You’re probably wondering why nothing has come out of Three Up, Three Down in the past two months. Well, I left Queens and traveled the country and Canada for a little bit with a Broadway show. It’s an interesting time for our country and being outside of the city really gave me perspective. Upon my return home, I sat down and realized that there was one very strong feeling I had about the future…
You guys, I’m worried about the Washington Nationals.
Closer Kenley Jansen resigned with the Los Angeles Dodgers this past offseason, inking a contract worth $80 million dollars over 5 years. The Nationals were connected to Jansen, as well as every big name free agent this year, and reportedly offered him more money than his former team. Jansen opted for less money and a more familiar team. This is not the first time the Nationals have lost out on a player after offering more money than the team that signs them. In fact, it’s not the second time either. The Nationals have lost out on Yoenis Cespedes, World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Mark Melancon and now Kenley Jansen. Why? Deferred Money. LOTS of Deferred Money.
So how did the Nationals get here and what does the future hold? It’s a complicated question, but one that has many answers. So let’s go through some history before we start.
In 2005, Baseball returned to DC for the first time in over 50 years. The struggling Montreal Expos were sold to Major League Baseball by owner Jeff Loria, who then turned around and purchased the Florida Marlins from future Red Sox owner John Henry. The sale of the Expos was a messy one that resulted in lawsuits and left the minority ownership unable to save their franchise. Loria sold the Marlins to the other 29 MLB teams for $120 million and bought the Marlins for $158.5 million. As of this month, Loria is looking to sell the Miami-based franchise and has put out a $1.7 Billion dollar asking price. If that goes through, Loria stands to make $1.4 Billion dollars on the sale. This is a story for another time, but it’s good info to have in your back pocket. So Ted Lerner became the majority owner of the Washington Nationals in 2006, purchasing the franchise for $450 million, giving the other MLB teams $330 million in profit, evening out to $11.4 million per team.
The reports of the Nationals plan to “move on” from Harper after 2018 are more than likely nothing. HOWEVER, they didn’t deny it. Scott Boras, who I used to hate and have come to an understanding about, did say that he has no discussed extensions or contracts for Bryce with Washington, just arbitration. Boras took initiative and said something, while the Nationals stayed quiet. You can’t ignore that fact.
Why would the Nationals put that out there and not explain it? Because they won’t be able to pay for Bryce Harper. Why would the Nationals be unable to pay Bryce Harper? Because their finances are a mess.
The big contracts and extensions given out by Washington allowed them to ink Scherzer and Strasburg, and that’s it. Both guys have an exorbitant amount of money being deferred to them well into the 2020s. It’s a lot of money, you guys. Scherzer and Strasburg will get paid 25 million a year from 2020 to 2028, $15 million to Scherzer and $10 million for Strasburg. Mad Max will be paid 50% of this salary after he’s done in a Nationals jersey, and Strasburg will get 40% of his money after his days in DC are over. That money could have paid for Jordan Zimmermann. That money could pay for Bryce Harper. That money should pay Bryce Harper, but it won’t. It’s tied up.
But the crazier thing about that money is that a large chunk of it will be paid to two guys who will be past their prime or retired. When Strasburg’s deal ends in 2024 he will be 35 and will make $60 million dollars either sitting at home or playing for another team through 2030. The biggest payday of Strasburg’s contract comes in 2023, at the ripe old age of 34, where the Nationals will pay him $45 million dollars. It’s insane.
Also, the Nationals do not have something most teams have; a broadcast network that pays to broadcast their games. Instead, the Nationals have MASN, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, a sports network they “share” with the Baltimore Orioles. The word “Share” is in quotes for a reason, since Baltimore owns a 90% stake in the network and the Nats the other 10%. This lack of broadcasting rights and fees can really kill a team’s finances, and it wasn’t until last year that the Nationals brought that up in their lawsuit. “Without this added and steady income, the Nationals cannot bring full economic confidence to investments in multi-year player contracts to keep up with the fierce competition for top players,” Ed Cohen, a son-in-law of Ted Lerner stated in a court filing.
“The Nationals cannot bring full economic confidence to investments in multi-year contracts.”
