While the next international signing period opens on January 15, teams are already lining up the next wave of int’l prospects for years in advance. Washington City Paper’s Byron Kerr writes that the Nationals have agreed to a deal with outfielder/third baseman Elian Soto, the younger brother of superstar Juan Soto, as the 15-year-old has decided to join the D.C. organization when the 2023 signing period opens roughly a year from now. Reports from Z101’s Hector Gomez earlier this week suggested that the younger Soto was preparing to head to the Mets, and Soto seemingly confirmed matters by posting an Instagram video of himself wearing Mets-branded attire. New York was reportedly set to give Soto a $50K bonus, and while Brittany Ghiroli and Maria Torres of The Athletic report that the Nationals topped that offer, it wasn’t with a huge dollar figure, as the younger Soto has intriguing potential but isn’t considered a true top-tier prospect.
The Blue Jays made a noteworthy addition to their coaching ranks Monday, hiring Jaime Vieira as a minor league hitting coach per Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi. Vieira, a former softball standout and coach, is no stranger to the Toronto organization after spending the past two seasons with the club in various roles. Most recently she occupied a baseball operations research and development role last year, assisting the club with its 2021 draft among other tasks. The bump up to hitting coach reflects success in Vieira’s previously held roles as well as the continuation of an encouraging industry trend to seek out talented personnel regardless of gender. While Vieira is set to serve as the first female coach in the Toronto organization, this news comes in the wake of several other firsts this past week, including Rachel Balkovec’s ascension to manager in the Yankees organization and Genevieve Beacom becoming Australia’s first professional female baseball player.
Some other personnel notes from baseball’s eastern divisions…
- The Mets search for a bench coach under new skipper Buck Showalter continues, as Jon Heyman reports (via Twitter) that the team “checked in on” but was ultimately rebuffed by Grand Canyon University head coach Andy Stankiewicz. Showalter and Stankiewicz have some history, as the latter served as a utility man for Showalter’s Yankees in 1992 and 1993. This cordial refusal is the latest in a string of recent rejections for the Mets organization, who were denied a chance to speak with San Francisco pitching coach Andrew Bailey for their bench coach vacancy earlier today.
- The Nationals have made a smattering of recent hires, per Brittany Ghiroli and Maria Torres of The Athletic. Joe Dillon has returned to the organization as a minor league hitting coordinator after a few years as the Phillies’ major league hitting coach. The club has also hired Michael Schatz away from the Reds to serve as the organization’s lead research and development analyst. Lastly, GM Mike Rizzo has also welcomed three new special assistants to his front office: Willie Fraser and Mike Pagliarulo, recently with the Marlins, and Greg Hunter, who last served as a scout for the Mariners.
The Orioles have called Oriole Park at Camden Yards home for the last 30 seasons, and the team continues to negotiate with the Maryland Stadium Authority about the ballpark’s future and a lease extension. “The good news is both the Orioles and the stadium authority feel very strongly that we want to renew this partnership and that it’s been beneficial for all parties — the state, the city, the team,” Orioles senior VP of administration and experience Greg Bader told The Baltimore Sun’s Jeff Barker. The Orioles’ lease at Camden Yards is up in December 2023, though the club can decide by February 1, 2023 whether or not it wants to exercise a one-time, five-year extension that would run through 2028.
Given the mutual interest between the two sides, there doesn’t appear to be any concern that the Orioles would actually leave Baltimore, despite the uncertainty that often surrounds discussions of ballpark leases or renovations. Bader said the team is looking to upgrade OPACY to match “what a lot of newer or renovated ballparks have in terms of those social spaces, those areas for people to engage with baseball the way that people do today.” This could include loge seating, outdoor seating or concession areas, or a sportsbook, as “the Orioles are quite interested in finding the right sports gaming partner.” That said, Bader also stressed that old-school experience of watching a game at Camden Yards (the modern stadium that started the trend towards more retro, baseball-only venues) wouldn’t be significantly altered. “We’re not looking to upend the traditional side of a baseball park. We’re very confident that what makes Camden Yards so special would be able to be retained with whatever we do,” Bader said.
