The message of the moment, from Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Arizona, is that spending smart beats the dollar dumpster fires set by the Mets, Angels and Padres.
These days, your best deals are often the ones that didn’t get made. Washington illustrates the double-edged point. The Nats are burdened by a $245 million deal with Stephen Strasburg through 2026 at $35 million a year. Patrick Corbin, essential to the title but a horrid 21-51 since, is off the books after 2024. Then, free at last.
What’s easy to forget is that the Nats’ predicament could have been so much worse.
The $440 million and $215 million offers that Soto and Rendon turned down, and the free agent auctions the Nats refused to enter that brought Turner $300 million and Scherzer $130 million, may turn out to be the best billion dollars of deals never made. In real-time sequencing, the Nats would never have signed all of them. But if, for example, they’d just gone full-market on Soto and Turner, they’d have dug a payroll Grand Canyon.
Right now, the positions held in the Nats’ title run by those four wonderful stars, who’ll earn north of $125 million this season, are held by Abrams, 22; Gray, 25; Thomas, 27; and Candelario, 29, who earn $8.7 million. Combined.
You’ll never find a better illustration of MLB’s wicked sense of humor, as well as the foolishness of most massive contracts, than the current stats of those players.
The three current Nats have 921 plate appearances (through Tuesday’s games, which is the case for all the numbers that follow). The trio of ex-Nats have 855. The three obscure Nats have more runs (124-111), hits (225-185), doubles (60-41), homers (31-23) and RBI (113-91), with a higher average (.267-.256). The three Nats are even out-slugging the three “superstars” by quite a bit: .463 to .414.
Meanwhile, with the National League’s 11th-best ERA (3.43), Gray deserves all-star consideration. Because he’s made more starts than Scherzer, who’s been on the injured list for the fourth straight season, Gray has a higher WAR (2.3 to 1.3) than Scherzer, per Baseball-Reference.com. For the future, what a smart swap: Josiah for Max. Good for the Nats, that is.
I was as cheerfully dumbfounded to figure all this out as I am completely unwilling to project it into the future.
The Nats still project to lose 98 games with the second-fewest homers and the fifth-worst ERA in MLB. That’s reality. But it’s also real that considering their ages, contracts and probable futures, the Nats are lucky to have Gray and Abrams as long-term core players.
Thomas is stolen money. General Manager Mike Rizzo heisted him from the Cards for Jon Lester, who won four more games, then retired.
Then, Thomas had a .172 career average. Now, Thomas is either having one heck of a career year or he’s an out-of-the-blue five-tooler.
With the season near midpoint, leadoff man Lane, the fastest Nat, is on pace for 113 runs, 43 doubles, 29 homers, 88 RBI and 14 steals with a .299 average and .864 OPS. He’s one off the NL lead in outfield assists. Such numbers would almost twin Rendon in ’17 and ’18.
More indicative of a plausible Thomas future may be his 120 OPS+, 105 extra-base hits and 5.5 WAR in 1,088 plate appearances over three Nats years. Compare that with the OPS+ in their time as Nats of Turner (120), Ryan Zimmerman (116), Jayson Werth (113) or Adam LaRoche (112). Under team control through 2025, Thomas should be a keeper.
Candelario, on pace for 51 doubles, 21 homers and a 123 OPS+, is more likely a valuable one-year Rizzo Rental, like reliever Matt Capps, who was an all-star in 2010 and then, just days later, fetched prospect Wilson Ramos at the trade deadline.
It’s a different story for clubs holding the Nats’ former stars. Max and the Mets are 16 games out of first place. Both Scherzer, 38, and Justin Verlander, 2-4 at 40, are owned $43,333,333 in 2024 — not round, not nice numbers.
Pity the Angels, too, as fans have said for 62 of the last 63 years. The latest SoCal lotus eater appears to be Rendon, who’s hit .238 while missing more games than he has played the past three years. At least he has a homer this year — one. If you took his name off his baseball card, I’d study the back and say, “This guy is washed up at 33.” Luckily, from today forward, he’s only owed about $135 million.
Phillies fans must look at Turner’s .247 average, .688 OPS and declining range at shortstop and shudder at 10 more seasons after this one — all at $27.3 million. Trea turns 30 this week. The Phils will still have him at 40. In between, he’ll have more big years. At what position?
The Dodgers didn’t pursue Trea after realizing his range was average, and he was a serial killer of double plays. This season, Trea’s been in 21 double plays while the acrobatic Abrams has been in an MLB-leading 49.
Abrams, who leads all shortstops in total chances, also reaches 4.49 balls per nine innings to Turner’s 3.47. A gap of one whole “chance” a game!? Abrams has plenty to learn, like cutting his errors. But he’s already in the top half of NL shortstops in RBI, slugging, steals and OPS.
Soto hasn’t been too bad in San Diego. Although he hasn’t been quite as good as 31-year-old vagabond Joey Meneses, who inherited Soto’s lineup slot last season.
Since then, Meneses has hit .303 with 15 homers, 73 RBI and 120 runs produced (runs plus RBI minus homers) in 130 games. In 131 games with the Padres, Soto has hit .257 with 20 homers, 57 RBI and 113 runs produced.
Do I hear $440 million? Going once … Oh, never mind.
In pro sports, the bright glories of the past are often transformed in a few years into the gloomy clouds of the present. “It didn’t have to be this way,” we say, arguing with history to rewrite itself. But, at times, fresh facts smack us in the face. They say, “Maybe a rethink is in order.”
Clear sight helps us enjoy what’s still worth watching. The Nats have been crushed by the Strasburg sorrow, Corbin’s immolation after doing double duty in the playoffs and the failure of farm products like Erick Fedde, Carter Kieboom, and, except for one year, Victor Robles.
Like contenders my whole lifetime, the Nats also traded quality prospects, almost every year, to chase that Series with key veterans. Players they counted on then, like Adam Eaton, Howie Kendrick, Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Brian Dozier, Aníbal Sánchez and Gerardo (Baby Shark) Parra have retired, or soon will.
But let’s remove one distraction from our discussions as we endure these years of rebuilding. The Nats’ problem is not that they let beloved stars get away because they wouldn’t pay what it took to keep them.
It’s now clear that is the biggest thing they did right.