Nationals Arm Race

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

Nats Payroll projections for 2015


Jayson Werth remains the Nats highest paid player ... but for how long?  Photo via

Jayson Werth remains the Nats highest paid player … but for how long? Photo via

As we start to debate what the team may do this coming off-season, it is worth discussing the projected payroll for 2015 and the impact it may have on the moves this team makes.

A couple of salient points to start with:

  • The Nats opening day 2014 payroll was somewhere in the $135M range (depending on your source; USA Today had opening day payroll at $133M, Cots had it at $136M).
  • Owner Ted Lerner was quoted in April that “payroll was beyond topped out.”  Which probably can explain some of the cost-savings moves the team made later in the year (acquiring Asdrubal Cabrera and getting the Indians to kick in his salary).
  • The MASN debacle is still not sorted out, meaning the Nats are still operating on a smaller budget than they should be, and the Nats are likely holding down payroll to a certain operating level until they know exactly how much money they can expect out of the deal going forward.

So, based on the above three facts, I’m working under the assumption that the Nats 2015 payroll isn’t going to change much.  The Lerners may be the league’s richest owners, but they’re not running the Nats as a money loser.

Which will make the following analysis kind of scary, honestly, because I’ve got the 2015 Nats payroll projecting at close to $150M.  I’ve posted my work here (a Google xls, also available as a “link” along the right hand column of the blog), so you can see if I made some egregious errors in calculation.  Let’s play along by section to see how I arrived at this number and what I think it means for this off-season.  This accounts for all 39 guys currently on the 40-man roster:

Under Contract for 2015 – 10
Werth, Jayson 7 yr/$126M (11-17) $21,571,000
Zimmerman, Ryan 6 yr/$100M (14-19)+20 opt $14,000,000
Gonzalez, Gio 5yr/$42M (12-16)+17,18 options $11,100,000
Zimmermann, Jordan 2yr/$24M (14-15) 7.5 and 16.5 $16,500,000
Desmond, Ian 2yr/$17.5M (14-15), 6.5 and 11 $11,000,000
Span, Denard 5 years/$16.5M (10-14), $9M club opt 15 $9,000,000
McClouth, Nate 2yr/$10.75M (14-15) with opt $5,000,000
Rendon, Anthony 4yr/$7.2M ($6M bonus)  (11-14)+15 opt $1,800,000
Harper, Bryce 5 yr/$9.9M (11-15) $2,250,000
Thornton, Matt 2yr/$7M (14-15) $3,500,000

Total Payroll for Players under Contract for 2015: $95,721,000

$95M already, and we’re only to 10 players of the 40-man roster.  So much for all that savings we were getting by declining Soriano and LaRoche’s options.  By the way, I am assuming that the team exercises Denard Span‘s $9M option, but not Soriano or LaRoche’s (Update: after I wrote this but before I published, the Nats indeed exercised Span and declined the others).

Arbitration Eligible Players for 2015 – 11 my arb estimate
Fister, Doug 1yr, $7.2M (14) (arb2) $11,000,000
Clippard, Tyler 1yr, $5.85M (14) (arb3) $7,500,000
Strasburg, Stephen 1yr/3.975M (14) (arb1) $6,500,000
Storen, Drew 1yr/$3.45M (14) (arb2) $5,000,000
Detwiler, Ross 1yr, $3M (14) (arb2)
Ramos, Wilson 1yr/$2.095M with $105k incentives (14) arb1 $4,000,000
Blevins, Jerry 1 yr/$1.6M (14) (arb2) $2,000,000
Stammen, Craig 2yr, $2.25M (13-14) $2,000,000
Lobaton, Jose 1yr/$950k (14) arb1 $1,500,000
Frandsen, Kevin 1yr/$900k (14) arb2 $1,250,000
Espinosa, Danny 1yr/mlb min (14) $1,000,000

Total Estimate for all 2015 Arbitration Raises: $41,750,000

The team has 11 players eligible for Arbitration this year.  I’m assuming the team tenders 10 of them, which may be a bad assumption.  Would you tender Ross Detwiler and pay him $3M (or close to it) again?  Would you tender Jerry Blevins?  How about Kevin Frandsen?  Do you think Fister gets $11M after the season he had?