More from around the baseball world…
- Yimi Garcia’s two-year contract represents the Blue Jays’ biggest investment in their bullpen this offseason, and The Toronto Star’s Gregor Chisholm thinks the club might not spend big on any further new relievers. While relief pitching was a big weakness for much of the Jays’ 2021 campaign, the in-season acquisitions of Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards helped shore up a core group that also includes incumbent closer Jordan Romano and southpaw Tim Mayza. With other needs yet to be addressed, Chisholm figure the Blue Jays will spend bigger on the lineup and rotation: “keeping the stakes low [in the bullpen] is a logical approach so the larger bets can be saved for other areas.”
- In the latest edition of the Rates & Barrels podcast, The Athletic’s Derek VanRiper, Britt Ghiroli, and Eno Sarris discuss a variety of topics, including the Nationals’ struggles in player development, some hypothetical trade fits involving the Athletics, Blue Jays, and Mets, and the concept of Matt Chapman moving from third base to shortstop.
- Former Mets manager Bobby Valentine has received some consideration as a special assistant within the front office, according to The New York Post’s Mike Puma. It isn’t known whether Valentine is himself interested in such a role, as Valentine hasn’t been officially involved with a big league club since the Red Sox fired him as manager following the 2012 season. Valentine both played with the Mets in 1977-78 and then posted a 536-467 record while managing the club from 1996-2002, leading the Mets to the National League pennant in 2000.
The KBO League’s Kia Tigers have signed left-hander Sean Nolin to a one-year contract. As per Jeeho Yoo of Yonhap News, Nolin will earn $600K in guaranteed money ($250K signing bonus, $350K salary) and up to $300K more in incentives.
Nolin had re-signed with the Nationals on a minor league contract back in November, but it appears as though the club released him so Nolin could pursue the opportunity in the Korea Baseball Organization. This isn’t Nolin’s first time playing abroad, as he previously pitched in Japan with the Seibu Lions in 2020, tossing 21 1/3 innings with the NPB club.
The southpaw followed up that brief NPB stint with a return to North American baseball, via a minor league deal with the Nats that eventually led to a big league call-up. With 26 2/3 innings of 4.39 ERA ball with Washington, Nolin banked his first Major League action since way back in 2015, when he pitched for the A’s. Once a notable prospect in the Blue Jays farm system, Nolin pitched 31 1/3 MLB innings from 2013-15 before injuries waylaid his career, including a Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for all of the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Over 670 1/3 career frames in the minors with six different big league organizations, Nolin has a solid 3.48 ERA and 24.11% strikeout rate. He has worked as both a starter and a reliever, giving the Lions some flexibility in how they might deploy him on their 2022 roster.
- The Nationals have spent the last several months looking to overhaul their player development practices, and they went in-house to elevate De Jon Watson to the role of director of the player development department. In a two-part interview with The Athletic’s Maria Torres (part one, part two), Watson discusses the many steps both already made and in the works, plus he also shares his thought on some of the Nats’ most interesting prospects.
Cuban outfielder Cristian Vaquero leads the way, as the 16-year-old has already been linked to the Nationals. The 16-year-old is a bit of a work in progress at the plate, as Badler notes that Vaquero only somewhat recently became a switch-hitter rather than a pure left-handed hitter, though he does swing well from the left side. As for glovework, Vaquero is “a dynamic center fielder with plus speed, a strong arm and good defensive instincts for his age.”
For the first time since before Bryce Harper played for Washington, the Nationals are basement dwellers in the NL East for consecutive seasons. Coming off their title season in 2019, their 26-34 finish in the truncated 2020 was easy to write-off as a result of the pandemic, but after 97 losses in 2021, there’s little doubt left: the Nationals need a reboot.
