The Washington Nationals have famously fielded top-heavy rosters typically built around a core of strong starting pitching. Since Washington’s first playoff appearance in 2012, they’ve advanced to postseason play five times in nine years, always on the backs of their starting pitching. The starting pitching units on their playoff teams (2012, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2019) ranked 1st, 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 3rd in the Majors by FIP and 5th, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, and 1st by fWAR. Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Tanner Roark, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg each posted multiple 3.0+ fWAR seasons for Nats’ playoff teams, and Patrick Corbin is halfway there after a 4.7 fWAR season in 2019.
On the position player side, a core of Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth Ryan Zimmerman, and Ian Desmond added Anthony Rendon in 2014. They morphed by swapping Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner into the core group for Desmond and Werth by 2016. Before 2019, this unit faced their most monumental change yet, letting Harper leave for Philly as Juan Soto developed in his place. Rendon left after the title team in 2019, and it’s now been three years since Zimmerman aka “Mr. National” played a central role in the offense.
Present day, the Nats’ offensive core is a smaller unit than it’s been in year’s past, but it might be the strongest foundation of a Nationals team to date. Soto is one of the best offensive players in the game, compared today to Ted Williams by the Athletic’s Jayson Stark. Turner is one of the game’s most dynamic and underrated superstars.
Victor Robles certainly seemed like a key member of this core unit in 2019, and they hoped Carter Kieboom might step into Rendon’s place at the hot corner, but neither cemented their place in the inner circle during a rough 2020 season. The slow ascent of Kieboom and Robles has made Soto and Turner all the more important to the Nats’ future. Beyond their obvious talents, at 22 and 27 years old, they’re the youngest ties to the 2019 title team.
Starting pitching has been this team’s past, but Scherzer is 36, Strasburg is 32 and twice lost seasons to injury, and Corbin is 31. Their top prospects are a couple of power arms in Jackson Rutledge and Cade Cavalli, and Cole Henry, Andry Lara, Jeremy De La Rosa, and Tim Cate provide some backing in that regard, but there’s much uncertainty in projecting arms. The Nationals future seems to lie in the hands of Soto, Turner, and to a lesser extent, Robles and Kieboom.
The clock is ticking, however, and the cost is rising. Turner will make $13MM this season with one more year of arbitration before free agency after 2022. Soto became arbitration eligible for this first time this winter as a Super Two player. He’ll make $8.5MM in 2021 with three more turns through arbitration before free agency after 2024. He’ll be just 26 years old.
The conversation inevitably turns to potential extensions, and there have been internal discussions about what it might cost to lock their two superstars into long-term deals. In fact, there will be long-term contract offers on the table in the near future, per Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post (via Twitter).
They’ve made offers in the past, however. Per MLB.com’s Jessica Camerato (via Twitter), GM Mike Rizzo said earlier today, “We’ve discussed internally with ownership about it. We’re in the midst of making decisions on what a timeframe would look like … We certainly have made & will make a long-term extension offer to both players sometime in the near future.”
Since the Braves extended Ronald Acuña Jr. to a well-below-market eight-year, $100MM extension, and the Padres extended Fernando Tatis to a 14-year $340MM extension, Soto might be the best young player without a long-term deal in place. Acuña signed his deal after winning Rookie of the Year with a 4.3 bWAR season in 111 games. Tatis signed after two years of service time and 7.0 bWAR through 143 total games. Soto has just 0.143 more service time than Tatis, but he’s begun the arbitration process, played in 313 games, won a World Series, and accrued 9.7 bWAR. How much will it cost to extend the next Ted Williams? That’s a difficult question, especially when he’s represented by Scott Boras.
If there’s any organization comfortable dealing with mega-agent Boras, it’s the Nationals, who have dealt with him over the years both to sign long-term deals in the case of Strasburg and Scherzer and to not sign those deals with Harper and Rendon. The Nats should have a pretty clear idea about what it would take to sign Soto – or if it’s even possible.
As for Turner, the CAA client might want to wait and see how next winter’s free agent market shakes out. One way or another, a market price will be set for star shortstops as Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story, and Corey Seager all sign new contracts. If he does wait, 2021 could be a make-or-break season for Turner. While he’s flashed tremendous potential, he’s also dealt with injuries that have cut short some of his most productive seasons. He finished 7th in MVP voting during the shortened 2020 season.
Xander Bogaerts signed a six-year, $120MM extension in April 2019 with the Red Sox, which could be used as a comparison point. You can check MLBTR’s Extension Tracker to find your own comps. Bogaerts – a Boras client – signed after 5.046 days of service time at 26 years old with 759 games and 15.6 bWAR under his belt. Turner is at 4.135 days of service time right now. He’ll be in the territory of Bogaerts’ 5.046 service time days by the time he turns 28-years-old in June. At present, Turner has notched 541 games and 16.6 bWAR.
One thing we know about Washington and long-term deals is that money will have to be deferred. That said, they’ve shown willing to spend high-end money for the right players. Even though they’ll pay Strasburgh $35MM a season through 2026, and Corbin escalating salaries of $23.4MM, $24.4MM and $35.4MM through 2024, the Nats have some long-term payroll flexibility. Schezer’s $42MM deal comes off the books after this season, as does deals for Brad Hand, Starlin Castro, Daniel Hudson, Yan Gomes, Jon Lester, Alex Avila, Josh Harrison, and Zimmerman. They can also takes a $3MM buyout for Kyle Schwarber over an $11MM option. That’s a total of $73.6MM that could come off the books following 2021. Of course, in that circumstance, Rizzo would also have to back-fill nine roster spots.