Point-Counterpoint on the #Nats off-season spending or the lack thereof!

Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

We are joined by Richard W. of The Nats Report. We did this point-counterpoint from last week as we discuss off-season spending.

Steve: Thanks Richard for joining us. It did not take a genius to figure out in these difficult times in the “live entertainment” sector that MLB teams would be struggling to make money when so much revenue is dependent on fans in the stands. Unfortunately for our Washington Nationals, they are more dependent on fans in the stands than almost any team because they have the WORST media deal due to the MASN debacle and ongoing lawsuit and they have no stadium naming rights sponsor. With zero attendance in 2020 and a strict DC Government, the outlook is bleak for the first half of 2021 attendance for Nationals Park with the hope by July that most fans have been vaccinated.

With that said, a team like the Nats cannot depend on fan revenue in 2021 and as such will cut payroll. Yes, nobody wants to hear that. Don’t fret, the Nationals without spending a dime are the 7th highest in payroll spent if they do nothing. That is because they have nearly $90 million invested in the trio of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Patrick Corbin. That’s where 55% of the Nats money is tied up right now. 

As a fan, I say spend but I think the most they will go to is $190 million which gives the team $30 million to spend and in terms of who that gets you and the wins it buys (WAR), I think we are looking at an 84 or 85 win team on paper and hope it is better in reality when they play the games. Get to the trade deadline and if you’re in it, then maybe ownership spends more.

Richard: Thank you for including me in this discussion. So, while, I agree that times are tough for the “live entertainment” sector, however, it will not be like that forever, and there are a lot of good free agents out on the market this year so maybe if the Learners spend a bit more this year, they can get a steal with a great free agent, and deffer money like they always do anyway.

Steve: I’m hopeful they spend into the $180 million range but I’m fairly certain they aren’t going over $190 million which is almost 20% above where the projected payroll is today but almost $10 million below where the team spent last season. My hope like you is that with cash deferrals they will spend. It has to hurt that the windfalls they would have achieved financially from a World Series win was wiped out from COVID.

On top of that, the Lerner “family business” per their website is concentrated in commercial buildings, hotels, real estate, shopping centers, malls, and “live entertainment” and someone I consulted with in the office building business said the only people making money in that sector is the lawyers due to all of the contractual defaults. Heck, the Lerner’s mall at Dulles Town Centre in Loudoun County Virginia is in foreclosure. I just hope they can financially survive all of this. But my fear is they could turn into bears in this economy and not do enough to compete with the Nats. The current roster looks like a 73 win team on my numbers as they stand now. I don’t see any way that this team “on paper” can make moves to get to a 90 win team on paper. There are too many “ifs”. I’m very optimistic on Soto and Trea, but even Fangraphs is skeptical of the starting rotation with Max, Stras and Corbin. Max at a 3.52 ERA on Fangraphs for 2021 is not what you pay $30 million for.

Richard: These are all good points. Don’t you think that the way that we are going to consume events moving forward and therefore the traditional revenue models are going to change? Additionally, you mention the TV deal… Maybe this is the year that MLB finally settles the dispute between the Orioles ownership and the Nationals ownership. It is possible since the Orioles is now being controlled by the younger Angelos so anything is possible right? Maybe with the re-alignment of the Minor Leagues, everything could be in place for an agreement.

However, back to the players, and the market. I still think that there are great deals out there and the Nationals should capitalize on it and go big. Over the past few years, we have seen that owners are no longer willing to spend a lot of money on Free Agency, and players are willing to sit out until the last possible moment to get the best deal possible.

You even pointed out in your recent article, that there are going to be “nearly 200 remaining free agents, that is approximately seven per team. Are there enough spots on the 40-man rosters to absorb all of those players? The answer is ‘no’ there is not.” therefore, the Nationals could have the opportunity to go big and get some great ballplayers at a reasonable salary. Even if the Nationals need to go big on one contract it’s worth it.

Steve:  All great points and I was ready for you to say “Go big or go home.” I’m glad you didn’t because I heard that enough from fans before winning the World Series and arguably the Nats two best rosters were the 2015 “Where’s My Ring” year and most would say 2016 which was a disaster in its own way, and guess what? The Nats won a World Series in 2019 when admittedly it was not their best roster — rather the best performers for one magical season. The Dodgers built a different way and the third time was the charm for them. Rizzo has said he builds his teams for 90 wins and honestly, I don’t see any way to get this squad on paper to 90 wins but maybe they get there after 162 games because baseball isn’t played on paper. With some tweaks and like 2019 — everything going right, who knows?

Of course they will add to the roster and sign free agents. But will they be able to get the one big prize everyone hopes for? Maybe. I’ve set my sights lower on more reasonable targets of Michael Brantley in a platoon with Kevin Pillar or if they spend less they could get Joc Pederson with Pillar. For first base, maybe the answer isn’t there this year so do a one-year deal with Carlos Santana who is a switch-hitter and find a lefty first baseman as his backup. These moves also strengthen the bench. The crazy thing given all the hype, Fangraphs has Pederson as more valuable than Brantley and Wilson Ramos with more WAR than James McCann even factoring in the deficit of catcher’s defense.