- Stephen Strasburg, SP: $175MM through 2026 ($80MM deferred to 2027-2029)
- Patrick Corbin, SP: $82.25MM through 2024 ($10MM deferred to 2025)
- Will Harris, RP: $8MM in 2022
- Cesar Hernandez: $4MM in 2022
- Alcides Escobar: $1MM in 2022
- 2022 commitments: $71.42MM
- Total long-term commitments: $270.25MM
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Juan Soto – $16.2MM
- Josh Bell – $10MM
- Joe Ross – $3MM
- Erick Fedde – $1.9MM
- Victor Robles – $1.7MM
- Austin Voth – $1.0MM
- Andrew Stevenson – $850K
- Tanner Rainey – $800K
- Gerardo Parra, Ryan Zimmerman, Jordy Mercer, Alex Avila (retired), Mike Ford (DFA), Ryne Harper (DFA), Wander Suero (DFA)
It’s been barely two years since Howie Kendrick scraped paint off the Astros’ right field foul pole, but the mainstays from that 2019 title team are almost all gone now. The trade deadline deal that sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers was a gut punch for the fanbase and the unofficial end to the first competitive era of Nationals baseball. The Nats got their rings at what now seems like the last possible moment for the Scherzer/Strasburg era.
They weathered the loss of Harper for that one magical season, but since their road warrior heroics at Minute Maid Park, the franchise has been in relative disarray. Losing mainstays like Anthony Rendon and Sean Doolittle changed the complexion of the roster, but no loss will be felt quite like Scherzer and Turner. Scherzer and Turner are two of the more visually stunning talents in the game as well as two of the most productive at their positions. After years of enjoying the brute force of Scherzer’s personality and Turner’s whiplash-inducing speed/power combo, the Nats no longer offer a symphony of baseball talent to the crowds in Southeast DC – they now have a one-man-band.
That said: Juan Soto is a gem. Had the Nationals been anywhere near the playoffs, the 22-year-old might have his first MVP award. Instead, a .313/465/.534 campaign yielded “just” his first All-Star appearance and second silver slugger. He is the runner-up in MVP voting, somehow notching his third top-10 finish in four seasons. He might have the best plate discipline of any hitter since Barry Bonds, and despite his age, he’s now led the Majors in on-base percentage for two years running.
There is no praise too high for Soto. Given a league-wide re-draft, Soto would be a top-5 pick, full stop. The only thing keeping him from being among the highest jersey sales in the league is his market and physical skills that don’t jump out of the screen as it does for the three juniors, Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Even the downsides to his game are fairly innocuous: Soto won’t steal 30 bases, and he doesn’t play a premium position. Reach deep and you could say that his power is relatively mortal (.221 ISO this season, 29 home runs). He may not be a power hitter of the strictest order, but he’s on his way. It’s a tool in his toolbelt and an area of potential growth as he ages into his physical prime.
He’s not going to get any faster, but he has shown an ability and willingness to improve in the outfield, even as he shifted from left to right field. It’s certainly possible to imagine a future where Soto spends some time as a designated hitter, but that’s not going to bother Nats’ fans. Where he plays in the field isn’t nearly as pressing as which field he calls home.
With three years until Soto’s free agency, the Nationals have entered the countdown era. It’s easy to imagine the cloud of Soto’s potential departure hanging over this franchise much like Kris Bryant’s free agency timeline dominated narratives for the post-title Cubs. Unfortunately, as a Scott Boras client, Soto isn’t likely to surrender his leverage anytime soon. And it’s hard to ignore the Nats’ recent habit of letting giant stars walk out the door.
The optimists would cite Boras’ purportedly good relationship with Nats’ ownership. Sure, Rendon and Harper both walked, but it was unclear how fully committed the Nats were to bring them back. They committed to Strasburg, and he did return – for better or for worse.
For Soto, it ought to help that he already won a ring in Washington, but GM Mike Rizzo will probably have to convince ownership to make Soto the richest man in the game in order to lock him up long-term. Luckily, the Nats are one of many teams that can’t really be priced out for any one free agent. Whatever the cost, they can pay it if they’re willing.
