Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Who is really “trying” this year?


Is someone going to sign this guy?? Photo via

Is someone going to sign this guy?? Photo via

We’re in a weird time in baseball.  The players drastically misplayed their hand in the last couple of CBA negotiations, allowing the luxury tax to become so penurious that it now basically functions as a hard cap … but without the corresponding hard floors that would prevent the wholesale tanking we’ve been seeing lately.  This has resulted (along with a couple other factors) in the worst FA market we’ve seen since the days of collusion.

I thought i’d do a little noodling to see just how bad this problem is.

Taking a quick look at 2017 off-season spending patterns and looking at the general activities of teams, here’s what seems to be going on:

Trying and Spending Big

  • Boston: not really a surprise that they’re spending money, with more just announced with J.D. Martinez.  The Boston-NYY wars are back on.
  • New York Yankees: obviously trying … not necessarily “spending” a ton of money on the FA market but spent a ton to acquire Giancarlo Stanton in terms of added payroll
  • Los Angeles Angels, who won the Ohtani sweepstakes, signed Justin Upton to a 9-figure deal and have made moves.
  • Philadelphia: Added nearly $40M in payroll … but in really odd moves for a team that seems like it should just be waiting things out another year.   Does anyone really think they’re a playoff team?
  • Milwaukee: they even bought a compensation-attached FA in Lorenzo Cain, perhaps looking at their division and sensing that a WC run is in the offing.
  • Chicago Cubs: they’re the big spenders this off-season, having more than $50M of payroll AAV
  • Colorado: still spending money in an attempt to get into the NL WC game.

Trying and Spending “some”

  • Minnesota: the most surprising team on this “trying and spending” list; the Twins keep signing guys.  Good for them.
  • New York Mets: they definitely have signed FAs … but they’re not signing marquee guys who might actually help them get better.
  • San Francisco: they havn’t signed a ton of guys, but have “spent” a ton of prospect depth to acquire the likes of Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria this off-season.
  • San Diego: in one of the more inexplicable deals of the past few years, San Diego signed Eric Hosmer to a $144M deal so that they can continue to finish 30+ games out of first in the NL West.  But hey, they spent some cash!

So, that’s just 11 of the 30 teams that are actively spending on the FA market.  About a third of the league.   And it includes half the teams you’d project to make the playoffs this year right now (Boston, NYY, Milwaukee, Colorado and Minnesota).

How many of these teams are “done”  spending at this point?  There’s still several QO-attached FAs who are/were expecting $50M or bigger contracts; where in this list above do you see anyone still willing to absorb a $20M/year AAV?


Trying but not really Spending:

  • Houston: the defending champs havn’t really had to spend a ton, having acquired Justin Verlander last season to address their biggest need.  They’ve signed just two minor FAs.
  • Arizona: have added about $10M of contracts … but are just augmenting the edges of their surprise 93-win team from last year.
  • Los Angeles Dodgers: the league’s wealthiest team has added a grand total of $3M of salaries for the new  year.  $3M!!
  • Cleveland: successful small market team is just working the edges of their 102-win team and trying to maintain their success while the window is open.
  • Washington: we’re at the luxury tax threshold, it seems like the owners don’t want to go over it, and we’ve added around the edges of the roster only.

Can’t fault these 5 teams for having done the work to put themselves in near-guaranteed playoff position (in fact, they’re probably the “other” 5 teams making the playoffs in 2018).   This has also contributed to the problem; most of the time playoff teams want to get better to get to the next level; half your likely 2018 playoff teams are tapped out and standing pat on last year’s rosters.

Treading water and not spending

  • Oakland: what’s new?
  • Toronto: seem to be in a no-man’s land in a division with two teams absolutely trying; should probably sell off
  • St. Louis: not exactly lighting the world on fire with off-season moves.
  • Seattle: they made a flurry of moves last season and have spent very little this off-season; they cannot outspend or outperform two other divisional teams right now, so are just treading water.
  • Baltimore; as normal, nobody knows what’s going on with this front office.  They’ve bought two veteran 5th starter FA pitchers and … that’s it.
  • Texas: i’m not entirely sure what Texas is doing; they have money to spend, desperately need starting pitching .. and are doing very little.
  • Chicago White Sox: little new spending; they’re like a couple other teams that are coming out of a rebuild and waiting for their prospects to mature.

Most of these teams are staring in the face of a tank job.  Only Chicago is on their way out (well, technically Philadelphia too, who should be sitting here but instead spent $60M on a DH to “play” first base for them in Carlos Santana).  Not one of these teams really can look at their situations or their divisions and say that they’re favored to make a playoff run.

