WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Washington Nationals have spent hundreds of millions of dollars more on individual players than they just spent on Keibert Ruiz, who is now locked in as their catcher not just for the next five years but maybe the next decade. Yet this contract — eight years for $50 million, finalized Friday and announced at a news conference Saturday — is in so many ways new ground. It is a gamble on a young player years away from free agency. The takeaway, long before we can be certain what Ruiz will become: Finally.
“I think the best deals you could do are [ones] that both sides are a little uneasy about,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said at the Nats’ spring training headquarters. “Where there’s a long-term deal on the table, the team has a little bit of risk there, and the player has a little bit of risk that he’s locked in for that many years. … When there’s a little uneasiness on both sides, I think you’ve come to a good, fair deal.”
It’s important to remember that signing a 24-year-old catcher with just one year in the majors to an eight-year extension — which could be a decade because the deal includes one-year options for 2031 and 2032 — isn’t like signing, say, Trea Turner or Bryce Harper to decade-long extensions after they were established all-stars. Those $300 million-plus contracts lock up funds in the present and the future, and a single franchise can only have so many. (Right, Phillies?)
Rather, this is the kind of deal the rival Atlanta Braves have specialized in — a development Nats fans have noted, ruefully. As Rizzo said, there’s risk here, just not the franchise-crippling risk that comes with a lengthy deal that covers only astronomically expensive free agent years. (See: Strasburg, Stephen, and seven years for $245 million.)
The first two years of Ruiz’s extension are when he was completely under team control and could have been assigned, by the club, the major league minimum salary, which in 2023 is $720,000. In terms of total compensation, those two years are negligible. The next three years, 2025 to 2027, are when Ruiz’s salary would have bumped up through arbitration — the system that is essentially akin to real estate comps. What do houses (catchers) of the same neighborhood (experience) and size (production) sell for (get paid)?
To be clear, Ruiz would have been a National through 2027 had they never struck this deal. So the important part is really the final three seasons, which cover what would have been those free agent years, and what Ruiz has become by then. A person familiar with the contract said those three seasons will pay $7 million for 2028, $9 million for 2029 and $9 million for 2030, good for a total of $25 million, and added that the contract includes a signing bonus and more money in Year 2, when the Nationals’ payroll is expected to remain low.
One recent contract that might be a reasonable comparison to Ruiz’s is the six-year, $73 million deal the Braves granted to Sean Murphy, the catcher they acquired in December in a trade with Oakland. Murphy, 28, is older than Ruiz and has two more years of experience, so his contract covers only his arbitration years and three years of free agency. He also hits for more power (a .429 career slugging percentage to Ruiz’s .373) and is generally more productive (a .755 OPS to Ruiz’s .689).
So Ruiz is cheaper. But the Nats’ bet here is that after coming over in the Turner-Max Scherzer trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2021, he isn’t done developing.
“We see upside with Keibert,” Rizzo said. “… He was thrown into a situation — strange city, strange organization, strange pitching staff — and I thought he handled himself remarkably last year. I think that he came into this winter and this offseason and into spring training as more of a kind of a leadership mode even before we started talking about any types of extension and that type of thing. It gave me the onus to really think hard about who we want to lock into these positions and to build this team around.”
Ruiz doesn’t have to turn into J.T. Realmuto, Philadelphia’s all-star catcher — and he almost certainly won’t. But it’s instructive to point out that Realmuto, as a 24-year-old rookie with Miami, had a .259 batting average, a .290 on-base percentage and a .406 slugging percentage. Ruiz’s slash line in 2022, his age-23 season: .251/.313/.360.
Put the money aside, and there’s a cultural element to this signing that’s at least as — and probably more — important. Almost nothing is more well documented about the Nationals’ inability — or reluctance or whatever — to retain homegrown talent. Ryan Zimmerman signed pre-free agency extensions with Washington. Strasburg signed one. The rest of the cores of competitive teams gone by — Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Harper, Anthony Rendon, Turner, Juan Soto — either reached free agency and departed or were traded before they got there.
“This is the first one we’ve ever got done, yeah,” Rizzo said. “But it wasn’t the first attempt at it.”
Breaking down and understanding those outcomes individually is an exercise we have been through ad nauseam. But there’s a collective wear not only on the fan base but on the clubhouse. Players would love to grow up with a team that has a reputation for taking care of and building around its own.
Those are the players the front office and ownership know the best — their work habits, how they respond to adversity and success, how they relate to teammates, how they take instruction. No amount of research, no number of phone calls can provide the same information about a would-be free agent signee from outside the organization than years spent on planes, in hotels and in the clubhouse with your own players.
One indication that this deal is low-risk for the Nats: It’s on the books at least through 2030, when there’s no way to know who will own the team. The defining thing about this spring training isn’t Ruiz’s extension or the excitement around some of the prospects the Nats have recently collected. It’s the uncertainty around the Lerner family’s exploration of a sale, an exploration that is now 11 months old.
“We’re business as usual,” Rizzo said. “We do things the way we think that’s best for the Nationals today and long term. And we thought this kind of accomplished both of those goals.”
Doable with this kind of high-upside, low-exposure deal. Not with what might be needed next offseason, when there could be impactful free agents to pursue. Baby steps.
It’s not next offseason, after all. Right now, in the spring of 2023, this is the bet: Keibert Ruiz is a player who is foundational in the clubhouse and on the field. He will improve in production to the point that $25 million or whatever over the last three years of the contract is a bargain rather than a burden. And for a franchise that seems wayward, there is at least a temporary sense of both stability and possibility.