Regardless, the next three seasons are likely to play out as an extended courtship wherein Rizzo and owner Mark Lerner try to convince Soto that they can build a competitive engine around him that’s worth helming. Ironically, the Nationals are asking the Majors’ walks and OBP leader for patience.
That process began in earnest with the Scherzer/Turner trade. The move wasn’t just about sucking a last bit of value from Scherzer before he departed in free agency. It kickstarted a retooling effort around Soto. That much was evident in their return package.
Josiah Gray stepped directly into Scherzer’s rotation spot, and they need to see him turn into a mid-rotation starter by the end of 2022. The big fish of the deal, however, was Keibert Ruiz, a long-touted catching prospect who may replace Victor Robles as Soto’s primary running mate on the position player side. Ruiz may not be a middle-of-the-order bat, but he makes contact, should hit for power, and if he turns into a first division catcher as expected, he’ll play a large role in managing the pitching staff.
Amazingly, entering his age-23 season, Ruiz will be young for a rookie in his first full season, and still older than Soto. Regardless, after posting a 101 wRC+ in 96 plate appearances, which included a particularly resilient end to the year (112 wRC+ in Sept/Oct), Ruiz will enter 2022 as Washington’s starting catcher. That’s an exciting development for Nats fans and a good first step to the “Courting Soto” era of Nats’ baseball, but it’s not enough to make them a contender.
Side note: Riley Adams, acquired from the Blue Jays for Brad Hand before the Dodgers’ deal, nicely complements Ruiz as the backup catcher, even if he does look as big as a house crouching behind the dish. After years of Matt Wieters underperformance and the steady-but-uninspiring upgrade to Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, the Nationals have their most exciting catchers’ room, perhaps, in franchise history.
Next to Soto in the outfield, Robles is the dream, but Lane Thomas is the reality. Acquired in an under-the-radar deal that sent Jon Lester to the Cardinals, Thomas took off while getting playing time as the Nats’ everyday centerfielder. The 26-year-old hit .270/.364/.489 in 206 plate appearances – easily the most opportunity he’s seen in the bigs. Thomas figures to see more chances in 2022, but what that means for Robles isn’t totally clear. Thomas could return to a fourth outfielder role, but since the Nats don’t currently have a left fielder, it’s difficult to speculate. Robles may have to play himself back into a regular role if he’s able.
As for left field, Yadiel Hernandez posted a solid 98 wRC+, though that number was dragged down by a 79 wRC+ in 55 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter. But he’s also 34-years-old and not probably more than a backup plan for Washington. Andrew Stevenson is the other name on the roster, and he’s proven best as a fourth or fifth option coming off the bench. There’s likely to be another outfielder to join this group once the lockout is resolved. Think Kyle Schwarber again, though probably not Kyle Schwarber again.
Another potential option that they explored in 2021 was using Josh Bell in left field. That’s not an ideal plan for a guy most people think is best-suited as a designated hitter. Bell could very well be dealt before the start of the season, but if not, he’s more likely to be the everyday first baseman and a break-in-case-of-emergency option in the grass.
At shortstop, Alcides Escobar made it back to the Majors for the first time in years, managed to play respectably, and earned a one-year, $1MM deal to stay in Washington. He’s the presumptive starter heading into the year, but the financial commitment isn’t exactly starter’s money. They could surprise everyone by making a play for Carlos Correa, and they could afford it, but there’s been little indication that Rizzo is ready to make that kind of splash this offseason.
That said, there’s not necessarily a shortstop of the future anywhere in the minors until you get to Jackson Cluff or young Brady House. The latter is years away and could end up at third base anyhow. Luis Garcia may be the answer the Nats are ready to settle on. He was a top prospect who was rushed to the Majors in 2020, and there have been growing pains since. He’s a second baseman, but since Cesar Hernandez was brought in on a one-year, $4MM deal, the keystone may be occupied. That could signal a desire for the 21-year-old to get more seasoning time in the minors, and it could mean that they are ready to let Garcia play short. Both options are somewhere in the playbook.