Not Trying/Tanking and not spending:

  • Atlanta: they’re still waiting for all their prospects to grow up; may not be “tanking” but definitely are not spending the money to win in 2018.
  • Miami: we’re all painfully aware of the shambolic sell-off in Miami; yet another stain on MLB for enabling a billionaire owner to suck freely at the revenue trough while not putting anything back.
  • Pittsburgh: traded their franchise player, have not committed one penny of MLB FA dollars.  The chickens have come home to roost in Pittsburgh; we’ll see you in 20 years when you’re relevant again.  They should have sold off last season frankly.
  • Tampa Bay: you don’t trade your franchise player w/o officially waving the white flag.  Maybe we need to contract both Florida teams like certain curmudgeon NY-based columnists have advised
  • Cincinnati: last place last year, payroll flat, no real chance of winning the division == tanking.
  • Kansas City: their grand plan of offering QOs to all their FAs is being killed by the weird circumstances of this off-season, but they’re reading the writing on the wall and gearing for a rebuild.
  • Detroit: like with Tampa and Pittsburgh, jettisoned their franchise player recently and probably wishes they could do even more.  they’re looking at $75M LESS in payroll in 2018 versus last year, and would do more if they could.  It could be pretty ugly in Detroit for a while.

That’s a lot of teams not really trying, or actively shedding players.    And it won’t take much to push some of the “standing pat” teams into this category.

The larger point is that 19 of the 30 teams, for one reason or another, are not spending this off-season.  Two thirds of the league basically went into the off-season not planning on doing anything except roster-fine tuning on the open market.

Great news for the Nats; Miami will be lucky to win 60 games, Atlanta still isn’t trying fully, Philly has done practically nothing to help make the leap, and the Mets seem like they’re going to be in Bernie Madoff-hell for years.  Will they win the division by 20 games again in 2018?  Probably not … but it shouldn’t be close.


There’s a slew of other underlying issues that are making the issue worse.  Kiley McDaniel summarized them pretty well in this chat answer from last week:

I think teams have

  • 1) been getting more similar in their methods
  • 2) more careful to avoid long-term deals
  • 3) owners have been getting less involved
  • 4) the league has been getting younger and rookies have been making more of an impact and they’re all cheaper than vets
  • 5) it’s worked out that deals get better the longer you wait, so teams are seeing how much you can stretch that principle, so we were moving toward this gradually.

What made it all happen now was

  • 1) the big market teams are trying to get under the tax for next off-season
  • 2) Boras overplayed his hand but with more players than usual and
  • 3) teams that can spend, big or middle market, want to wait until next off-season to spend huge money when there’s better players.

Sounds like a good summary of the off-season.

Post publishing update: just after I posted this, word comes out that the MLB player’s Union is filing a grievance against four teams for not spending their revenue sharing money.   Miami, Tampa, Pittsburgh and Oakland, four perennial violators of this rule and 3 of which I named as actively tanking.  Frankly, I would have put Oakland as an active tanker too except … they’re so poor right now they have no assets to sell.  Heck, even Mike Rizzo hasn’t been able to swing a trade with Oakland this off-season.

28 Responses to 'Who is really “trying” this year?'

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  1. Current payrolls:

    No, the Phils aren’t “trying”; when you add $40M to 0.00, it still doesn’t amount to much.

    The Giants and Mets seem to have taken the Dan Snyder approach, investing in a bunch of has-beens in the hope of distracting their fans from seeing all the fundamental flaws.


    27 Feb 18 at 1:23 pm

  2. KW

    27 Feb 18 at 8:47 pm

  3. Just seeing another guy mentioned on MLBTR who has been traded for international bonus money instead of DFA’d. The Nats might be able to take that approach with guys like Grace or Solis if they don’t make the 25-man roster. Cole would be worth something more in return, but Grace probably wouldn’t.


    28 Feb 18 at 11:42 am

  4. Holy Close Call, Batman.

    Yikes, this is weird


    28 Feb 18 at 2:36 pm

  5. Thor and Harvey: Dumb and Dumber. And de Grom is already hurting and may not be ready for the start of the season.


    28 Feb 18 at 8:14 pm

  6. Todd Boss

    1 Mar 18 at 10:44 am

  7. Every bad piece of news on Harvey is another never-mentioned bit of reinforcement for Strasburg-gate.

    Todd Boss

    1 Mar 18 at 11:07 am

  8. Yeah, on that Stras-harvey difference, I am surprised it doesn’t get discussed more often. Or even how the Mets utterly ruined an amazing pitcher and cost him $200m in earnings. I think Harvey is an unlikeable guy and that has limited how many writers have taken his side.

    By the way, on that link I provided earlier, here’s what I was referring to:

    ‘Mark Melancon‘s dead arm was really dying.

    While a week old, this news is crazy:

    When doctors began a procedure designed to allow the muscle to “breathe,” they found something they did not expect.

    “It was actually dying off,” Melancon said.

