agent, Dan Lozano, and described the conversations as similar to those for many players.
If the Nationals drag their feet, and let one falling domino drop another, there’s a chance they wind up with neither player. Rizzo’s company line is that the Nationals need an infielder. But given how much Rendon produced last season, and given the few viable options to replace him, what they need is a third baseman, and they need him to be very good.
“There are a number of teams we’re talking to about Anthony. The negotiations are current and active,” Boras said Tuesday. “There’s been numerous offers made by many teams, and Anthony’s just kind of evaluating it. We’re in the process of going back and forth with a lot of clubs.”
Boras expects Rendon’s contract to be in the seven-year range. He has not publicly stated an expectation for money, but he has long been set on making Rendon the highest-paid third baseman in baseball. That is currently Nolan Arenado, who signed an eight-year, $260 million extension with the Colorado Rockies this spring. That contract carries an average annual value of $32.5 million. If Rendon seeks a seven-year deal that beats that number, if only marginally, the price could be between $230 million and $240 million.
The Nationals’ books got a lot tighter after signing Strasburg, but deferrals, a hallmark of many of their contracts, lessen the immediate costs. About $80 million of Strasburg’s total money is deferred and will be paid with interest within three years after the deal ends, according to a person with knowledge of the terms. If Washington plans to stay below the competitive balance tax threshold, set at $208 million for 2020, it has an estimated $40 million left to spend.
That’s when Lerner’s comments gain more credibility. But Boras feels they are already out of date.
“I think Mark’s comments were before the Strasburg negotiations were complete,” Boras said. “And that contract structure that Stephen did allowed certainly an opening and a consideration. … So I think it’s something that clearly opens doors for them [with Rendon].”
It is Boras’s job to drum up a bidding war for his clients. Losing a team, especially a high-spending team such as the Nationals, hurts that effort, even if Rendon’s market also includes the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers, according to reports and those with knowledge of his free agency. Boras’s perspective is still rooted in keeping as many clubs as possible in the conversation.
But Strasburg has long been set on playing for a competitive franchise, and he even lobbied ownership to bring back Rendon, according to people with knowledge of those discussions. Rendon was a key piece in the Nationals’ World Series run. He and Strasburg have played together for seven seasons, and the pitcher doesn’t want that to change. Yet if it does, and the Nationals are forced to fill a gaping hole, Donaldson is the logical next option.
The 34-year-old hit 37 homers and posted a .259 batting average, .379 on-base percentage and .521 slugging percentage for the Atlanta Braves in 2019. He did that on a one-year, $23 million contract, betting on himself, and is seeking a multiyear deal. Reports indicate Donaldson could be asking for as many as four years. The expected average annual value is around $25 million. He is cheaper than Rendon and requires a shorter-term investment, and the Nationals are balancing their interest in two sweepstakes.
It’s hard to say how long they have to pick a direction and stick to it. This time of year, you never know.
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