At the hot corner, time is running out for Carter Kieboom. The former top prospect is still just 24, but he’s put up successive seasons of 67 and 68 wRC+, and it’s not as if he’s been a stud with the glove. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of other options for the Nationals right now. They’ve been tied at times to Bryant, and it’s been suggested that they could be a landing spot for a salary dump like Mike Moustakas, but that’s all speculative for now.
For the first part of the offseason at least, the Nationals took a throw-as-many-options-at-the-wall-as-possible approach. They signed Dee Strange-Gordon, Maikel Franco, and Richard Urena to minor league contracts. They claimed fleet-footed Lucius Fox off waivers from the Orioles. They brought back long-time extra body Adrian Sanchez on a minor league deal. They snagged Andrew Young off waivers from the Diamondbacks. That’s a veteran group that looks very Nationals-y, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see one or a pair of them make the roster.
The real problem for the Nationals, however, is the pitching. The rotation is up there as the most uncertain group in all of baseball. Gray is still establishing himself, Strasburg is perennially injured, and Corbin was among the worst rotation arms in baseball last season. If he can figure out his slider, and Stras can get himself back on the mound, there’s some ceiling for this group, but it’s not a real likely potentiality.
Joe Ross (again) flashed some ability to be a mid-range starter, but he (again) finished the year on the injured list. Ross looks to have avoided Tommy John surgery for now, but the rest-and-rehab approach doesn’t always end well. Counting on Ross for quality innings is about as reckless as counting on Strasburg, Corbin, and Gray.
Josh Rogers and Paolo Espino would be in the 6-10 range for most organizations, but they are starters number four and five as of right now. Espino has been surprisingly productive for an older player without much Majors experience, and Rogers brings plenty of character, but not much of a track record. Erick Fedde and Austin Voth have both started without a whole lot of success, but they’re there in the bullpen just in case.
There are, however, some interesting arms on the horizon. Cade Cavalli is the biggest of the bunch, and he’s rising fast enough that he could surprise and make it to the Majors next year. The Nationals need Cavalli to stay healthy and develop into an impact arm. He looked the part in Double-A before getting touched up a bit in seven starts in Triple-A, where he should return to start 2022. Jackson Rutledge, Aldo Ramirez, Andry Lara, and Mason Denaburg are all names worth tracking, but they aren’t near enough to the Majors to make a difference.
For prospect arms capable of logging significant big league innings, look to Seth Romero, Joan Adon, Gerardo Carrillo, or maybe Evan Lee, all of whom are on the 40-man roster. Cole Henry is highly thought of within the organization, but he has just 8 starts in High-A and would have to be added to the 40-man. Carrillo was part of the Scherzer trade, and though he’s not a top prospect, an organization change always sets off alarms for a development jump. There’s no explicit evidence for that jump yet, and he has yet to make a stop in Triple-A.
On the whole, the Nats are beginning to put together an interesting collection of depth arms, but they don’t have the foundational pieces in the Majors. Not in the rotation, and not in the bullpen. They big adieu to Suero, a regular-use, one-pitch setup arm that’s been in the bullpen for years, and they DFA’ed Ryne Harper as well, another veteran option. Will Harris is the most proven arm remaining in the pen, but he hasn’t been healthy enough to prove it since yielding that long ball to Kendrick while with the Astros way back when.
Kyle Finnegan laid claim to the closer’s role, saving 11 games over 68 appearances with a 3.55 ERA/4.62 FIP. He’d be a useful arm in a first division pen, but not someone to build around. Tanner Rainey has the best stuff, but he took a step back last year and has struggled with consistency throughout his career. There’s a world in which Rainey goes big-time in ’22, but as with most of the Nats’ arms, Rainey’s stardom is more dream than reality right now.
