As baseball executives fled this faux community Thursday — having been promised a trip to Washington, D.C., and been snookered into convening at some outgrowth called National Harbor — the Washington Nationals’ offseason had both clarity and murkiness. They were the hometown team at these winter meetings, and they were at the center of almost every discussion. And yet, with the meetings over, where do they stand?
What’s clear: Adam Eaton is on his way, and he will play center field in 2017, and whether they gave up too much talent in exchange for him, he is now part of their present and future.
What’s murky: At last check, baseball is still a nine-inning game, and the Nationals do not have a bona-fide option to pitch the ninth inning.
What’s clear: In trading for Eaton, who is enormously affordable over the next five seasons, and making a low-cost move to add catcher Derek Norris, the Nats barely have increased their payroll.
What’s murky: Can they spend more, either now or midseason, to fill a need? That need, at the moment, would be closer.
“We’ve got a lot of good in-house candidates,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said early in the meetings.
Really? If Blake Treinen or Koda Glover or Shawn Kelley — or anyone else who gathers over the weekend here for the club’s annual Winterfest — is the full-time closer in 2017, I’ll eat my hat and invite people to watch. We can debate the value of pitchers who throw 70 innings over 162 games. We can note that the role of relievers appears to be evolving, particularly in the postseason, when the specific inning matters less than the specific situation.
But there is no debating that the market determines what these players are worth, and the market decided that Aroldis Chapman, the most accomplished free agent closer of this offseason, was worth $86 million over five years, a record for a relief pitcher. The old standard: The four years and $62 million allotted by the San Francisco Giants for Mark Melancon two days earlier.
Next up will be Kenley Jansen, late of the Dodgers, whose deal is expected to be closer to Chapman’s than Melancon’s. The Dodgers certainly are involved to retain Jansen, the player they converted from a catcher and then groomed into one of the game’s best relievers. The Marlins are looking to make an impactful signing.
And then Thursday morning, as suitcases rolled through the lobby at the Gaylord National Harbor Hotel, two reports surfaced that the Nationals, too, were “in” on Jansen.
Does that even make sense?
“If you do what you rationally want to do,” Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, said earlier in the week, “you will finish third on every free agent.”
Rationally, the Nationals do not want to allocate $16 million annually over five years to a closer, even if Jansen just turned 29 and is one of the best at what he does, with a career ERA of 2.20 and just 0.893 walks and hits per inning pitched with nearly 14 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. He inarguably would make the Nationals better.
But back to the market broadly and the Nationals’ payroll specifically. Around baseball, the Nationals are sometimes looked at quizzically because of how they operate — appearing to plod, on occasion, while others are sprinting. This has to do with the ownership of the Lerner family, which is still more accustomed to watching long-term real estate assets increase in value gradually than to reading and reacting to the fast-moving markets in baseball. While the Nats negotiated various deals this week — including a potential trade for White Sox lefty Chris Sale, a bid that came up short — members of the Lerner family listened via conference call, just up the river back at Nationals Park, hands-on to the end.
Given the nine-figure contracts Nationals ownership has awarded to Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, it can’t be broadly labeled as “cheap.” But clearly the team still doesn’t operate as what anyone in the industry would consider to be a normal baseball franchise.
All this leads to legitimate speculation that the Nationals can’t add payroll to the $163 million or so they spent in 2016.
Can they, Mike?
“We’ve said from the beginning we have the flexibility financially to do something,” Rizzo said Wednesday.
Flexible enough to add Jansen? And if so, would bringing on $80 million-ish over five years allow them to retain similar flexibility going forward? Adding Jansen is not just Rizzo’s decision. This is an ownership decision, for sure.
But Jansen isn’t the only potential solution. Rizzo and Manager Dusty Baker were preceded Wednesday in the winter meetings media room by Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer, who had helped his team fill its own closer vacancy not by pursuing Chapman, who helped Chicago win the World Series, or Jansen. Rather, the Cubs pulled off a nifty trade for Kansas City’s Wade Davis, who just happened to record the last three outs of the 2015 World Series with the Royals.
The Cubs’ cost was Jorge Soler, a slugging outfield prospect, of which the club has a surplus. It’s an instructive move from a team that doesn’t like overpaying for relief pitching. Davis is a free agent after 2017, but for the next season, he could help immediately.
If Jansen’s representatives can’t get the ear of family patriarch Ted Lerner, the Nats may try to pull off something similar to what the Cubs did. They like Tampa Bay closer Alex Colome, an all-star in 2016, when he posted a 1.91 ERA and struck out more than 11 men per nine innings. Look there, perhaps?
Oh, there’s one more thing that’s clear about the Nationals: They intend to win — and not just another division championship. They want and need to win in October.
But the ninth inning awaits. And right now, it’s unclear who will pitch it.