Either way, even if some of guys aren’t tendered, it barely moves the needle here thanks to the expected paydays for the top guys.

Pre Arbitration MLB players – 18
Purke, Matthew 4yr/$4.15M (2.75M bonus) (11-14) with 2 opts $1,037,500
Roark, Tanner 1yr $506k (14) $550,000
Florimon, Pedro Jr 1yr $517.5k (14) $520,000
Jordan, Taylor 1yr $504k (14) $515,000
Davis, Erik 1yr Minor League deal (14) $505,000
Barrett, Aaron 1yr Minor League deal (14) $500,000
Cedeno, Xavier 1yr Minor League deal (14) $510,000
Kobernus, Jeff 1yr Minor League deal (14) $505,000
Leon, Sandy 1yr Minor League deal (14) $505,000
Mattheus, Ryan 1yr/$520k (14) $525,000
Moore, Tyler 1yr/mlb min (14) $510,000
Rivero, Felipe 1yr Minor League deal (14) $500,000
Solano, Jhonatan 1yr Minor League deal (14) $500,000
Solis, Sammy 1yr Minor League deal (14) $500,000
Souza, Steve 1yr Minor League deal (14) $510,000
Taylor, Michael 1yr Minor League deal (14) $505,000
Treinen, Blake 1yr Minor League deal (14) $515,000
Hill, Taylor 1yr Minor League deal (14) $500,000

Total Estimate for all 2015 pre-Arb 40-man players: $9,712,500

I’m guessing on Purke‘s deal frankly.  And i’ve put in some nominal raises for the likes of Roark who did so well this year; he may get more than just a $50k raise.  A few of these players may be DFA’d or released (wait for the post on options status to see just how many of these players are in jeopardy of a late March DFA).  But we’re not talking about a ton of payroll difference if we cut a guy making a split deal worth $500,000.


Total Payroll estimate for 2015: $95,721,000 + $41,750,000 + $9,712,500 = $149,183,500.

That’s $149M … way above the number this team sat at on 4/1/14 (which Lerner said was “maxed out”), and that’s before we count LaRoche’s $2M buy-out (not sure if that technically goes against 2014’s or 2015’s payroll).

Oh, and that’s before the team even thinks about any free agents to fill holes.

Maybe i’m a bit too generous with arbitration raises (Clippard from $5.85M to $7M?)  But those estimates aren’t that far out of line with what will happen and combined won’t change the $149M more than a couple million one way or the other.

So, what’s going to happen?  Does this team go into the off-season thinking about shedding payroll through trades?  Food for thought.  We’ve talked in previous posts about flipping the likes of Jordan Zimmermann ($16.5M), Span ($9M), Clippard ($7M estimate) or even Drew Storen ($5M estimate) … maybe the team is thinking of flipping them to save cash and to acquire future pieces.


29 Responses to 'Nats Payroll projections for 2015'

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  1. Todd – Great stuff, and much to digest, along with the Halloween candy! Wow, already up against the $150M mark as the starting point. That’s scary. I thought clearing LaRoche and Soriano would help, but everyone else is trending upward.

    I agree – I really think that $150M is the magic number for the Lerners right now, even with the MASN money. So this is it, Mike. Make it work.

    In looking at these realities, it becomes much harder to even contemplate multi-year, high-priced deals for Strasburg, Zimmermann, and maybe even Desmond, regardless of what one thinks of their long-term value.


    31 Oct 14 at 9:49 am

  2. Agree, that is bleaker than I expected. But, to repeat my theme from the last thread, a team can restructure by offloading some of these contracts if they want, they just basically have to accept they are not getting much talent back, it is true salary dump.

    To Andrew R from last thread – I agree with your premise that long term pitcher contracts can often be bad deals (though my biggest worry is injury: higher frequency and longer duration v. position players). But teams also have to play in the market that exists, not the one that they wish exists. TOR has this <5 yr pitching contract philosophy, and has signed no one. The general feeling is that their inability to acquire front line pitching kept them out of the playoffs. So they have a decision to make. It is pretty hard to develop frontline pitching on your own, that is why it gets paid so much.