Patrick Murphy was an interesting pickup worth watching as a guy who can go short or long, depending on need. The rest of the bullpen is very much a work in progress with Fedde, Voth, and late-developing Andres Machado highest on the pecking order.
In the first part of free agency, the Nationals weren’t very active, and it shows in the state of their roster. They need a left fielder and a DH/first baseman to split time with Bell if the DH arrives in the National League. Zimmerman could return still, and he’d fit nicely on a cheap contract as a right-handed complement for Bell, but he’s not an everyday player anymore.
They could stand upgrades at shortstop and third base, though it’s probably not worth displacing Garcia/Kieboom unless they get a significant star (and that seems unlikely this offseason). Besides, any money they have to spend should really be committed to pitching, though there’s not as much available on the free-agent market.
Long-term, Corbin has “just” three years left on his deal, so there’s light at the end of the tunnel. As of now, they’re still roughly $50MM under their 2021 payroll, and even that $162MM number was their lowest in years. Strasburg’s money is significant, and Boras willing, they’ll plunk down a king’s ransom for Soto at some point. But otherwise, their ledger is mostly empty. Unfortunately, so is their talent pool.
The Nationals are a slow-and-steady franchise, and with the most patient superstar in baseball now the centerpiece of their organization, they’re playing for the future. With just three years left of team control for Soto, that future is fast approaching. The Nats will strike to build a contender around Soto before he leaves. We know that much. We just don’t know the when or the how. To crack those codes, all we need is patience.
Last winter, Josh Bell found himself on the move. The Pirates, the only team for which he’d played in his career, were amidst a full rebuild. Bell was down to his final two seasons of arbitration control, and his escalating salaries were accounting for a larger percentage of Pittsburgh’s annually low payrolls.
Bell’s value last winter was complicated by a subpar 2020 showing. While he seemed to break out as a middle-of-the-order slugger with a .277/.367/.569 showing the year before, the switch-hitter stumbled during the shortened season. Bell appeared in 57 of the Bucs’ 60 games but he hit only .226/.305/.364 across 223 plate appearances. Of perhaps even greater concern, his strikeout rate spiked from 19.2% to a career-high 26.5%.
In need of a first baseman, the Nationals took a shot on a Bell bounceback. Washington acquired the Texas native for a pair of pitching prospects, Eddy Yean and Wil Crowe. While Bell didn’t completely regain his 2019 numbers, that move largely paid off for Nats’ general manager Mike Rizzo and his staff.
The 29-year-old appeared in 144 games and tallied 568 trips to the plate this past season. His 27 home runs were the second most of his career, trailing only his 37 longballs from 2019. Overall, Bell hit .261/.347/.476, an offensive showing that checked in 18 percentage points above the league average by measure of wRC+.
In addition to the improved results, Bell seemingly rediscovered his better process at the dish. He cut his strikeouts back to their typical range, punching out in only 17.8% of his plate appearances (about five points lower than average). His rate of contact on swings rebounded to 77.4% after cratering to 69% during his down year in 2020. Those better bat-to-ball skills came without sacrificing contact authority. Bell’s average exit velocity (92.5 MPH) and hard contact rate (52%) in 2021 were each career bests.
The one alarming aspect of Bell’s batted ball profile that carried over from 2020 was an uptick in ground-balls. While he’d only put 44% of his batted balls on the ground in his 2019 peak season, that spiked to 55.7% in 2020 and checked in at 53.5% this year. So Bell gave back some of the impact of his hard contact by hitting the ball into the turf, explaining why his power numbers didn’t bounce all the way back to 2019 form.
Even still, Bell had a decent season. His numbers were a bit better than the .257/.338/.454 leaguewide mark from first basemen. His 2019 campaign offers a hint of further offensive potential, and Bell had a quietly strong second half. From the All-Star Break onward, he hit .277/.381/.506 with more walks than strikeouts (albeit with a still concerning 55.9% grounder percentage).
