Caveat emptor is the writing on some of these free agent deals!

A victory cigar; photo by Jeffery Salter

With rumors swirling like the wind, someone(s) is leaking information on every move that Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon are making. The common denominator on these two star players is the agent they share, Scott Boras, who always seems willing to let their whereabouts play in the public forums if it helps drive up the demand side of the micro-economic curve. Typically when demand increases with more buyers than the supply of players the prices escalate and that will benefit a pitcher like Zack Wheeler in this case and probably Madison Bumgarner also who are on the tier below Strasburg and Gerrit Cole. It is starting to feel like a Veblen situation when you look at the number of starting pitchers who will get deals over $100 million and the high demand for what surely is a luxury item. There is certainly a caveat emptor disclaimer on each of these players as these are humans and not a Lamborghini, Ferrari, Rolls Royce or Bugatti built to one-of-a-kind specs. Wheeler has had shoulder and elbow issues, Strasburg has his TJ surgery on his resumé, and Bumgarner had a 3.90 ERA last season.

Take a look at the third basemen market, and there is even less supply on the top-end. For Mike Moustakas, he finally got a long-term deal and will be 32 years old next season. Again, this is the Veblen curve gone awry because there are more suitors in this high stakes game of musical chairs. There were only three seats and the buyers are vying for only Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, and Moustakas. Now there are two chairs left and there are six GMs circling with their checkbooks. Will Mike Rizzo have a chair? Some say he has to either retain Rendon or pivot to the Donaldson who turns 34 this week. At estimates of $25 million a year for three years, do you go that route?

When the post-mortems are done on all of these players into the future, there will be some that will join the annals of the worst free agent signings in history. In hindsight, the geniuses come out to point to the obvious, but where are those geniuses now throwing caution to the wind? When is a member of the media going to stand up and point to a player before he signs and call it “irrational exuberance” because history has shown that long-term deals for players over 30 years old normally benefits the players more than the team.

Fortunately for the Nationals, they have only had a few bad free agent signings like Rafael Soriano who cost the Nats a first round draft pick which was forfeited when he was signed and then there were the two-year deals for ex-Orioles Matt Wieters and Nate McLouth and neither will make the MLB all-time “worst” list because they were short-term deals — and that is why if you are going to take a chance — do a short-term deal or don’t do the deal at all. Sometimes it is smarter to just walk away.

Last season, the Nats final Fangraphs WAR was +48.3. The Nats are currently at a +35.3 WAR and only need to add approximately +10 WAR to get to Mike Rizzo’s 90-win projections. When you dive into the Fangraphs ratings, they have the Nats at a -1.5 WAR at first base so just by adding an Eric Thames in a platoon (+0.3) and Howie Kendrick (+1.5) that is an add of +3.3 to the team WAR. Maybe you look to Justin Smoak, Mitch Moreland, and Ryan Zimmerman. Some combination should work at first base to add thump and WAR.  The Nationals have four key spots to add significant WAR value at the top of the rotation, third base, second base and first base. One of those infield spots will probably go to Carter Kieboom and Fangraphs is bullish on him with a projected +2.5 WAR.

The Nats are in an enviable situation as the reigning champs of baseball. The Lerners aren’t going to pull a Wayne Huizenga type of post-World Series garage sale sell-off, but they could decide not to chase this rumored runaway market that should have that yellow caution tape wrapped all around it with orange blinking lights.

Bad long-term contracts can cripple a team. The two best winning percentages since 2012 belong to the Dodgers (757 wins; 94.6 per season) and Nationals (730 wins; 91.3 per season).  The Dodgers sustained success is from excellent drafts and player development and avoiding long-term free agent deals. The Nationals sustained success if from a few top draft picks, one steal of a trade (Trea Turner and Joe Ross), and some very fortunate free agent signings (Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin), and a little luck sprinkled in there.

Maybe it is true that the Dodgers will jump into a long-term free agent deal this season or maybe they are doing what they do well and just pushing up prices. The Dodgers have the highest attendance rates and are only second to the Yankees in revenue. Both of those behemoths could sign a top-3 free agent and blow past the CBT limits and still make a profit.

Yes, the Winter Meetings will actually be in wind-down mode a week from today. Rendon and Strasburg are part of the top tier of free agents, and you can expect the rumor mill on each will have them meeting with the Yankees, Angels, Dodgers, Rangers, and mystery teams. That is how their agent goes about his business with parading them through social media like a thoroughbred stud at the stallion auctions in Kentucky.

It is what it is and no matter how much you want Rendon and Strasburg back on the Nationals you have to remember that each player is a person with their own motivations and sometimes, unfortunately, it is about the most money.

“Yeah, we’re trying to get it done,” Rizzo said months ago. “We’re trying to see if there’s a way to bridge gaps. It takes two to tango and hopefully both sides want to get something done and we can get a deal done …”

Tango with Rizzo and let’s move forward.

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