    I'd also add two comments to your analysis – it doesn't dispute the conclusion but maybe softens it a bit. (1) teams are smarter about not committing to players too deeply in their decline years, and some of those pitching busts reflect a time before that awareness (and hey, it isn't perfect now: see Pujols, Albert). (2) I would disagree with some of your 'Ugh' conclusions. Looking at CC and Kevin Brown, they each produced 25 WAR during their contracts, and CC still has a little more time. Their deals, and Cliff Lee, went almost exactly as the team expected when signing. Superlative performance early, when those guys were probably underpaid per AAV, to declining performance later when they were overpaid. On balance, they each probably don't quite earn their total contract dollars but it is pretty close, and since those teams were looking to capitalize on their early dominance and turn it into a WS win, it was probably a reasonable gamble at the time. Almost identical to our own Jayson Werth deal, which I hated but acknowledge has not turned our horribly.

    Just saying that it can work out ok, if you are primarily locking up a pitcher's prime and late prime/early decline years, and your team is positioned high enough on the win curve to make the early years gamble worth it. I think both factors are true with the Nats and their big three. The guy that I worry about going LT the most is Stras, but only because he is the guy that looks to be most dependent on his velocity, which we know will start to decline. What kind of pitcher is he then? Maybe Verlander is his cautionary tale.


    31 Oct 14 at 10:36 am

  3. Teams that arbitrarily limit themselves (Toronto with length of contracts, Miami by refusing to have no-trade agreements) end up costing themselves in the FA market. Of course, some teams are also hurt by their home park when it comes to attracting free agents; Toronto is a huge hitters’s park and a guy would never go there on a one-year sweetheart deal to regain value. Same with Colorado, Boston, and a few others. No; those guys gravitate to places like Seattle (see our own Chris Young last year; he was probably 9th in our SP depth chart but he stepped right into SEattle and gave them 29 starts and 165IP) or San Diego.

    Todd Boss

    31 Oct 14 at 10:52 am

  4. Wow. Incredibly informative post. Thanks, Todd.

    The best way to shed payroll is the highest priced contracts. From what you assembled, Gio and Span look like the most attractive and replaceable contracts to move. Zimm is already on the books for 16.5. Fister could get his big raise and the team could swallow a number of those raises just by flipping Gio and Span. Clippard clears even more payroll.

    Of course, if the team can get a superstar in the making in a trade, the signs of decline of Desi may make it a good time to flip him as well, provided that there is a fixture coming back like a Profar or Odor. The Rangers are looking for starting pitching and have middle infield surplus.

    Boy do longer term deals look worse now, as do backloaded deals. Boy, does Werth look expensive now! Thank goodness Fielder went to the Tigers.

    So what if higher end free agents find a team less attractive without more than a five year deal. If the team has the development resources, one would think you could produce a high end outfielder or first baseman every seven years! The Nats organization is not Jeffrey Loria and is not the BJs.


    31 Oct 14 at 12:02 pm

  5. Again, shedding payroll is best with replaceable highest priced players.

    That also means the high priced bullpen is a prime target. There are at least the remaining pieces to ensure that balance and talent remains.

    With this information, it actually looks like Fister is the MUST first sign of the three, in order to set a bar for Zimm in the context of the team’s payroll.


    31 Oct 14 at 12:07 pm

  6. Sorry to add one log on this fire, but Soriano’s contract had 2 years of deferred compensation, so the Nats will be paying him $7 million in 2015 and 2016 – I don’t know if that works against Rizzo’s budget in either year.

    I also thought it was interesting that Rizzo backloaded J-Zimm’s and Desi’s 2-year arbitration buy-out deals. Was he planning on a cost cutting move prior to the 2015 season? Was he banking on MASN money kicking in?


    31 Oct 14 at 12:32 pm

  7. NBEF – I didn’t think it kicked in that quickly? And it wasn’t all at once? I’ll have to dig it up.

    Seems like everyone backends contracts. I think it is just putting off problems more than anything specific, but maybe it was done with the idea ALR and Sori would leave?


