Nationals Arm Race

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

Ask Collier 1/11/19


Harper Harper Harper. Photo Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Harper Harper Harper. Photo Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

On deadline day for doing arbitration contracts, MLB beat reporter Jamal Collier did a mailbag.  Its been a notable week with more Bryce Harper rumors and the Nats running their payroll right up to the limits of the Luxury tax cap with the Brian Dozier signing.

Here’s the questions he took:

Q: Harper is on my mind. Spring Training is days away. Aren’t the guys worried about will happen? No way they can be just “whatever,” right? Especially if he ends up in Philly?

A: If they can’t figure out from the slew of Mike Rizzo moves what the team’s intention is with Bryce Harper by now … well maybe a sledgehammer would be more subtle.  Its mid January and Rizzo has made 8 moves that should impact the opening day 25-man roster and another 2-3 that may be impactful down the road.  He’s now got the payroll north of $190M.

So what if he goes to Philly?  I think the whole “don’t trade within the division” is nonsense.  Yeah we’ll see him a lot.  But its a closed loop; he has to go to one of the 30 teams in the league, and we are bound to see him no matter who he plays for.  There’s 30 teams, and only half of them are even frigging trying to win right now, and then halve that again for those who even have payroll room to compete for Harper (or Machado).  And Philly is one of them.

As far as “the guys” … are you talking about his team-mates?  Well one of two things would be true about his teammates:

  1. They hate his guts and are like, “good riddance.”
  2. They are his fellow union members and want him to get every dollar possible because their union so royally screwed them selves in the last couple of CBA negotiations.

Collier notes that his fellow players know this is “part of the business” that Harper may eventually leave, and that he’s been a national figure since he was 16.  

Q: If Harper re-signed with the Nationals, how would they work the outfield? Would Victor Robles start the season in Minors? Or would they trade Eaton?

A: You’d have to trade Adam Eaton.  And you’d be trading low.  You can’t move Juan Soto … he’s making MLB Min and could be an MVP candidate.  You really shouldn’t move Victor Robles; he’s supposed to be a *better* prospect than Soto, so you’re hoping for 4-5 win performance for (again) MLB min salary.  These are the kinds of players you keep when you’re trying to win.  Putting Robles in the minors would be an absolute waste, and if that was their plan then i’d advocate attempting to flip him as a centerpiece for a top 20 player in the league (like a Corey Kluber or something).

Collier agrees.

Q: If Harper returns, how does it change how the team will handle Anthony Rendon negotiations?

A: Hmm.  That’s a good question, because despite the fact that Anthony Rendon dropped in the draft over injury questions he’s actually been pretty solid as a pro.  I liken Rendon’s reputation and capabilities to Adrian Beltre; fantastic defender, sneaky good at the plate, and suddenly you look up and he’s put up a hall of fame career.

Will that translate into a $200m salary?  Probably not.  But Rendon is no dummy, and neither is his agent Scott Boras.

That being said … can the Nats do this whole “stars and scrubs” thing for ever?  If you have 5-6 guys on high 8-figure salaries (Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Harper, Rendon) can you put a good enough team behind them?

I personally think Rendon is an incredibly important player for this team, even if he isn’t that high a profile.  And because he’s not high profile, I think you can get him for $20M/year or something like that on a longer term deal, which would be a steal value-wise.  I hope committing money to Harper doesn’t close the door on a Rendon negotiation.

Collier says …. he has no idea, nor does Rizzo.

Q: How should we look at 2019 Dozier replacing ’18 Daniel Murphy? Both are above-average offensive second baseman with liability at fielding. Is this an upgrade, downgrade or equal move?

A: Absolutely an upgrade; Daniel Murphy had negative bWAR last year while even playing through injury Brian Dozier contributed.  If Dozier is healthy and performs at his 2015-2016 level again … watch out this is one of the steal signings of the off-season.

Collier basically agrees and gives good contextual numbers.

Q: Do you think Washington will add a starter? If it does, I think Wade Miley is fine.

