Ownership needs to get the #Nats payroll budget back to league average!

WASHINGTON, DC – September 28, 2022: Washington Nationals owner Mark Lerner on the field; (Photo by Sol Tucker/TalkNats)

It does not matter if Ted Lerner’s family is running the team or Ted Leonsis’ MSE, when it comes to doing right by the fans of the  Washington Nationals. The time is now to send an email, text message, phone call, ZOOM meeting, or fly a carrier pigeon with a note authorizing general manager Mike Rizzo to spend to the league average of $163 million. 

Fans don’t care that the team could be potentially sold. Fans deserve improvement. Tanking is no longer a viable option for stocking a farm system — a good player development system and drafting the right players mean much more to having better prospects.

Spending reasonably to the league average is not asking to be reckless or approach the CBT limit. Rizzo needs to let the media know he will be spending this winter.

“We’ll have a conversation with ownership to see where our [budget] parameters are,” general manager Mike Rizzo said in early  October. “Business as usual like any year.”

While ownership is up in the air as far as the team being sold, there is no reason to not be prudent on spending. If new ownership takes over and wants to change the budget to something even higher, that is fine too. But going below league average should only happen if players don’t want to take the Nats’ money.

The Nats already have sunk costs in Stephen Strasburg‘s $35 million dollar contract and Patrick Corbin‘s $23.33 million deal. Between those two players, the Nats committed a guaranteed total of $385 million. On Strasburg’s deal, there’s still four years remaining, and two years on Corbin’s deal. So the payroll crunch is only for four more years going forward. Say it with me, “four more years!”

The Nats still finished the 2022 season with the 20th largest payroll, ranking far ahead of playoff teams like the Mariners, Rays, and Guardians. With a youth movement of young prospects, the Nats can replicate what they did in 2013 in payroll.

Based on MLB Trade Rumors projections for arbitration eligible players, we have calculated the team’s AAV payroll is $114 million and that is $43 million below Opening Day of 2022 because reasonably you can subtract several players who are gone or should be gone: Nelson Cruz, Juan Soto, Josh Bell, Will Harris, Cesar Hernandez, Joe Ross, Steve Cishek, Sean Doolittle, Ehire Adrianza, etc.

Of course with the Nationals trades of Soto, Bell and Adrianza while taking on Luke Voit, the team finished the 2022 season with an adjusted payroll of $142 million. We still do not know what Rizzo will do with all of his arbitration-eligible players. Also, we do not know if the Nats will approach Strasburg with a retirement package or if Strasburg will approach the Nats with a retirement package. For planning purposes, assume Strasburg keeps collecting the rest of his $245 million deal and the $114 million is the number for today’s payroll.

What we would like to see is the Nats return to at least the $157 million payroll from Opening Day of 2022 at the very least. Hopefully the budget is closer to the league average at $163 million. Doubtful the number is higher than league average. If the Nats tender a contract to Voit, that would give Rizzo approximately $50 million to spend. You would hope Rizzo could get creative and  find a way to spend $60 million on new payroll to get two starting pitchers and a corner outfielder.

“So you’re talking about adding maybe one or two more starters, ” manager Dave Martinez said at the beginningof October. “We’re going into the winter with a lot of different areas that we need to fix.”

As we have written before there are lessons to be learned in that it is not what you spend — but how you spend it. Having a great player development system seems to be the No. 1 factor in winning long-term. That seems to be the lesson.

The Nats hid many of their warts and imperfections by spending huge from 2015-2020 at the same time that their player development system was on life support. It is not a sustainable model unless you do it the “Dodgers way” which is to develop players and spend money at the same time. Of course the Mets, Dodgers, and Yankees were the three biggest spenders in payroll, and none of them made the World Series this year. Only the Phillies from the eight biggest spending teams made it.

There could also be some opportunities to look at CJ Abrams and Keibert Ruiz for contract extensions. Both players are under pre-arbitration deals and could be reasonable targets for long-term deals.

Yes, statistics show that spending in the top 20 percent in payroll gives a team a much better chance of making the postseason over the bottom two-thirds of spenders. Again, there is no guarantee that spending bid will get you into the postseason. Ask the Red Sox.

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