    31 Oct 14 at 12:39 pm

  8. Not to beat up on the man, but Minitti was the contracts guy. Before Todd presented this to it, I think the Nats saw what they had here.

    The next shoe (other than adding any players who would be minor league FA to the 40 man) will be the announced hiring of the assistant GM.

    Why pay more to have a player waive a no trade clause when you have a back ended contract? That is its own no-trade clause.

    I also hope they pluck some of the exec talent that is now also free agent to enhance their draft scouting and add other eyes to better cover international harvesting. I can’t help but wonder whether the team has recovered from the loss of Roy Clark.


    31 Oct 14 at 1:13 pm

  9. Good point Wally – you’re right. Soriano’s compensation doesn’t kick in until 2018, and then it’s $2 million/year. Not as bad as I thought…


    31 Oct 14 at 1:17 pm

  10. Backloaded contracts: look at the Homer Baily contract, that seems to be setting Zimmermann’s market. 6yrs/$105M so an AAV of 17.5, right? Years go 9,10,18,19,21 and 23M. With an option at $25M. Do you want Homer Bailey, he of the near .500 career record, pitching for you in the year 2019 at the age of 33 for $23M?

    Todd Boss

    31 Oct 14 at 1:31 pm

  11. If history tells us much, its that the $2M/year “disappears” off of payroll analysis for these teams. Nowhere in the Mets figures do you see, for example, the fact that Bobby Bonilla is getting $1.19M a year for TWENTY FIVE years starting in 2011. Not that it’s a lot of money when looking at macro payrolls … but it should count. Bonilla’s contract, btw, was considered a genius move by the club (analysis here) even if it sounds crazy now.

    Todd Boss

    31 Oct 14 at 1:35 pm

  12. First, find a budget team in need of a replacement-level OF and give it McLouth for an A-ball hurler and a couple of broken bats. Five mil for him is a “luxury” that is neither affordable nor luxurious.

    Second, it’s time to part ways with Clippard. He’s simply become too expensive for a setup man, particularly for a team with Barrett, Thornton, and Treinen. He should have some value in a trade, as a potential closer, but probably not as much as we would think he should.

    Those are the first two moves that seem obvious, to give a little flexibility. Others would cut more deeply into the core. Span is the guy with the most obvious replacement (Souza, with Harper shifting to CF), but there would be an obvious decline in the defense.

    I’ll disagree with forensicane on trading Gio. Gio’s contract is one of the best that we could get for a pitcher of his ability. The Nats will need Gio and hopefully Fister as they transition from losing Zimmermann and Strasburg.

    With those latter two, if you wanted to make a dramatic move, I’d see what the market is like for Stras. With two year before free agency, he should have more value than Zmnn. I’d then plan to ride Zmnn to the end of his contract. Dealing Stras wouldn’t free up a lot of money now, but it would give the team flexibility moving forward. And make no mistake, I’d be looking for someone the level of Donaldson or Kyle Seager in return.


    31 Oct 14 at 1:39 pm

  13. KW: In this episode of “if I was the GM” …
    – Moving McLouth may be tough given his abhorrent and injury filled 2014. I wouldn’t assume we’d get much of anything back.
    – Keep Gio; very cheap for what he gives you (aka 200+ innings and 13-14 wins a year)
    – Keep Giolito; he’ll be needed as a top-of-the-rotation replacement once we lose our big names to free agency
    – Move Clippard to a team in need of a closer. And there’s plenty of them after this season when 17 of the 30 teams switched closers from day one (another future post I’ll throw out there)
    – I’d even think about moving Storen’s salary too.
    – Move Jordan Zimmermann’s 16.5M salary for pieces; maybe a middle infielder and a pitching prospect.
    – I’d keep Strasburg; his arb number is still very, very affordable for his profile. Even given his “down” year he’s top 15-20 in nearly every stat for starters in this league … for a quarter of what he’d be earning if he was getting paid like a FA.

