This has to be the year.

I’m not going to write about how Washington beat the Nats in the home opener yesterday. I already went ballistic about that on twitter.

So, instead, I’m going to write about why you should be “all-in” (God, I hate that expression) on the 2014 Nats. No, it’s not because my projection has them winning 96 games.

Rather, it’s because of this article in the Post. In it, Adam Kilgore talks to Nats principal owner Mark Lerner. What Uncle Mark says  about the Nats payroll going forward is not very encouraging:

“We’re beyond topped out,” Lerner said. “Our payroll has skyrocketed to like $140 million. It’s in the papers. I don’t think we can go much further with the revenue streams that we have.”

* * * *

“We take it one at a time,” Lerner said. “We’ll look at it after the season as far as what we can do. We went into this thing, it’s a business. We’ve got to run it smartly. We’re not going to do something where we’re losing tens of millions of dollars a year. Anybody can understand that. We’re going to be smart.”

 

First of all, the Nats payroll is not “like, 140 million.” According to Baseball Reference, in 2014, the Nats have committed $135.8 million in guaranteed salary in 2014. That’s a lot of money, but it’s not 140 million. The difference of $ 4.2 million could have gotten you another Nate McLouth, say. Or one year of Hyun-Jin Ryu as a left handed starting pitcher. So it’s not chump change.

But things start getting hairy, fast. Let’s look at the young core and see where the trouble might come from:

  • The Nats bought out Ian Desmond’s remaining arbitration years this offseason in a two-year, $17.5 million dollar deal. That means, barring an extension at the end of 2015, Ian Desmond will hit the open market in 2016.
  • Likewise, the Nats bought out Jordan Zimmermann’s arbitration years. He’s under contract for 2014 and 2015, for a total of $24 million. Barring an extension, he will also become a free agent in 2016.
  • The Nats have opted instead to go year-to-year with Stephen Strasburg. In 2014, he’s owed $3.975 million. He would remain arbitration-eligible until 2017, at which point he, too, will become a free agent.
  • Drew Storen is also year-to-year, and still arbitration-eligible after this year. He’s making $3.45 million this year. He will become a free agent in 2017.
  • Bryce Harper’s free agent days are a long way away. In 2014, he’ll make $0.9 million. (That’s right, less than one million dollars) He’s under contract through 2015, after which he’d be eligible for arbitration. He won’t become a free agent until 2018, by my count.

What’s it going to take to keep all of these guys around? I don’t know. But we can make a few guesses.

Desmond is the second-best shortstop in the National League, behind the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki and ahead of the Braves Andrelton Simmons. Both of those guys are under long-term contracts, so it’s worth looking at them. In 2011, the Rockies gave Tulo a 10-year, $157.75 million dollar contract. The Braves just extended Andrelton Simmons for 7 years at $58 million, heavily back-loaded. It’s not unreasonable to think that Desmond would demand Tulo-type money on the free agent market. So, 10 years, $160 to $170 million. Call it $16.5 million a year for 10 years. That bill comes due in 2016.

Jordan Zimmermann is likely going to hit the open market. What’s he worth? It’s harder to find comparables for pitchers. But recent research over at Beyond the Box Score tells us that a Win Above Replacement is worth about $7 million a year these days. Jordan Zimmermann is a pretty good pitcher. He’s worth about 3 wins above replacement a year. Fine. That’s $21 million a year right there. That bill also comes due in 2016. We can do the same for Storen. He’s worth about a third of a WAR every year. So call it $2 million a year, coming due in 2016, too.

Same deal with Strasburg. He’s worth anywhere between 3 and 4 WAR a year. Say we believe the hype. Fine. That’s anywhere between $21 and $28 million a year, starting in 2017.

And Harper? His West Coast analog, Mike Trout, just signed a 6-year $144.5 million extension with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Orange County California. The new contract takes effect in 2015, comes with full no-trade protection, and works out to an average annual value of $24 million a year. Harper’s going to want that kind of money, and if the Nats won’t give it to him, the Yankees probably will (thus fulfilling Harper’s lifelong dream of wearing Yankee pinstripes) .

So the young core that, all together, costs the Nats $22.3 million in 2014 will cost something on the order of $88.5 million a year, collectively, in 2018.

Seen in the context of Lerner’s “payroll limit” talk, here’s what it means for you, Nats town: if you like these nats–that is, if you like these players and enjoy seeing them on the field together, enjoy them while you can. There is no way–none–that the current ownership group is going to tolerate a payroll spike of that magnitude.

Remember, the Lerners acquired the Nationals franchise from MLB for $450 million in 2006. I’m not aware of any details as to the club’s finances, but it’s pretty safe to assume that the acquisition was heavily debt-financed. It’s a sound business practice to take on considerable debt to buy a business, then transfer the debt to the business. So the Nationals, as an organization, probably have a lot of debt service to pay every year. That acts as a brake on profits and investment in the business (in this case, players).

This is to say nothing about the continued swindle that is the MASN deal, that sees Nats TV dollars shipped to Baltimore. Of course, it’s also speculated that the Lerners (or the Nats, it’s not clear) are getting kickbacks to prevent them from pursuing the MASN matter more vigorously.

So look out onto that field and dream big, Nats town. Dream hard. Dream as if your very ability to dream depended on it. Because soon, this team that Rizzo built, that we all came to see? It will be gone. As Denard Span so famously said on Twitter just before Opening day: it’s our time.

 

A quick thought on Independence Day

As you celebrate Independence Day, think of this.

Yasiel Puig. Yu Darvish. Yoenis Cespedes. Hisashi Iwakuma. 

Just a few of the international free agents the Nats did not (or could not) sign. Perhaps with a market-rate TV rights deal in place, they could have done so. But, because of the MASN deal, the Nats don’t even get close to half of their TV revenue–the bulk goes to the Orioles.

 

Read These Things

In Rizzo We Trust

In Rizzo We Trust: the motto of the day in Nats Town.

I hope you all enjoyed the off day as much as I did.

No, that’s a lie. I hope you enjoyed it better than I did. I felt like I had nothing to do. I watched a Hong Kong gangster flick that was pretty good, but not nearly as fun as watching the Nats these days.

Anyway, you need to read the following things: