Stephen Strasburg’s decision to opt out of the remaining $100 million on his contract creates a new math equation for the Nationals.
Anthony Rendon is a free agent. Strasburg is a free agent. Can the organization pay both or does it have to choose between them?
First, a general financial topic. Washington desperately worked — from last offseason to the trade deadline — in order to stay under the competitive balance tax threshold. It appears the goal was accomplished. Which means the Nationals’ penalty clock was reset. They will not receive a tax for exceeding the threshold, it rises to $208 million next year, and if they exceed it, their future penalty will be 20 percent on every dollar they go over (not the total payroll amount). So, they have some baseline wiggle room.
What we know about the prior contracts for Rendon and Strasburg can give a sense of what a future total cost might look like. Strasburg left behind four years and $100 million. Rendon reportedly declined an offer in the low 200s. Each will obviously want more, presumably double in Strasburg’s case, despite how laborious free agency has been in recent years.
Max Scherzer signed a seven-year, $210 million contract going into his age-30 season. Most teams were reticent to give him the length of contract he desired. All regret not doing so now.
But, what he learned, even in the offseason of 2015, was teams hunt excuses to drive down contracts. He was surprised by how many did not want a pitcher who made 30 or more starts six consecutive years, winning a Cy Young Award in the process, and labeled him an injury risk.
“Free agency is weird, and it’s only gotten weirder,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington last September. “We used to see teams covet guys who had demonstrated they can play in the league for X amount of years and produce. Now all we hear about [with] every free agent… every team tries to tear him down and say he’s the worst player ever and can’t do it anymore.”
Strasburg and Rendon just proved — yet again — they can do it. Both are coming off the best years of their career. Both are heading into the later stages of their career, like Scherzer was. Strasburg’s reliability will be questioned. Rendon’s foundation — namely his surgically repaired ankles — will be pointed at, in addition to their ages.
Washington will have significant cost reductions going into next season, though this is a five-year (or longer) extrapolation to consider. It declined Ryan Zimmerman’s 2020 $18 million option. He should be back for $10-12 million less. Declining Yan Gomes’ $9 million option will provide savings there, too. A veteran to match with Kurt Suzuki could provide another $4-5 million in savings, unless Washington wants to try an in-house catching option like Raudy Read or Taylor Gushue, which seems unlikely. Two players — Zimmerman and Gomes — roughly $15 million shaved.
Another factor was the prior built-in cost of Rendon and Strasburg. Their next contract, should it come from Washington, is not starting from zero in regard to the organization’s previous projections.
Strasburg was on the books for $25 million next season, $15 million each of the following two years and a staggering $45 million in 2023. Those considerations were already made. So, think of it this way: if Strasburg is offered six years, $200 million, what the Nationals have essentially done is given him two extra years on his original deal and large raises on two years in between to provide him an extra $100 million overall. It’s not a back-breaking concept.
Rendon will be more difficult. If he is looking to match or exceed Nolan Arenado’s deal, then Washington has to find an additional $260 million over the next eight years. However, it was operating under the math in Strasburg’s prior contract when making an offer to Rendon of $210 million (a general number from prior reports). So, internally, the Nationals put out a plan for a roughly $310 million commitment to those two players. Which again means the gap between where they were and where they need to go — up to $460 million or so — isn’t a floor-to-ceiling move. It’s likely to be a discussion around another $150 million total across six years, or $25 million annually.
Also in the mix among the long-term math: Trea Turner. He can become a free agent in 2023. His cost should rise annually until then as he wades through the arbitration process. Further around the bend are Juan Soto and Victor Robles, who both can become free agents in 2025. They don’t enter arbitration until 2022.
Which makes Turner, Soto and Robles part of the good news — for now. They are extraordinarily cheap relative to their production, a process which should continue for three more years. Any Rendon or Strasburg contract will be more than half over before the young outfielders are due for extreme compensation.
Scherzer’s current contract is removed from the ledger after the 2021 season. He’s earning an average of $35 million the next two seasons. His departure cuts a wide swath in the payroll when considering how to pay Rendon and Strasburg with Soto and co. looming.
The CBT will annually creep forward, too.
A final consideration: players carry different values to different organizations. Washington knew it was well-structured for Bryce Harper to leave because of its outfield depth. In this case, there is no replacement for Rendon in the organization; there is no replacement even close to Strasburg in the organization. Their “value” well exceeds Harper’s “value” when it was considered last season specific to this team.
Is there a path? Yes. It is easy? No. Is it impossible? Certainly not.
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