Most athletes crave the limelight. Being popular generates revenues and moves the clicker on the turnstiles, and when team owners are making money it usually translates to the athletes benefiting when it comes to new contracts. Case and point was Bryce Harper last year. He was not even rated as a Top-25 player yet he turned in the largest free agent contract in the previous offseason at $330 million. Opposite of the majority is Anthony Rendon who spent seven years with the Washington Nationals and avoided the limelight as much as he could. He was a virtual unknown among casual sports fans. Rendon finally got named to his first All-Star squad this year, but opted-out due to an undisclosed lower body issue. The sports world got to watch Rendon often as a clutch star in this year’s posteason. He just finished third in the NL MVP balloting and probably ended up in the Top-3 for the World Series MVP that was awarded to Stephen Strasburg.
For a player who never has hit a walk-off home run and was criticized before this season for shrinking in the big moments, Rendon on the biggest stage became the ultimate Mr. Clutch in this 2019 postseason. He homered in three consecutive elimination games in the 7th inning or later and that is an MLB record. Don’t forget about his walk in a 3-2 count with two outs off of Josh Hader in the Wild Card game too. If Rendon strikes out against Hader in that at-bat, the Nats probably exit the postseason abruptly. In elimination games at the seventh inning or later known as “Late and Great”, Rendon was 5-7 with three home runs and two doubles plus he had a walk in the five elimination games the Nats played in this postseason.
Don’t worry, Rendon’s agent, Scott Boras, has his marketing package for team owners and general managers extolling all of those stats plus more. There are graphs and pie charts and colorful graphics. All of this is to say that the soon-to-be 30 year old Houston native deserves to be the highest paid pure third baseman. Sure, he won’t get paid more than Manny Machado in total contract size due to his age, and besides, Machado was marketed as a shortstop or a third baseman. The contract that Boras wants to beat is Nolan Arenado‘s deal written last year. Arenado is the face of the Rockies’ franchise and a multiple All-Star, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner. In fact, Arenado has won a Gold Glove every season he has played which translates to seven of those.
Some might find it interesting that Boras used to represent Arenado until he was “fired” and Arenado switched to Joel Wolfe of the Wasserman Agency a few years ago. Does Boras have some extra motivation to get Rendon a larger contract?
It helped that Rendon had a career year in 2019 not even including his superstar postseason record. He set regular season career highs in runs scored (117), RBIs (126), home runs (34), batting average (.319), on-base percentage (.412) and slugging percentage (.598) and Fangraphs rated him as a 7.0+ WAR player.
“His swing is nearly flawless. His zone control is tremendous. His defense has been lights out,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “I think because of his obscurity, a little bit behind the scenes. He’s not on these ‘We Play Loud’ games or these things. He’s under the radar, and yet he’s one of the most impressive superstars in our game.”
The numbers are there, but age, leadership, and fan popularity will work against Rendon. He hates getting interviewed on-camera, and he is the guy who has been caught on camera yawning in the dugout. He is not the “rah rah” guy, and he is not the player to stand on the soapbox in the clubhouse as the team leader. The Nats paid Jayson Werth a premium for his leadership, but team leaders sometimes are the veterans who just lead by example which was a message that Ryan Zimmerman made when he was Rendon’s age.
General manager Mike Rizzo spoke to building his offseason roster based on a projection of 90-wins. Whether Rendon returns or not is an unknown at this point. If Trea Turner could match his 2018 WAR by playing a full season, and put up a slashline as good as 2019 then he could take that +4.8 WAR of 2018 and turn that into something north of +5.5 which would soften any blow a little if Rendon does not return. Some of the other players like Adam Eaton, Juan Soto and Victor Robles can help further. Robles was a +2.5 WAR in 2019, and he could easily put up a more impactful number. Soto is being projected at +5.1 WAR on Fangraphs so you can see that if everyone stays healthy the young core could pickup over 3 points of WAR and the other 4 points to replace Rendon (if he signs elsewhere) could come from an acquisition like Mike Moustakas who has average +2.6 WAR the past two seasons with 2019 being better than 2018. With the money saved, maybe Rizzo could land Yasmani Grandal who is a +5.0 WAR player, and that is how you replace any expected hole even though you needed two players to do it. Sure, Rendon could be back, and possibly Howie Kendrick too, but you also have to plan for the other variable that Stephen Strasburg does not return. Strasburg was a +5.9 WAR in 2019, and there really is no way to replace Stras.
Prior to the 2019 season, Rizzo went with the theory of the sum of the parts just has to add up to 90 wins, and he easily replaced Bryce Harper’s +3.4 WAR in 2018 just with Robles and Kendrick’s output then he had Dozier and Asdrubal’s production and others too.