    “It had turned gray. When they went in, they literally saw it. The muscle was dying from being restricted,” Melancon said. “The doctor said he hadn’t seen that too much. He said he had seen it, but not there, and not often. Very rare. It was definitely a surprise. I know he was shocked.”


    1 Mar 18 at 11:31 am

  9. I did see that piece about Melancon. Yes, the Nats dodged a bullet there. I was never fully on board with bidding on Melancon anyway because I thought he’d only be good for a couple of years but would want a contract for four or five.

    I feel the same way about Harvey — the Mets ruined him, but he’s such a cad that it’s hard to feel too sorry for him. He’s set to earn $5.6M this year in his last arb season. Stras earned $18.3 in his final arb year and should easily top $200M for his career. Harvey’s career total after this season will be just short of $17M. If he’s not significantly better in ’18 than he was in ’17, he may have to sign a minor-league deal next offseason. That’s a stunning fall for a guy who, for a brief period, was one of the top five arms in the game.


    1 Mar 18 at 10:29 pm

  10. Anybody know the new FA rules? If the Nats sign one of these pitchers for less than $50m, do they avoid paying compensation? That might change my mind on them.


    2 Mar 18 at 11:20 am

  11. Also, OT, I’m betting on June 1 for Murph’s first appearance. I think it’s why they re-signed Kendrick.


    2 Mar 18 at 11:25 am

  12. Wally, don’t quote me on this, but I don’t think the individual salaries have anything to do with it. I think it’s the collective total salary for a given year. Most seem to think the Nats are over $197M for 2018, so they would be paying a certain penalty on the amount between $197M and $217M, I think 30%, then the penalty rises on money spent above $217M, I think to 50%, since they are in their second consecutive year of crossing the line. If I’m figuring things correctly, they would pay a tax of $6M if they go to $217M, a tax of $11M if they go to $227M.

    Let’s say the Nats are currently at $200M and they sign Arrieta for $20M in 2018. As I read it, their penalty for 2018 for hitting $220M would be $7.5M. If they sign Arrieta, Lynn, or Cobb, they would also lose $1M in international bonus money and picks in rounds 2 and 5 because of the QO attached to all three of those guys.

    Would it be worth it? To me, the biggest deal is the length of the contract. Arrieta, Lynn, and Cobb all have a couple of good years left in them. Four or five years for any of them is nuts, and three is risky. All had some very shaky peripherals. Of the three, I think Arrieta has the highest ceiling but also the highest risk of major collapse. That said, I’d think about 2/$36-40M for Arrieta, even with the taxes and penalties. I don’t know that I’d be willing to make the QO sacrifices for Lynn or Cobb.


    2 Mar 18 at 12:37 pm

  13. I do agree that Murph’s surgery was a major reason they went out and re-signed Kendrick. For all of those celebrating Difo’s “breakout” season in 2017, he still had a wRC+ of only 76. Kendrick’s was 121. He’s a significantly better offensive player, no matter how you slice it.


    2 Mar 18 at 12:40 pm

  14. KW- thx. Totally agree that they pay lux tax $ on any salary over $197m. I should have phrased it better, I was wondering about the loss of picks and int’l slot money. I seem to recall that only came into play for FAs signing deals >$50m, or something. Just curious and wondering if that in general is holding up the last QO guys.


    2 Mar 18 at 1:18 pm

  15. Decipher this if you can:

    I think it means that the $50M number applies to what the team losing the QO’d player receives, not to what the team signing the QO’d player gives up. It also means the Nats ain’t gonna get much at all next season after Bryce and Murph walk, probably just a pick for each of them around pick #100. Sigh.


    2 Mar 18 at 4:04 pm

  16. Interesting take from Chelsea Janes on what scouts are telling her about Cole vs. Fedde:

    I’ve already vented at Nats Prospects about the inevitable Romero debacle. It didn’t take the Psychic Friends Hotline to see this one coming.


    6 Mar 18 at 6:19 pm

  17. Yeah, not good. I wasn’t surprised they took him – Rizzo is a talent guy and the guy gets universal + grades. But to pay him slot value, let alone over it, just seemed puzzling.

    Anyway, we’ve got him now and they need to be patient to try to get something put him. Maybe by 2020 he’ll grow up.

    I do hope Boras kicks his butt though. Maybe he’ll drop him, a la Puig.


    6 Mar 18 at 8:11 pm

  18. Bigger worry for me: Eaton. Zim to a lesser extent.

    Was expecting Eaton to get some PAs by now. I’d say 50/50 for opening day


    6 Mar 18 at 8:12 pm

  19. The Nats are playing the long game with Eaton and Murphy, as in October-long. They’ve got very good replacements for them in Goodwin and Kendrick. If Adams starts bopping, they may also let him stumble around in LF some. Davey is certainly used to Schwarber-level “defense” in LF.