A: I think they will … but not a guy to replace Joe Ross in the rotation.  I think they’ll be looking for MLFAs with 5/1 or 6/1 buy-outs, like Edwin Jackson or Tommy Milone signings last year.  I can’t see them breaking the luxury tax for a 5th starter.

Collier agrees, remembering that the team has already signed Henderson Alvarez for just such reasons.


20 Responses to 'Ask Collier 1/11/19'

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  1. Where the players really screwed themselves was in not anticipating that the lower third of the league would start refusing to even attempt to be competitive each year. There ought to be a “payroll floor” in place to go along with the luxury tax that penalizes teams for not spending–and I would set it at half the luxury tax threshold.

    That said, I also think baseball’s revenues are in a bubble and are about to take a huge hit. Attendance has actually been declining the past couple of seasons, even with all of the games they play, such as counting no shows and giveaway tickets, to keep it up, Moreover, these huge regional cable deals are unsustainable as it’s been shown that younger adults neither have the ability nor the desire to pay $100 a month for channels for channels they mostly don’t watch. At some point cable and satellite operators are going to refuse the demands of the regional sports networks, and when that happens baseball’s robust increases in revenue will come to an end.

    Karl Kolchak

    15 Jan 19 at 2:50 am

  2. You never hear of certain NFL teams spending $100M+ less than other teams in a season because IT DOESN’T HAPPEN. Yet it happens all the time in baseball. Those teams aren’t penalized, though, or face relegation to AAA (wouldn’t that be fun?!). They’re actually REWARDED with “Competitive Balance” picks and some additional revenue sharing. It’s all part of the evil work of one of the poorest owners — both financially and morally — Bud Selig, who more or less remained an owner while he was commissioner (his daughter ran the team). Bud made not trying cool, profitable, and not punishable.

    Yes, there are some key differences between the NFL and MLB, most notably with the local TV contracts for baseball vs. the massive national contracts for the NFL. But the fundamental point is that every NFL team is trying, while perhaps one-third of MLB teams are not. (Plus the A’s have been proving for almost two decades that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to be competitive.)

    While the MLB local TV deals provide almost built-in inequity, that situation is often more of a convenient excuse for not spending than it is an actual hardship. The Nats have one of the worst TV deals in the league (thanks to Bud!), yet they’ve had a top-five payroll over the last several seasons. Some of that comes down to the vetting of ownership groups. What MLB has allowed the Jeter group to do in Miami is an utter embarrassment to the game. Have the Marlins been punished? Um, not only have they not been punished, they’ve been given the highest Competitive Balance pick for 2019.

    (I hate the concept of Competitive Balance picks and would do away with them if I were king, but if you’re going to have them, here’s a novel idea — give the lower-payroll team with the MOST success the highest pick. So the A’s would have the top pick. In other words, reward teams that are trying.)

    Also, I completely agree with Karl that the model built on local TV deals will collapse by the mid-2020s. Like everyone else, we’re paying a fortune basically just to have access to the Nats, Caps, and ESPN and starting to seriously contemplate not doing it anymore. In fact, whenever the MASN deal finally gets settled, I wonder whether the Nats would be in a position to be on the leading edge of something new, which would probably be streaming-based. (Alas, considering the scuttlebutt that Mark Lerner has been the one who has mangled various stadium naming-rights deals over the years, maybe not.)


    15 Jan 19 at 10:25 am

  3. Whether Bryce ends up in Philly or not, the Phillies are going to suck. They’re going to suck because they’ve spent their money poorly. I remember posting something at the end of the last offseason about how much better the Phils would have been if they had spread the bucks they dropped on Arrieta and Santana over five or six other players. This offseason, despite having a tremendous amount to spend, all they’ve managed to do is add Robertson and somewhat miraculously unload Santana’s awful contract. They need at least two starting pitchers and had Morton publicly begging to be close to Delaware. The Phils probably could have signed both Brantley and Pollock for what they’re offering Bryce. There were inexpensive players out there with solid bats like Matt Adams, Kurt Suzuki, and Brian Dozier. Collectively, that trio will make about half of what Machado is being offered.