    That may seem rash, but as pointed out elsewhere, this team does have arms at its disposal. Instead of Soriano, Storen, Clippard, Stammen, Barrett, Blevins and Detwiler you run out something like Treinen, Barrett, Martin (this one’s for you forensicane), Stammen, Thornton, Blevins, and someone like Taylor Hill as a swingman/mop up guy. Or you find some cheap RHP bullpen arms in FA; there’s always a Todd Coffey out there for cheap.l

    Out goes a ton of cash (probably nearly $30M), you struggle maybe with your pen until it settles in 2015, but you’ve filled your hole at middle infielder (acquired middle infielder competes with Espinosa for starting 2B spot) and have a prospect arm who could be MLB ready in 2016.

    Todd Boss

    31 Oct 14 at 2:17 pm

  14. I’d not only be willing to basically give McLouth away, I’d offer to pay up to a quarter of his salary for someone to take him. That might make Riz look bad to the Lerners, though, so I agree that it will be hard to find takers. That said, his previous team, the O’s, has some holes in the OF. Perhaps the Nats could give McOut to them in exchange for settling the #@!*&! MASN deal!

    Dealing Zmnn vs. Stras: my thinking in dealing Stras is twofold. First, with two years before free agency for him vs. one for Zmnn, Stras should net a better return (particularly considering how little he’ll make in 2015). Second, if you’re keeping one of them to “win now,” I’d take Zmnn as more the “win now” guy, particularly in the playoffs. However, if you deal Zmnn, you probably save $10M over dealing Stras, and you have Stras for two years, to give more time for Cole and Giolito to get ready.

    Honestly, I don’t think the Nats will deal either Zmnn or Stras, in part because they think they’re really close, and in part because it would be difficult to get a worthy return for either of them.


    31 Oct 14 at 2:55 pm

  15. I just hope the management isn’t myopic about the future and suddenly finds themselves shopping for the $8M/one year dredges of free agent pitchers.

    Todd Boss

    31 Oct 14 at 3:13 pm

  16. Hey, don’t knock it; I hear you can win a World Series with three of those, after burying your pitching budget in contracts for Cain and Lincecum. Making it all the more difficult to know what lessons to learn from the Giant triumph . . .


    31 Oct 14 at 3:18 pm

  17. Keith Law had a great overview of “how the WS teams were built.” Insider only but a good read. Basically both teams have relied heavily on using 1st round draft picks, either on their team or leveraging them in trade.

    Speaking of Law; first question out of the gate on his chat yesterday was about trading Zimmermann, and he thinks the team should pursue it.

    Todd Boss

    31 Oct 14 at 3:50 pm

  18. It’s a pleasure to watch what Tyler Moore is doing so far this winter. Twelve – twelve walks in 44 plate appearances, none of which are intentional, and only nine strikeouts. Four home runs, ten RBI. So long as we are speaking about affordable, I have to keep rooting hard for him. His trade value seems low, and I would hate to see him cast off and become someone else’s Chris Davis, especially since his defense has improved so much.

    Rafael Martin with seven scoreless appearances and no walks.

    If Byron Kerr or one of the others is lurking on this board, can you please touch base with Doug Harris about these two?

    Another guy from the more RBI than strikeouts club is Spencer Kieboom in the AFL. He and Severino are acquitting themselves offensively.

    And Derek Self looks like he is beating out Holland in a bit of organizational “survivor.”


    2 Nov 14 at 1:37 pm

  19. From my reference point, the Winter Leagues most important signal to us is when the light goes on for a player. Some succeed because the level of competition is low; others demonstrate a leap forward that carries into the next year.

    The most significant example of this from last year, of course, was Michael Taylor. So watching the fall ball is not as recreational as one might think.


    2 Nov 14 at 1:43 pm

  20. We’ll talk about Tyler Moore in the next post … and what I think is going to happen.

    Todd Boss

    2 Nov 14 at 5:52 pm

  21. Bob Miller hired. Next domino falls.

    I hope they add Hood to the 40 man today. It would be a loss for him to be flitted away to minor league free agency. For those of you who forget, it was one year ago, today, that a player who had no experience above double A was added to the 40 man just before becoming a minor league free agent.

