Some Fresh, Clear, Well-Seasoned Perspective
The Nationals can’t seem to do anything right anymore. This offseason the players they’ve actually acquired (Yusmeiro Petit, Oliver Perez, Shawn Kelley, Stephen Drew, Daniel Murphy, Trevor Gott and Ben Revere) pale in comparison to those they were linked to and didn’t (Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Brandon Phillips, Darren O’Day, Mike Leake, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes). Because of this everyone from the guy at your work who says Roark not Roark to national columnists have dubbed this a disappointing offseason to follow up a disappointing season.
And of course they have a nifty narrative to tie all those disappointments together: the players didn’t simply sign with another team, they actively avoided the Nationals like a barrel of toxic waste. Many blame it on the continued presence of Jonathan Papelbon, already forgetting that the reaction from players around the league ranged from indifference to congratulatory pats on the back for Papelbon. Others have repeated vague claims of “strong personalities” and “clubhouse issues” but offer little in specifics. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because there isn’t some grand conspiracy surrounding why the Nationals only ended up with that first list of players; which if you didn’t notice, is a pretty good list on its own.
Perhaps, the list of players the Nationals missed on is so long because they were staying involved in a deep free agent class with plenty of high profile targets, rather than the 2-3 in a normal year. And if you go case-by-case, you’ll notice that pretty much every player they were involved with and didn’t sign had a significantly better offer that they took instead. Zobrist chose the Cubs 4 years/$56 million over the Nats “heavily deferred” (according to Peter Gammons) 4 years/$60 million. O’Day took the Orioles guaranteed 4th year over the Nats’ team option. Heyward took the Cubs’ 8 year/$184 million contract with two(!) opt outs over the Nats’ 10 years/$200 million. Cespedes chose the Mets 3 years/$75 million deal with an opt out after a year over the Nats 5 year/$110 million contract which after deferrals was worth only about $77 million according to that same Gammons article. As for Phillips, he tried to leverage a no-trade clause into extra years on his already bad contract.
Zobrist can claim to be wary of the Nats’ clubhouse and Cespedes can claim to love the Mets as much as they want, but at the end of the day it’s pretty clearly all about the money, which it should be. Money talks and it says “sign with my baseball club.”
The real question that should be asked of this offseason is whether the Nationals’ offers were sufficient or if they should have tried harder to sign some of these players. While their short-lived attempts to sign Upton and Cespedes looked pretty clearly to be strictly bargain hunting, the same can’t be said for Zobrist, O’Day and Heyward. If any of these players were someone the Nationals needed to have at any cost no matter how unreasonable, then they failed. I’m not sure any of these players were though, outside of perhaps Heyward. And I think the Nats made reasonable, if losing, bids.
Additionally, it’s easy to see from the paragraph above how much the Nats’ deferrals hurt their originally strong offers. It’s not hard to envision Zobrist and Cespedes choosing the Nationals instead if the sticker price was the same as what they actually would have got. The Nationals recently claimed that the MASN deal has tied their hands in how they manage expenses, but I’m not completely convinced by that. Yes, getting only about $40 million a year for their TV rights, rather than the over $60 million they got in arbitration or $100+ million they’re likely worth should put a dent in the budget. However, with player salaries sharing in only about 38% of total revenues in MLB, it’s likely that every owner is being dishonest about how much money is really available for players. But then that’s an every team problem, not specifically a Nationals issue.
Finally, the other big topic of the offseason was opt outs. The two opt outs Heyward received from the Cubs were a big reason why he chose them, same with Cespedes’ one-year opt out from the Mets and Upton’s second year opt out from the Tigers. Other non-Nats targets like David Price, Johnny Cueto, Wei-Yin Chen, Ian Kennedy and Scott Kazmir all got one too, often very early in a longer term deal. The Nationals reportedly offered one to Yoenis Cespedes, but didn’t to any other player this offseason. If the opt out is going to become a requirement for big player deals from now on, they’ll have to change their tune fast.
All of this to say that there is a difference between disappointing and bad. Getting excited by the Nationals pursuit of a high profile free agent and being disappointed when they don’t snag them is a normal reaction. However, it doesn’t mean the Nationals failed or aren’t seriously trying to improve the team. Their heavy involvement this offseason in fact shows the opposite, that the Nats front office is not comfortable resting on its laurels and is dedicated to building a great team, within normal cost restrictions. While the Nats don’t have quite the firepower of their 2013-15 squads, they’ve put a solid team together in a division with only one other solid team, we’re not back in 2009 yet.