    15 Jan 19 at 10:39 am

  4. I agree that Eaton would be traded if Bryce signs. I don’t like that scenario, as I really like Eaton, but clearly the OF alignment with Bryce in CF didn’t work. I sure wish there were some way to keep Eaton as the 4th OF and trade Taylor, though. MAT may ended up traded regardless because of his ridiculous arb figure.

    Robles HAS to start in CF. The Nats have turned down too many deals for him over the last three years not to let him play and see what they’ve got. The Steamer projection for him seems reasonable: .274/.335/.417, with 13 homers and a wRC+ of 102. I know that some are expecting more, considering all the hype, but right now, the Nats just need him to be competent . . . and stay healthy.


    15 Jan 19 at 10:49 am

  5. Rendon: Let me start this by noting what a fantastic, underappreciated player he is. His fWAR over the last two seasons is 13. He’s often eclipsed in the spotlight by Arenado (10.3) and Bryant (10), but he’s had more overall “value” than either of them.

    I would love to extend Rendon . . . for three or four seasons. The elephant in the room is that he’s going to want six or seven. His extension would begin in his age-31 season. The great Chipper Jones was really good through age 36, but that’s unusual, and that’s still only five years. Scott Rolen, who is a borderline HOF candidate, was good through 35 then fell off a cliff. There are more cautionary tales just up the road in Philly, where Rollins hit the wall at 33 and Utley did at 30, although he was still decent through 34. There are a few Beltres out there who defy the odds, but not many. In the post-steroid era, most guys are not nearly the same player at 35 that they were at 30.

    So . . . while I love what Rendon has done for the Nats, I don’t know that an extension is as cut-and-dried a great thing as a lot in the Natosphere make it out to be. As with all extensions, I would rather slightly overpay for a shorter term, say 4/$100M, but most agents are having their guys hold out for ridiculous lengths. Would Rendon have the leverage to get seven years from some team? Who knows? Arenado would be on the market at the same time, and the general perception is that he’s “better.”


    15 Jan 19 at 2:41 pm

  6. Wow, there’s a lot there. Not sure I agree with all of it, though. Let’s see:
    1) ‘Phils going to suck’ – I don’t agree. Pretty good pitching, added Segura and Robertson, plus the rigid husk of Cutch. Hoskins back to 1B, which will help the defense immensely. So I don’t see them as contenders, but won’t suck either, and they probably aren’t done. Even if they don’t get one of the big two, they’ll probably get Pollock and, I don’t know, that’s a 83-85 win team?
    2) ‘bubble in local cable revenues’ – I agree that it seems like it is coming, but I’ve also heard that MLBAM is expecting it, and has a streaming-straight-to-end users option lined up when it does (they can’t do it now because of these local deals). So maybe not as big a fall off as we think
    3) I think your Rendon numbers are off a bit. He is 28 now, with a birthday in June. If he did a 6 year extension to follow this (and I agree, I would add $1m in AAV and drop a year of length to 5), he ends it as a 34/35 yr old. I get your point, but that’s not horrible
    4) MLBPA – whole heartedly agree that they did a horrible job in the last CBA; I don’t know how Clark still has a job, it was that bad. And the players are angry and honestly, I can’t see how they avoid a work stoppage in 2021, or whenever. The issue is simple, really: the players agree to all of the current structure: no pay as a minor leaguer, fixed minimum salaries, arb for three more, and 7 years of overall control (technically 6, but you know) for one, and only one, reason: they expect to get paid when they are free. If the owners/FOs now say ‘well, actually, you really aren’t that valuable at this stage’ – which is a correct point, but irrelevant – then the players have no choice but to force market based pay while they are valuable. So their ask is going to be huge: free agency after 5 years, or 28, which ever comes first; arbitration immediately, … Which the owners will balk at and, well, I just see it needing to go to a work stoppage before a deal is reached. I think the players made a horrible choice to in Clark to succeed Michael Weiner, and are largely responsible for where things stand, but the owners are also too greedy and there is a risk they spoil the golden goose.


    15 Jan 19 at 6:49 pm

  7. One other thing: I think the Lerners may have a lawsuit against Angelos for mismanaging MASN by not taking advantage of these crazy revenue pops while they existed. A majority shareholder gets to call the shots, but also has some fiduciary responsibilities to run the business competently and in the best interests of all shareholders. So if there were some deals on the table to sell the rights for obscene money and they passed on it, they might have liability. And given how bad this relationship is, who knows


    15 Jan 19 at 6:53 pm

  8. Oops, you’re right, Rendon will be in his age-30 season at the start of an extension. Still, one would expect Boras to be gunning for a seven-year deal. I’m sorry, but those types of deals are terrible for baseball, although in some ways you can’t blame the players for trying to get as much as the market will bear. Their CBA certainly didn’t get it for them.

    I forgot about Cutch in Philly. He’s a 2.6 fWAR player who is 32. He hit .255 last year and had a pretty negative defensive rating. He moves the needle some, but not a lot.

    I’ve wondered for years if the MASN deal would be settled before Ted Lerner and/or Angelos dies, particularly Angelos. The whole case has been an embarrassment for the commissioner’s office from start to finish.


    15 Jan 19 at 7:24 pm

  9. If you are a fan of LAD, ATL, MIL or HOU, I think you have to be really frustrated with how the FO is playing things. These teams are right there on the cusp of WS contention, yet I think all of them have lost more then they’ve gained since the end of the season, and have plenty of money to be aggressive with upgrades. It really would sit poorly with me.

    You may not agree with all the changes that Rizzo or even BVW have made, but you can’t fault their effort. Their trying to win and it’s not just noise.


    16 Jan 19 at 11:31 am

  10. I love Tony as a player but I have concerns about extending him for two reasons: (1) age and (2) he derives a not insubstantial amount of value from his defense, which is likely (but not certain) to get worse over the term of his extension. I don’t think Zim is a great comp for Rendon, but he was of similar age and also a good defensive player when he signed his extension before 2012. Zim is a decent approximation of the downside of signing Rendon. Age/defense are the reasons I prefer signing Bryce, even at the higher price: I think Bryce’s bat will age better (and later) than Rendon’s defense.

    Re cable, let’s not be too quick to identify a bubble. I think MLB is incredibly well positioned to maintain if not increase revenue while the cable TV industry is disrupted. The key issue is how much revenue MLB teams earn by selling broadcasts of their games to viewers. It is immaterial whether that revenue comes from payments by cable providers (which are funded by subscriber fees and ad revenue) or from MLB- or team-owned operations, e.g., selling subscriptions directly to consumers and selling ad space directly to advertisers. The reasons cable companies pay huge sums to MLB teams for the right to broadcast games are, at a high level: (1) a lot of people like watching MLB games; and (2) people watch them in real time, which forces people to watch ads, which makes advertisers willing to pay higher prices for spots. Both of these things are likely to endure as over-the-top tv options proliferate. Now, it’s possible that advertiser demand for live sports will decrease simply because non-tv options for advertising continue to improve (e.g., Facebook), but this is a separate issue from the traditional cable tv bundle falling apart (which I agree is likely to happen, especially if 5G is as fast as they say).


    16 Jan 19 at 11:31 am

  11. Derek, good point about Rendon and the likely declining defensive value. The Rendon extension is going to be a tough call for the Nats. I do think there are a few points working in their favor to getting a reasonable deal. One is that Arenado would be on the market at the same time and likely would be seen as the alpha on the market (something Nat fans have always disputed, but that’s the perception). Another is that Bregman is entrenched at 3B for Rendon’s hometown Astros, so there would be no interest by the local team. Rendon is similar to Stras in personality and very likely would prefer the low-key approach to an extension rather than a Bryce-like circus. Also, unless an extension happens early in the season, the Nats will have some additional data on Luis Garcia’s progression before they have to make a decision, not to mention Carter Kieboom’s.

    My hunch is that there have already been extension talks during the arb negotiations (which the Nats settled generously in Rendon’s favor) but that any extension deal is being held hostage until Harper’s fate is settled.