    It should be noted that while Adams doesn’t hit lefties well, Goodwin does — .341/.388/.614 against MLB LHP in 2017. It’s a SSS, but it would certainly give him confidence.

    I’m perfectly OK if the Nats only get ~120 games from Murphy and Eaton if it has them healthy in October. They’ve got much better backup options with them than they do with Wieters.

    My biggest concern, though, remains 5th starter, in addition to starter depth.


    7 Mar 18 at 9:07 am

  20. Romero; sigh. We’re all on record hating the pick and no surprises he got sent home. My “one” hope was that he’d get into a pro organization and see the light and start playing the part. Apparently not. I’ve been scouring for info as to what he did and AP reported he “missed curfew.” And now chelsea Janes reports the same, citing “repeated” curfew violations and warnings. great:

    EAton and Murphy easing in; understood.

    Love the articel on Fedde’s stuff.

    Nats draft pick penalties for signing a QO attached arm are stiff, thanks to their slightly broaching the luxury tax last year:

    • A team that exceeded the luxury tax in the preceding season will lose its second- and fifth-highest selections in the following year’s Draft, as well as $1 million from its international bonus pool for the upcoming signing period. If such a team signs multiple qualifying-offer free agents, it will forfeit its third- and sixth-highest remaining picks as well.

    That’s a ton. And therefore i don’t think they’ll be signing one. Unless they get a super awesome deal.

    Todd Boss

    7 Mar 18 at 11:42 am

  21. I wonder if Hellickson would sign a minors $1m base w/ incentives deal. Dickey or Cahill maybe, can’t remember if Buckholz is hurt. I’d do that. Wouldn’t mind a back up OF deal on a minors deal too: rajai Davis, Eric Young, even Melky, someone like that. Just someone to fill in for a month or two and let the Nats resist rushing Eaton and MAT


    9 Mar 18 at 11:31 am

  22. If the Nats need an OF bridge to Eaton and/or MAT, his name is “Victor,” not “Melky.” Robles can be sent down at any time in the season to regain his service time. A guy posted on Nats Talk yesterday that Robles only has to regain 25 days in the minors to make up for last Sept. That’s technically true, but that’s also not ideal for the Nats, who will want to get him past the Super Two date and therefore need him in the minors for about three months this summer. Having Robles still under team control when he’s 27 and at his peak is a lot more important than what he would do in the majors now at 20/21.

    I will admit to some curiosity about Hellickson, but only if he’d take a minor-league deal. He was very good for a lousy Phils team in 2016, and even during his bad 2017, his WHIP stayed at a very respectable 1.26. He had real declines in Ks, GB rate, and LOB%, though. Was he dinged? Did he have some issues with his mechanics? In looking further down his numbers, he didn’t really lose velocity, but he got away from his heater and went too heavily with the offspeed stuff.


    9 Mar 18 at 2:37 pm

  23. If both are out, Robles can’t bridge that, which is why I’d rather they sign someone better than Bautista so they don’t give in to the temptation to rush one back.

    Btw, what ever happened to the Cuban guy that played well in AA? I haven’t heard his name at all this spring, so I guess he isn’t in major league camp.


    10 Mar 18 at 4:48 pm

  24. Yadiel Hernandez. He didn’t get an NRI invite, for some reason. He’s turning 30, but he’s a spring chicken compared to Raburn. Yes, he hit very well in the second half at Harrisburg last season.

    I’m totally scratching my head over why they brought De Aza back. Not exactly a vote of confidence for Stevenson.

    In other news, Fedde apparently had a very strong outing today against the full lineup of the World Champs. The competition is joined.


    10 Mar 18 at 9:03 pm

  25. Just looking through MLBTR. Man, 1/$12M for Lynn would have been tempting, but it would have been hard to give up the draft picks and international bonus money for just one year. Good for the Twins for “trying and spending.” I know it’s Dozier’s last year, and they may have some others leaving, so why not?


    10 Mar 18 at 9:07 pm

  26. Arrieta to the Phillies. While they are becoming a trendy pick for a surprise team, I’m still not that high on them.


    11 Mar 18 at 7:26 pm

  27. I don’t see it, either. Nola was their only decent starter. Now they have two, if Arrieta doesn’t continue his decline. I also think $25M per for Arrieta was an overpay, particularly for years two and three. He obviously wanted money more than another ring. I’m curious to see whether the Phils are shopping him by the trade deadline, or if they actually see him as a piece of something they think they’re building.


    12 Mar 18 at 8:49 am

  28. So, i wonder if the Santana and Arrieta signings, both of which seemed on their faces rather inexplicable for a franchise that really has no shot at winning the division in 2018, wasn’t a concession to the MLB players union based on just how little they’ve spent as of late? In the same vein perhaps as the equally inexplicable Hosmer->San Diego contract?

    Todd Boss

    12 Mar 18 at 3:38 pm

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