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Even before the euphoric haze of winning the World Series had faded, the business of baseball gave Nats fans a wake-up call.
World Series hero Anthony Rendon opted for free agency. World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg turned his nose up at the $100 million remaining on his deal. Face of the franchise Ryan Zimmerman implied he’d retire unless the Nats give him a new contract. It was all enough to make you forget about the awesome “doink” sound of Howie Kendrick’s game-winning homer off the foul pole. Kendrick, too, signed up for free agency.
That’s not to begrudge any of them for their decisions. It’s a business on both sides of the ball as Yan Gomes, who had his team option declined on the very day of the World Series parade, can attest.
Which is why the off-season has so far been gratifying. Deal by deal, general manager Mike Rizzo has been bringing the band back together. Who doesn’t want to play the hits?
Gomes came back for two years at a reduced salary. Kendrick signed up for another year of post-homer gearbox cranking with buddy Adam Eaton (who had his option picked up.) Heck, even Michael A. Taylor and Wilmer Difo came back for more.
Those were all welcome moves, but to continue the band metaphor, they’re studio musicians. To play those hits, they need someone with some star power. The Nats needed to sign two of the three biggest free agents on the market just to return last year’s core.
So this week’s news that Strasburg is re-signing for a record-setting seven years and $245 million was a welcome note.
Now Strasburg is here for probably the rest of his career. His contract includes a no-trade clause and no more opt outs. The World Series MVP is a Nat through 2027, and if you look at his stats and squint a bit, you start wondering if he will become the Nats second Hall of Famer (presumably Max Scherzer skates in sometime a year or two after Strasburg’s contract is up.)
The team that rode its starting pitchers hard all October returns the same core that powered them there. Squint a bit there too and you wonder why they can’t just do it again? Never mind the extra mileage on those arms, especially with that deep and taxing run. And certainly ignore the nagging injuries that Scherzer has picked up the last few years, the last of which led to a last-minute Joe Ross surprise start in Game 5 of the World Series.
But what about that lineup? Now everyone assumes that Rendon is off to Texas or L.A.—somewhere besides South Capitol Street. If he does go, the Nats are going to miss his cool, steady, unflappable demeanor, but have a couple options.
Carter Kieboom is one of the team’s top prospects. Kieboom debuted last spring, booting the ball all over the park when he wasn’t waving futilely at pitches. More realistically, they make a run at Josh Donaldson, a former MVP who helped power the Atlanta Braves to the division title over the Nats.
Why do we assume the Nats can’t sign Rendon though? Nationals owner Mark Lerner turned some heads last week when he told NBC Sports Washington that the Nationals “can’t” sign both Strasburg and Rendon. Strasburg’s and Rendon’s agent, Scott Boras, called that out for the junky spin it was, telling the Athletic that the Nats are experiencing a “revenue festival.”
Boras is right. The Nats got to pocket tens of millions in ticket and beer sales from the postseason run. A random ride on Metro shows they’ve sold thousands of championship hats and other souvenirs. And they sold so many 2020 season ticket plans during the World Series that they stopped guaranteeing extra tickets to those games. All that extra money is pure gravy, an unanticipated but delightful windfall of profit.
If the Lerners are choosing not to spend the windfall, it’s not “we can’t” but a “we won’t.” Maybe they’d get outbid for Rendon anyway. But there’s no reason they shouldn’t make a run at him. The homegrown star delivered a World Series, pairing up with Juan Soto to hit massive homer after massive homer. If someone signs him for $40 million per year for most of the next decade, you tip your cap. But why rule him out now?
The Nats fell below last year’s so-called luxury tax, re-setting any overage penalties. The Nats are about $30 million under the threshold. So even if they went a few million over that de facto $208 million cap, they would only have to pay a few hundred thousand dollars, or less than what a rookie player would make. Other than institutional pressure from MLB as a whole, there’s no reason to let that imaginary line stop them from putting the best possible team out there to make another deep postseason run.
If there’s reason to hope, it’s that Rizzo has usually figured out a way to assemble something decent within the financial constraints the Lerners impose upon him. Let’s just hope it ends up being more of what we saw during June to October than what we saw in April and May.