    17 Jan 19 at 9:26 am

  12. Wally, I agree that it’s been surprising how few contenders have made many moves this offseason. One may not agree with everything the Nats have done or exactly how they have allocated their money, but there’s no doubt they’re better. The Yanks and the Cards have been reasonably active, but all the teams you mentioned have only signed one or two guys while also losing several significant pieces.

    The Dodgers have the need for a big bat in their lineup, openings in their OF, and have cleared the cap space. Harper makes a huge amount of sense there. I would bet that Friedman is hung up on not going more than six or seven years, though, and I don’t blame him.

    The Astros are losing Keuchel and Morton from their rotation and have yet to sign any pitching. The Bosox have no back end to their bullpen. The Brewers sort of had Grandal fall in their laps but still have serious holes in their rotation. And there’s barely been a peep from the Cubs about anything.

    Yes, curious times, and still a fair amount of talent available.


    17 Jan 19 at 9:42 am

  13. Here ya go, Todd — start the HOF debate on current players now:


    17 Jan 19 at 10:31 am

  14. Ottavino to NYY for 3/$27m. That’s a deal I like and would have done. Wonder if he gave them a hometown discount. Seems light compared to some, like Herrera. Even Britton getting 50% more seems too much.


    17 Jan 19 at 2:40 pm

  15. Maybe the Ottavino “discount” was partially in exchange for the third year. The AAV may be low, but he’s guaranteed $27M.

    And yes, I think I would have preferred spending $9M on Ottavino rather than Dozier . . . unless Dozier really bounces back and proves me wrong.


    17 Jan 19 at 3:55 pm

  16. Loogy/swingman Vidal Nuno joins the fold on a minor-league deal. He was very good in his brief stint with TB last season plus started 10 games in the minors. Doesn’t look like a huge threat to Solis in the spring, but you never know.

    I see lots of drooling over Sonny Gray, but I don’t see the logic right now. His salary would require the Nats to deal multiple folks to stay under the tax line, plus he’d be a FA after one season so not worth giving up much to get. It’s time to go with Ross and/or Fedde in the #5 slot. Not sure why so many folks can’t comprehend that. Ross was dang good in ’15 and ’16, at least when he was healthy.


    17 Jan 19 at 8:46 pm

  17. Sonny Gray for us? Nah, no need. Ross or Fedde are fine as 5th starters. Wouldn’t mind another quality reliever, otherwise I’m ready for pitchers and catchers


    18 Jan 19 at 3:14 pm

  18. Sonny Gray’s #1 career comp on B-R is . . . Tanner Roark. Just sayin’.

    If the Reds get Gray, they’ll be on the verge of getting interesting, although they would be counting on comp bounce-backs from both him and Roark. It’s not an easy division, but it’s also one where the Cubs have basically sat out the offseason and the Brewers and Cards haven’t done much. If the Reds get Gray to go with Roark and Wood, their rotation might be betters than Milwaukee’s. Not saying that Cincy is going to shock the world, but if the lineup stays healthy and Puig and Kemp have good years, they could make things interesting for the presumed favorites.

    As for Gray and the Nats, there are a number of folks in the Natosphere still insisting that the Nats have to add another starter, over Ross/Fedde. I’m still not totally convinced by Fedde, but Ross should be healthy by now (although innings-limited), plus the Nats don’t have any cap space left (unless of course they just blow past that line to bring back You Know Who).

    I do expect the Nats to sign another starter or two, though, but to minor-league contracts. There are still a good number of them out there:

    Heck, Fister lives in Fresno!


    18 Jan 19 at 9:44 pm

  19. Nuno’s only getting a minor/major league deal seems odd given how effective he was last year. I mean a 1.64 ERA in the AL East isn’t anything to shake a stick at, and he exhibited odd reverse splits (better against RHB than lefties). Perhaps that’s the reason; the non- splits.

    Todd Boss

    19 Jan 19 at 9:51 pm

  20. How about discussing the possibility that Dozier replaces Rendon at third in 2020? He likes the Nats. If he is looking good in ST why not extend him if the terms are reasonable? If Rendon somehow agrees to reasonable terms, Dozier could be moved to first in 2020.


    20 Jan 19 at 10:13 am

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