This is the team that just spent a collective $415 million dollars on three players for a collective 17 seasons. HOWEVER, that’s money that the Nationals are not sure they are going to have, or rather they don’t have confidence they’ll have it. So what happens when that money doesn’t arrive? What happens when that money never existed? Revolution is what happens.
As a Mets fan, you start to accept that our starting rotation isn’t forever and that eventually guys will leave for money or be traded for prospects, but none of those guys are Bryce Harper. Much like Mike Trout out West, Bryce Harper is a once in a generation player, the guy you build around, he is not so much a franchise player; he IS the franchise. Bryce Harper is the best player the Washington Nationals will ever have. I mean that. I might even have full economic confidence in that.
So let’s speculate for a second, shall we? Let’s say that Harper gets $35 million dollars a year for 10 years, a full $350 million dollar contract, giving him the highest yearly salary of any baseball player to ever play the game. If Giancarlo Stanton for $325 million for 13 years, Harper can get $350 million.
After this season, Bryce Harper will be an unrestricted Free Agent. Will he sign with the Nationals? No. They have run out of monopoly money. Already on the books for 2018 is $123 million dollars in active player salaries and deferred payments. In 2017 $123 million is league average for 35 players. The Nationals have achieved that with 10 players, three of whom will no longer play for the team. Not to mention that for the foreseeable future Scherzer and Strasburg will be taking huge chunks of the payroll every year until they retire.
So it’s not just that the Nationals do not have the money to pay for Bryce Harper, it’s also that the Nationals never intended to resign Bryce Harper. The extension of Stephen Strasburg came as a surprise to most first off because it happened so early in the 2016 season. Strasburg was going to be a Free Agent in the offseason, but instead, they extended in May. There seems to be some misunderstanding about Strasburg’s value to the Nationals, and with Lucas Giolito shipped off to Chicago for Adam Eaton, it seems that the Nationals front office was more willing to put all of their eggs in Strasburg’s basket, and not Harper’s.
This is not the first time the Nationals have done something like this either. They put a lot of money into Ryan Zimmerman in 2013, $100 million over six years to be exact. This move was followed by Zimmerman putting up the most okay numbers for the next few years. In that same amount of time, Bryce Harper won the Rookie of the Year, an MVP award and was selected to 4 All-Star Games. Zimmerman and Strasburg have been to 3 ASG’s… combined.
This is not a matter of Bryce Harper wanting an exorbitant amount of money, or the Nationals struggling to control their star. No, in fact, I would argue that the Washington Nationals decided in May of 2016 that they would not be signing Bryce Harper, and instead went with Stephen Strasburg. Why? Well, it’s easier to play with fake money while it’s fake.
The other side of this issue is that the Nationals are making moves to keep their budget down, by getting rid of talented players for cheaper options. Wilson Ramos was coming off of his first All-Star selection and finished the season hitting .307. The Nationals let him walk and traded for Derek Norris, who hit .187 in 2016, and then later released him. The Nationals then signed Matt Wieters to a 2-year, $21 million dollar deal. The Tampa Bay Rays signed Ramos for 2 years, totaling $12.5 million. So the Nationals tried to save money and ended up spending more money for a similar, but an arguably worse product. Is that the kind of spending the Nationals should be prioritizing? No. It’s the opposite of what they should be doing.
If I’m a Nationals fan, I’ve got to be nervous about this kind of mindset from the front office. I certainly don’t want to be there when all of these financial chickens come home to roost. That’s going to be a day of reckoning for the Nationals front office. What this really does is pushes talent away from the Nationals rather than drawing them in. The Player’s Tribune published incredible pieces this offseason written by Yoenis Cespedes and Andrew McCutchen, all about how they love the cities they are in and how the can’t imagine playing anywhere. Cespedes and McCutchen both said they felt loved and had unfinished business in their cities. If your team doesn’t want to pay you your worth but instead will pay through the nose with money they don’t have yet for someone new, that’s got to leave a bad taste in your mouth. A bad taste and contract to play somewhere else. Somewhere that has the potential to make it out of the first round of the playoffs.