I think Rizzo will be creative but I think the Nats are going to fight the Phillies in the pre-season Power Rankings for 3rd place. Keep in mind, there is a reason we play the games and that is what makes sports so exciting.

Richard: I think that you can have all the big priced free agents you want but when it comes down to it team chemistry is what counts at the end of the day, that is why I think that the 2019 Washington Nationals were successful and enjoyable to watch at least during the playoffs. I’ve seen many Nationals teams during the years and the 2019 Washington Nationals felt different despite their start at the beginning of the season. They also felt different towards the end of the season.

Joc Pederson would be an interesting player to add to the Nationals. But there are so many needs that the Nationals are going to need. I think that most importantly, the big-name player should be able to play multiple positions, that’s why I think that DJ LeMahieu might be that player. LeMahieu has played all over the infield from 1st and 3rd, which are both positions of need, and if the DH comes to the National League that would add to his value, and can play more in his career. If you sign a LeMahieu type you can maybe bring back a Wilson Ramos behind the plate to platoon with Gomes. For the outfield, what about a Justin Villar whose average salary according to Sports Trac is only in the 2 million dollar range a switch hitter and also plays a bunch of positions ranging from 2B and centerfield, which it is safe to assume that he could move to right field.

“Winning off the field,” isn’t a term that we like 🙂

Steve: Five years ago Jonathan Villar looked like a superstar in the makings. I don’t know what the Brewers did to him. I’m no longer sure who he is. Is he the guy who batted .188 for Toronto last year? I think he would be a good minor league signing with an invitation to Spring Training. On LeMahieu, now that he is officially an unrestricted free agent, he is in the realm of possibilities but the two issues I see is that he is going to cost the Nats a forfeiting of their 2nd round pick as well as forfeiting $500,000 of International Bonus Pool money. I was all for LeMahieu two years ago as the 2nd baseman and heading into 2021 when he turns 33. He would be the right-handed bat who could be 3rd and that is a plus and he does have positional flexibility. If the team spent their wad on DJL, it might use up most of the budget. We might find ourselves with Andrew Stevenson and Pillar in LF. Those are the tradeoffs. We did an exercise of how would you spend Lerner’s money if you had $39 million to spend in the next two months. We can dream — Rizzo has a reality. He has to pick the player and hope they overachieve above their Fangraphs projections.

Also, this is a weak free agent crop. You know it is weak when Scott Boras has no players in the Top-10 and his two players in the Top-200 are James Paxton and Aaron Sanchez — yes, that Aaron Sanchez who the Astros sent packing.

Richard: I wouldn’t mind having a platoon in the outfield with Andrew Stevenson and Pillar in LF, Robles in Center, and Soto in Right. Sounds good to me, if that means we get DJL. By the way, according to Fan Graphs, Pillar has played 25 games in Right field in 2020 and he played 27 games in Center, so maybe he could in fact play in right.

I think that is a solid outfield, what do you think? Now, that we got the infield and outfield settled, what are your thoughts on Pitching? I think that now that Trevor Bauer has won the Cy Young this year, he comes off the table and the Nationals should start to find a fourth starter to add to the roster. What your thoughts about bringing back Aníbal Sánchez to a super team-friendly deal. I really think that 2020 was such a freaky year for everyone, it might be hard to judge players just on the 2020 season.

Steve:  Good to hear that your expectations aren’t that you want LeMahieu in the infield and Brantley in LF and Realmuto at catcher. I just received an email from someone who thinks Stevo should be the starter. We were writing about Stevenson after he was drafted and through the minor leagues. He was a top hitter and CF defensively at LSU and a 2nd round pick by Rizzo. With the tight budget, it is within the realm of possibilities but then I would expect they would bring Adam Eaton back on a small deal and Kevin Pillar to take two to three starts a week. That would give Rizzo money for LeMahieu or Realmuto.

On pitching, I would like to go young with upside for a reclamation type and have the new pitching coach Jim Hickey choose the pitcher he thinks he can fix mechanically. Some have said Chris Archer. Well, if he is only $4 million and would do a 2022 team option, why not consider it if that is who Hickey chooses (maybe Jake Odorizzi if the budget allows). Worst case we probably have Stras, Max, Corbin, Joe Ross, and Erick Fedde with the hopes that Jackson Rutledge is close.

Richard:  I like your pitching suggestions and it all makes sense to me. I outlined a bunch of great pitchers that can fit the fourth pitcher spot, however, with a bunch of those players either signed or not on the market anymore, I think that an interesting idea that I also saw, would be a reunion with former Washington Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmerman. Granted, he might have regressed a bit since playing in D.C. but the pitching rotation has changed significantly and he is no longer either the number one or number two so that might relieve some of the pressure so that he can just pitch, and he was a fan favorite when he ways playing in D.C.

The Nationals have some interesting prospects that I would like to see a Major League level and Jackson Rutledge is on that list for sure, hopefully, he could be a spot fourth pitcher or maybe even get called up in September.

Steve: Let’s end it here and see what people think. Thanks for joining in Richard and people can find you on TheNatsReport.com.  Contact me if you want to do a point-counterpoint.

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