That largely went unnoticed, though, because Washington had since fallen out of contention. While the Nats had hoped that a Bell resurgence would be part of a team-wide bounceback that’d keep them competitive in the NL East, things didn’t play out that way. Washington hovered around the periphery of contention for the season’s first few months, but a mid-July swoon kicked off a deadline teardown and organizational reboot.
Bell wasn’t part of that midseason sell-off, but there figures to be a bit more interest around the league after his strong play down the stretch. He’s now entering his final year of club control, and the Nationals don’t seem to have a plausible path to contention next season. It’s not clear Washington wants to entertain a multi-year rebuild — with Juan Soto under club control for three more seasons, there’s not much time to dawdle — but Bell’s ticketed for free agency next winter anyhow. Trading him coming out of the lockout wouldn’t be a sign of a longer-term rebuild so much as a recognition of their unlikely contention status in 2022.
The first base market didn’t move much before the transactions freeze. Freddie Freeman’s status seems to linger over both free agency and trade possibilities. Beyond Freeman, Anthony Rizzo remains on the open market. The A’s seem likely to trade Matt Olson. Perhaps the Yankees will move Luke Voit. Some of those dominoes may have to fall before there’s much progress on a potential Bell trade.
At a projected $10MM arbitration salary, he’s not going to bring back a return as strong as Oakland would get for Olson or New York would recoup for Voit. There’ll be teams in the Freeman/Olson markets who don’t land those stars, though. The upcoming collective bargaining agreement may introduce a universal designated hitter, leaving some National League clubs looking for another bat. Some of those teams figure to see Bell as a viable alternative to the market’s costlier options. Given the Nationals’ current competitive situation, it wouldn’t be too surprising if he’s donning a different uniform for the third straight year come Opening Day.
When a team wants to subtract some salary from its ledger, it can sometimes arrange a trade that packages a well-paid veteran player with some prospects. The team on the receiving end effectively “buys” the prospects by taking on the unwanted salary of that veteran. The most recent example of this was the trade that sent Hunter Renfroe to the Brewers, with the Red Sox receiving Jackie Bradley Jr., along with infield prospects David Hamilton and Alex Binelas.
Renfroe was projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz for a salary of $7.6MM in 2022, while Bradley will earn $9.5MM in 2022 and then there is a mutual option for 2023 that comes with a $12MM salary and $8MM buyout. Given Bradley’s horrible season at the plate in 2021, the Brewers wanted to get rid of that contract, and were willing to part with a couple of prospects to do it while still getting back a useful piece. The Red Sox, for their part, will take on that salary, hoping for a bounceback from Bradley. But even if that doesn’t happen, they will have bolstered their farm at least.
For other teams that want to follow the Brewers and shuffle a contract around, they might want to start by contacting the Nationals. After a massive trade deadline selloff in 2021, their current payroll is the lowest it’s been in years. Jason Martinez of Roster Resource estimates that they’re currently lined up for an opening day number of $118MM. The last time they were below that was 2012, the year 19-year-old Bryce Harper made his debut. In the past four years, they’ve been between $180MM and $200MM, prorating 2020’s number. (Past figures from Cot’s Baseball Contracts.)
The club is looking to “reboot” for a year or two, but seems to want to return to competing before superstar Juan Soto reaches free agency after the 2024 season. That means they are in position for this type of deal, as long as it’s a contract of the short-term variety. They could add to the young talent they acquired in their 2021 fire sale, while not limiting their ability to make a big move or two for the 2024 campaign and beyond.
