As we near the one week mark before pitchers and catchers report for the 2021 season, the Washington Nationals have been relatively quiet. In the past week, Washington has reunited with veteran outfielder Gerardo Parra and signed 34-year-old shortstop Jordy Mercer to minor league deals. Both players will be invited to spring training with a chance to make the team, but these are far from the final move fans were clamoring for to push this roster over the top.
The consensus from around the baseball world seems to be that Washington is one bat away from becoming a legit World Series contender. Currently, FanGraphs has the Nationals projected to win 83 games. That would place them third in their own division, behind the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, and fifth in the entire National League (ahead of the predicted NL Central winners). With no expanded playoffs in 2021, under these projections, Washington would miss the postseason.
83 wins seems like a pretty respectable mark for this current roster. I think most people would agree that this team, if healthy, could win somewhere from 81-89 games. Now there’s a shot that would be enough for the Nationals to qualify for the postseason as a wild card. In 2019 the Milwaukee Brewers were the second wild card team with 89 wins, but even if they are able to sneak into the postseason with a high eighty win total, can they really match up with the heavyweights of the National League? Well, Mike Rizzo and company seem to believe so, or at least are making it seem that way.
Currently, the Nationals are $16,492,676 away from the 2021 luxury tax threshold of $210,000,000, according to Spotrac. This is plenty of room to acquire a mid-tier bat, even if they want to retain five to six million for potential mid-season acquisitions. There are a few reasons why Washington could be deciding not to spend their remaining money.
One, the most simple answer, is they just don’t feel any player on the open market is worth the money they are demanding. I find this hard to believe when veteran infielder Jonathan Villar just signed with the Mets for $3.5 million. Players want to find jobs this close to camp, and it’s hard to believe current free agents would be demanding high-level money.
The second, and most likely scenario, is they trust in what they have. Like it or not, Washington still has high hopes for third basemen Carter Kieboom. It’s mid-February and they haven’t dealt him. As much as some Nationals’ fans won’t want to hear it, if they were going to part ways, they would have done it by now. At some point, you do have to see what you got with Kieboom and giving him the first half of the season to prove himself is not an awful strategy.
The Washington front office is also hoping for bounce-back years from Victor Robles, Yan Gomes, Josh Bell, and Kyle Schwarber. And don’t forget that Starlin Castro comes back healthy this season, and Nationals’ manager Dave Martinez has a clear admiration and belief in the infielder.
Finally, the third, and most exciting reason for saving their money could be that Washington is setting itself up for the future. At the end of the 2021 season, Max Scherzer becomes a free agent. At the end of the 2022 season, Trea Turner will follow. Two years later, Juan Soto will hit the open market. Turner and Soto’s free agency may seem far away now, but just think about how quickly Bryce Harper’s final years in D.C. went by.
The Nationals could be looking at the roughly $16 million they have to spend this season and think, instead of spending this on adding another player this season, what if we wait and use it for some extensions? If they don’t sign another player to a Major League contract this winter, Washington could be looking at being $66 million under the tax entering next offseason. This easily would give them enough to bring Scherzer back on a two or three-year deal, and potentially be enough to lock up Turner or Soto long-term.
If I’m being completely honest, the Nationals are probably sticking with their current roster because they believe it’s capable of winning at a high level. They’ve built themselves on dominant starting pitching, and they have a chance to once again have that this season. But the faith they have in this roster may turn out to be a positive down the road if they are able to take the money left over from this offseason and keep some of their stars in Washington a little longer.
Like it or not, the Nationals are going with what they got. Now it’s time to sit back, and hope it’s enough to make it back to the postseason.