Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner expressed doubt about his franchise’s ability to re-sign both Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg this offseason, as Lerner told NBC Sports Washington’s Donald Dell. (Todd Dybas of NBC Sports Washington has early details about the interview, which will take air in full on Dell’s show on December 17.)
“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” Lerner said. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with….We’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decided to go elsewhere. Again, it’s not up to us. We can give them a great offer — which we’ve done to both of those players. They’re great people. We’d be delighted if they stay. But it’s not up to us, it’s up to them. That’s why they call it free agency.”
MLBTR’s ranking of the winter’s top 50 free agents (which, incidentally, predicted both Rendon and Strasburg would wind up back in D.C.) projected Rendon for a seven-year, $235MM deal and Strasburg for six years and $180MM. That works out to a little more than $63.57MM in average annual value if the Nationals were to land both players at those projected prices, and since Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez estimates the Nats’ current luxury tax number at just under $135.32MM, that would bring the total to roughly $199MM.
This leaves Washington with some wiggle room under the $208MM luxury tax threshold to add more roster upgrades beyond only Rendon and Strasburg, though surpassing the tax threshold seemingly wouldn’t be a problem since the Nats were willing to pay the tax in both 2017 and 2018. By ducking under the threshold last season, the Nationals would again be charged at the “first-timer” rate of a 20 percent tax on the overage of any payroll that falls between $208-$228MM. Since Adam Eaton, Anibal Sanchez, Sean Doolittle, and Kurt Suzuki could all come off the books after the 2020 season, the Nationals could potentially even get back under the 2021 threshold ($210MM) or at worst pay another minimal penalty by staying within the $210-$230MM range.
Of course, the Nats would further shave more money off their payroll with other moves, or Rendon and Strasburg could also end up costing more money than our projected figures. But, strictly speaking, there isn’t any real financial barrier preventing the club from re-signing both players. Lerner’s declaration could be something of a tactic, Dybas writes, since it would be “poor negotiating” to “flatly state the organization is going to find a way to pay both….Being in between serves multiple needs: It keeps the door open on each player; it stirs the market without roiling it; it prepares fans for an outcome they don’t prefer.”
While the Nationals haven’t been afraid to spend big on free agents or player salaries in general, they face a unique situation in having two star players (both represented by the same agent, Scott Boras) hit the open market at the same time. Several teams have already been linked to both players, including some of the game’s wealthiest franchises — the Dodgers have spoken to both, while the Rangers have interest in Rendon, and the Phillies and Yankees are known to be interested in Strasburg. Since the bidding will be high for both players, the Nats could re-direct their resources towards one player in particular if the price tag for the other becomes truly untenable.