The White Sox ran a franchise-high payroll in 2021 and are currently lined up to blow past that in 2022. Trading Craig Kimbrel, who has one year and $16MM remaining on his contract, appears to be in their plans. Another option would be Dallas Keuchel, who will make $18MM in 2022. He also has a $20MM club option for 2023 with a $1.5MM buyout, although that option would also vest if Keuchel throws 160 innings in 2022. The White Sox finished dead last on Baseball America’s most recent Organization Talent Rankings, meaning that sending some prospects out the door might not be the top of their to-do list. (The Nats, despite their big deadline haul, came in 23rd.) However, Chicago’s window of contention is wide open, standing out as the current favourite in the AL Central, meaning their priority should be the present and not the future. For the Nationals, they have lots of question marks on their pitching staff after trading away so many arms. Their staff is mostly composed of unproven youngsters, to go along with veterans like Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Will Harris, who come with question marks of their own.
The Rays have never been shy about moving their more expensive veteran players, trading away Blake Snell, Tommy Pham and many others in recent years. Kevin Kiermaier’s name has been floated as someone else who could follow them out of The Trop, seemingly ever since they signed him to an extension in 2017. That extension is now entering its final guaranteed year, with Kiermaier set to make just over $12MM in 2022, though there’s also a $2.5MM buyout on a $13MM club option for 2023. The Nats don’t really have anyone who should be guaranteed an outfield job, other than Soto. Lane Thomas had a strong showing after coming over from the Cardinals, but that was a small sample of just 45 games.
The Reds are trying to thread the needle of dropping payroll yet staying competitive. Mike Moustakas is owed $38MM over the final two years of his contract, including the buyout of a 2024 club option, and he’s been somewhat crowded out by the breakout campaign of Jonathan India. By moving Moustakas, they could hold onto their highly-coveted starting pitcher trio of Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Tyler Mahle. The Nats probably want Carter Kieboom to get a long run of playing time at third, but Moustakas could split time at second with Cesar Hernandez and act as a fallback plan in the event Kieboom struggles to secure the job. The implementation of the DH for the NL would also help spread the at-bats around. Shogo Akiyama is another option, as he had a rough campaign in 2021 and still has one year and $8MM remaining on his contract.
There are dozens of other options, as most teams have a contract that they wouldn’t mind getting off the books a year or two early. Some other rapidfire examples: Jake Odorizzi, Carlos Santana, Justin Upton, Randal Grichuk, David Price, Wil Myers, Jurickson Profar, Paul DeJong.
With the Nats about $60MM to $80MM below their recent spending levels, they have a lot of room to work with. Though they’d surely like to keep payroll a bit lower during this rebooting phase, they’d also be wise to at least consider “buying” a few prospects to help them quickly build back up. After all, Soto won’t be interested in signing an extension until the club proves they’re trying to win. Spending some money now to improve the future could be one way of trying to convince him.
- Relief pitching has been an issue for the Nationals for years, and in looking ahead to next season, the Nats have already acquired Francisco Perez from the Guardians and added three relievers in the minor league Rule 5 Draft. As The Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty notes, this can help the Nationals augment a bullpen that has already parted ways with several members of its 2021 relief corps, and is lacking in homegrown minor league relievers who could provide immediate help.
The Montreal Expos drafted Chad Cordero 20th overall in 2003 out of Cal State Fullerton, and months later he was in the Majors as a member of their bullpen. Chad had a fine season as part of the last-ever Expos team in ’04. By the time this website launched in ’05, the inaugural Nationals season, he was the best reliever on the planet. Cordero saved an MLB-best 47 games that year, posted a 1.82 ERA, made the All-Star team, and received MVP and Cy Young votes.
Cordero went on to save 128 games in his excellent career, all with the Expos/Nationals from 2003-07. He also appeared briefly for the Mariners in 2010 before deciding to retire.
After enjoying our chat with fellow Fullerton alum Christian Colon, Chad reached out because he loves chatting with baseball fans. We were thrilled to host him. Chad was generous with his time and gave thoughtful answers to questions. Read the transcript of the Chad Cordero chat here.
Since MLBTR readers have enjoyed our chats with MLB players, I’ll keep trying to line them up! If you’re a current or former MLB player who would like to participate, please send us an email. It only takes an hour, and you get to choose which questions you publish and answer!