Schwarber’s base salary for 2021 is $7 million with a $3 million buyout. The deal includes an $11 million mutual option for 2022, though it’s more likely the Nationals decline that and pay Schwarber his buyout after the season.
“This was my number one choice,” Schwarber said on a video call Saturday, stressing his relationship with Nationals Manager Dave Martinez, who was the Cubs’ bench coach for three of his seasons in Chicago. “This is the place I wanted to be. I’m not just saying that because I’m here with you beat writers or just because I’m talking to Washington in general right now.”
The deal invites a list of immediate questions. One is where Schwarber, a subpar defender, fits in Washington’s outfield. Another is whether the 27-year-old can rebound from hitting .188 — and striking out 66 times in 59 games — last season. The Nationals, though, eyed Schwarber with a simple plan in mind: shift Juan Soto to right field so Schwarber can play left. Then trust that Schwarber’s power numbers return.
In December, General Manager Mike Rizzo pointed to first base and the corner outfield spots as ways to improve a sagging offense. He checked one box — first base — by trading for Josh Bell on Christmas Eve. Then he checked a second — corner outfield — by inking Schwarber on a low-risk, short-term deal that beefs up the middle of Washington’s order.
“I want to make those adjustments I need to make,” Schwarber said, adding that his swing was too far out front in 2020, limiting him to either extend on pitches or hit weak groundballs to the right side. The latter was a regular result. “A little chip on the shoulder here, ready to come in and win another World Series with these guys.”
It is now a mix of Soto, Schwarber, Bell and shortstop Trea Turner. Soto and Turner both finished in the top 10 of National League MVP voting in 2020. Schwarber and Bell, by contrast, are coming off down seasons after excelling a year before. When he’s going well, Schwarber hits homers at a high rate, strikes out a lot, walks a good amount and lives with a low batting average. He hit 38 homers and had a .871 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 2019, his last full season. That’s the bat Washington is hoping for this spring.
The Cubs let go of Schwarber to shave their payroll amid the coronavirus pandemic. He was under team control for one more year and expected to make around $8 million in arbitration in 2021. That he got more from the Nationals was, at least in part, a product of his short-term deal.
One-year contracts are generally team-friendly. By accepting his, Schwarber is betting that he will improve and attract better offers next winter. The Nationals get a motivated player who comes with little risk. They also have about nine months to exclusively negotiate an extension with Schwarber should they wish to keep him around beyond this season.
“I told Riz when we talked on the phone: ‘I’m not approaching this as a one-year deal,‘ “ Schwarber said. “I’m going to give you everything I have, and I’m going to play as if I’ve been here five years and still got a couple more years left.”
The most logical landing spot for Schwarber was an American League team. Advanced statistics consider him one of the worst defensive outfielders of the past four seasons. He profiles best as a designated hitter, and yet the Nationals are preparing as if there will not be a DH in the NL in 2021. So they just swapped out Adam Eaton, a poor defensive outfielder, for another in the 6-foot, 225-pound Schwarber. Bell is also a below-average first baseman.
The Nationals are focused on offense and ready to deal with any fallout.
“I would say no one likes me in left field for some reason,” Schwarber said with a grin. “Everyone likes to look at these numbers and stuff … but I view myself as a good outfielder. You know what? I’m going to go out there, and I’m going to make the plays that I need to make. I’m going to play 110 percent.”
In September, the Nationals tested Soto in right field for six games. The 22-year-old played right in the minors and looked natural there. Martinez hinted that the experiment was tied to eyeing a deep group of free agent left fielders. At first, that included Michael Brantley, Marcell Ozuna, George Springer and Joc Pederson, among others. But Springer is one of the best available hitters and expected to get a lucrative, long-term contract. Brantley, a player Washington was interested in, should demand two years, at a minimum, and a notably higher annual salary than Schwarber. Ozuna and Pederson are likely in the same range.
Then the non-tender deadline brought options for a tighter budget. In turn, Schwarber was a cost-effective way to further lift an offense that leaned too heavily on Soto and Turner in 2020. Trading for Bell was, too. Those additions should leave room for the Nationals to add a fourth starter and a solid second catcher and deepen their bullpen. Significant upgrades at third base or catcher, whether through trades or free agency, would really boost the roster if the Nationals can meet a bigger price.
As of now, with at least five weeks left before spring training, the Nationals have Yan Gomes behind the plate, Bell at first, Starlin Castro returning from a broken right wrist to play second, Carter Kieboom with an ever-shortening leash at third, Turner at shortstop, Schwarber in left, Victor Robles in center and Soto in right, with Andrew Stevenson and Josh Harrison coming off the bench. The rotation is filled out by two of Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth. The 40-man roster has one left-handed reliever in Sam Clay, and he has never pitched in the majors. There is more to do.
But even before knowing how Washington builds next, the evaluation of signing Schwarber hinges on more than just the finances. It’s a solid move, from a baseball standpoint, if he reverts to a past self.