    He was older than Hood, and perhaps better. But Hood went up a level this year and only improved.

    That player was nos amour Steven Souza.


    3 Nov 14 at 11:01 am

  22. New posted on options. Mentioned Mr. Hood but kind of in passing; there’s probably four names ahead of him that i’d be adding to my 40-man roster at some point prior to the rule-5 draft. Hop on over.

    Todd Boss

    3 Nov 14 at 11:42 am

  23. Really good analysis. I am under the assumption that we absolutely must shed one big contract this offseason. I’d also hate to lose a guy like Hood and keep a 3rd string catcher like Solano or Leon.

    I’d like to see Cole considered for a bullpen role this year until a starting job opens up, like the Cardinals do…

    Andrew R

    3 Nov 14 at 8:29 pm

  24. Hm. MLBTR’s arbitration estimates seem to think that your arb numbers are a bit on the low side; they estimate that the total for the 11 guys is about $9M higher ($50.1M) than your estimate of $41.75M. That would move the Nats’ payroll into the neighborhood of $155.5M before filling in the hole at second base.

    That’s a pretty ritzy neighborhood – last year it would have put the Nationals at #5 behind the Dodgers, Yankees, Phillies and Tigers (just ahead of the Red Sox).

    John C.

    4 Nov 14 at 2:37 pm

  25. I’ll argue against some of these MLBTR estimates.

    – Fister: 11M vs 11.4m; close enough.
    – Clippard: I said 7.5M and MLBTR said 9.3M?! There’s no way he gets a raise from 5.85M to 9.3M. No way, not without the saves.
    – Strasburg: I said 6.5M they said 8.1M. Fair enough; wouldn’t surprise me if he gets closer to 8 than 7.
    – Storen: $5M vs $5.8M; that’s relatively close; remember Storen wasn’t the closer all year.
    – Detwiler: I don’t think he’s tendered, so that’s $3.3M off
    – Ramos: I said $4M and they said $3.2M.
    – Blevins and Stammen: I said $2M each, they said $2.1 and $2.2
    – They don’t even have Frandsen listed. But they have Harper listed … so we’re double counting him.
    – Espinosa: I said $1M they said $2.3M. I dunno; $2.3M in his first year of arbitration values Espinosa at roughly a $6M player on the open market. Do you think he’s that valuable?

    Meh. Last year I meticulously tracked the MLBTR estimates and sometimes they were a few hundred thousand high, sometimes a few low. But they were way off base when looking at the 2 year AAV deals that Desmond and Zimmermann got. So who knows. But I think they’re way high on a couple of our guys.

    Todd Boss

    4 Nov 14 at 4:21 pm

  26. Frandsen was the first name on their list, at $1.2M.

    Weird choice to list first, I agree.

    John C.

    4 Nov 14 at 6:07 pm

  27. And this is all guesswork anyway, so I’m not that hung up on it. Of course, neither is my work product.

    Interesting that the arb number they guessed was actually very close to his listed salary, so it’s not going to make a difference this year. It would be going forward that getting on the arb ladder could get expensive (we hope!)

    John C.

    4 Nov 14 at 6:10 pm

  28. Here was MLB Trade Rumor’s performance guessing arbitration salaries last year: Maybe they’re better than I give them credit for.

    Zimmermann, Jordan 3.5M lower this year, 1.5M higher in aav
    Desmond, Ian 400k lower this year, higher aav
    Fister, Doug 300k higher
    Clippard, Tyler 325k lower
    Strasburg, Stephen 75k higher
    Storen, Drew 150k lower
    Detwiler, Ross 200k higher
    Ramos, Wilson 5k lower
    Blevins, Jerry 125k higher
    Ohlendorf, Ross 50k lower

    Todd Boss

    4 Nov 14 at 8:34 pm

  29. Fyi, new guy Eric Fornataro is on a mlb min salary, hasn’t reach arbitration yet, and has an option. All of which points to him being bullpen insurance in AAA in 2015.

    Todd Boss

    4 Nov 14 at 8:45 pm

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