So what does Rendon want in free agency? Nobody knows. Is he motivated by money, length of contract, location, or the team itself? If Arenado is the “comp” to Rendon, then projectability and age have to be factors. From age 30-35, Arenado will get paid $199 million for that six year span which is $33.17 million a season. Even the Rockies lowered Arenado’s age 34 and 35 valuations.
If the Nationals pay Rendon $33.17 million a season for six years to match the Arenado deal then the pressure will be on to fill all of the other spots and stay under the 2020 CBT cap of $208 million. To complicate matters is that the Nationals have also expressed that they want Stephen Strasburg back. Both players will cost nearly 15% of that CBT cap. Rough math, Strasburg, Rendon, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin would comprise about 55% of the total CBT cap of $208,000,000. How can you grow this team on $76 million for the other 22 players you need on the roster plus the player benefits and 40-man costs that have to be calculated in that number. This is the dilemma that general manager Mike Rizzo faces. No team has three players on their roster making $27.5 million or more per season.
|Pitchers||B/T||Contract Status||CBT Salary|
|Patrick Corbin||L/L||$ 23,333,333|
|Sean Doolittle||L/L||$ 6,500,000|
|Roenis Elias||L/L||Arb 2||$ 1,900,000|
|Erick Fedde||R/R||Minimum||$ 575,000|
|Javy Guerra||R/R||Arb 1||$ 950,000|
|Joe Ross||R/R||Arb 2||$ 1,500,000|
|Anibal Sanchez||R/R||$ 9,500,000|
|Max Scherzer||R/R||$ 28,689,376|
|Stephen Strasburg||R/R||Free agent|
|Hunter Strickland||R/R||Arb 3|
|Wander Suero||R/R||Minimum||$ 575,000|
|Austin Voth||R/R||Minimum||$ 575,000|
|Free Agent Starter||$ 30,000,000|
|Daniel Hudson||R/R||Free agent|
|Tanner Rainey||$ 600,000|
|Backend Bullpen Arm||$ 7,500,000|
|Kurt Suzuki||R/R||$ 5,000,000|
|Free Agent||$ 7,500,000|
|Carter Kieboom||R/R||Minimum||$ 575,000|
|Trea Turner||R/R||Arb 2||$ 8,000,000|
|Free Agent 1B||$ 5,000,000|
|Free Agent 3B||$ 33,200,000|
|Utility infielder||$ 5,000,000|
|Utility infielder||$ 4,000,000|
|Adam Eaton||L/L||$ 9,500,000|
|Victor Robles||R/R||Minimum||$ 600,000|
|Juan Soto||L/L||Minimum||$ 600,000|
|Andrew Stevenson||L/L||Minimum||$ 575,000|
|Michael A. Taylor||R/R|
|Fifth outfielder||$ 2,000,000|
|40 man cost est.||$ 2,250,000|
|Player benefits est.||$ 15,000,000|
That budget would put the Nationals $3 million over the CBT limit, and restrain them to one lesser bullpen acquisition and no room to add players at the trade deadline. This salary chart shows why you would almost have to look at deferrals to get to under $208 million CBT or add additional years to a Strasburg and Rendon deal to get the AAV lower. Creativity will be needed unless ownership decides they are in agreement to go over the CBT cap and that would seem like a definite that it would be a reality for 2020 and 2021 while the Nats carry Scherzer’s contract.
“We’re not sure. We’ll have to see,” Rizzo said when asked if the Nats could bring back Rendon and Strasburg. “It’s all about asset allocation, how things shake out. It’s something that we would love to do, and bring the band back together, but we have to be prudent how we construct this thing. Suffice to say, they are special to us, and they are terrific players.”
As has been reported by the Washington Post, the Nats had already offered Rendon a 7-year deal at $210-$215 million, and Rendon did not accept that deal. There are no reports or sources stating that the Nats have made any offers to Strasburg. The issue here is the Nats have done the same for Rendon as they did for Bryce Harper where they set a floor of $215 million. There are teams who could easily afford Rendon or Strasburg and like the Padres last year signing Machado, there could be a mystery team that Boras talks into taking one of these free agents.
While a World Series win usually brings a windfall of revenue for the following season, there is no guarantee that would continue beyond the 2020 season. Before you know it, Juan Soto will be arbitration eligible and Trea Turner will be a free agent and the starting rotation will need to be bolstered when Scherzer’s days in a Nats uniform is over. Decisions that are made in this off-season will have a great impact on future Washington Nationals rosters.