The Risks and Rewards Of The Washington Nationals Keeping The Band Together
At the beginning of 2019’s Major League Baseball season, the Washington Nationals were a popular prediction among many baseball writers and pundits to win the World Series. And yet, the fact that they in fact, did go on to win the World Series would shock the baseball world. This was due to the fact that, as hyped as they had been in the preseason, their season almost came to a crashing halt right out of the gate. Starting off to a disastrous 19–31 record, many of the same pundits who had annointed the Nationals then proceeded to attempt to bury them, with speculation running rampant that manager Davey Martinez would be fired.
Of course, it was not to be, as the Nationals then stormed back for the remainder of the regular season, then knocked off two heavily favored juggernaut teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros, in the postseason. Since then, everything in Washington sports world has been a nonstop party, with the Nationals even sharing the festivities with one of their fellow DC teams, hockey’s Capitals. But even a weekend-long party gives way to the workweek ahead, and the Nationals’ party will soon leave them with an offseason that will require a lot of work for them to have another shot at keeping the party going in DC for years to come.
The Nationals will have to jump right into the thick of things as the baseball offseason opens. Although there were many heroes of this year’s Nationals team, two of the most indisuputably important would be Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. Rendon, the slugging third baseman who, by measures both standard (batting average, RBIs) and advanced (wins above replacement, or WAR) was one of the best hitters in baseball, will likely finish in the top five in MVP voting and came up with huge hits in the playoffs. Strasburg pitched like an ace during the regular season, with a 3.32 earned run average and over 250 strikeouts, and in the postseason he went to another level entirely, turning in a performance worthy of the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner and winning World Series MVP. The problem for the Nationals is that they could lose both this offseason; Rendon is a free agent, and while Strasburg had four years left on his current contract extension, yesterday he exercised the opt out clause that would allow him to become a free agent.
Both players are represented by notorious super-agent Scott Boras, renowned for getting the highest possible dollar value for his clients in every contract, often to the consternation of fanbases who come to regret their teams making expensive deals for his players. And, after all, the Nationals obviously did not suffer from letting star outfielder Bryce Harper (another Boras client) leave last offseason; could not Strasburg or (especially) Rendon’s production be replaced more cheaply?
Paying to bring a World Series winning team back the next year can have its downsides, after all. Just ask the 2018 World Series-winning Boston Red Sox. In the wake of their championship, they paid a premium to resign several key players from that team, such as first baseman Steve Pearce and pitcher Nathan Eovaldi. Come 2019, both players were either injured, ineffective, or both, and the Red Sox found their payroll overextended with the free agency of their (and all of baseball’s) 2018 MVP, Mookie Betts, looming. Now under a new front office after having fired President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski, the Sox face the grim prospect of having to trade Betts this offseason or risk letting him walk for nothing.
The Nationals, however, are in a different situation with a different set of players, one where bringing the key players back would make more sense. Pearce and Eovaldi were career role players who had shining moments in the postseason, which caused the Red Sox to inflate their dollar valuation. Not only did Strasburg and Rendon come up big in October, but they are among the most elite players in the regular season as well. Furthermore, the Nationals were able to weather the loss of Harper thanks to the emergence of Juan Soto as a star at 20 years old, playing roughly the same position (corner outfield) as Harper. The Nationals’ farm system, one of the weaker ones in MLB, does not have anything close to the pitching talent required to replace Strasburg, and although infield prospect Carter Kieboom shows a great deal of promise, he would likely not even come close to replicating what Rendon does.
Letting star players walk, while a money saving move in the short run, can irreparably tarnish a team’s brand with its paying fanbase. It may be a shocking fact to a baseball fan in 2019, but the Miami Marlins were once a huge draw early on in their franchise’s history, leading up to their first World Series title in 1997. However, when owner Wayne Huzienga embarked on his subsequent “fire sale,” trading away nearly every quality player on the roster and seeing his team go from world champions to the worst record in baseball in just one season, it irreparably damaged the team with the Miami fanbase. The team would never draw well again, even in the year after they won yet another World Series in 2003, where they ranked 26th.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco Giants, who in the 1970s and 80s drew so badly that the team almost moved to Tampa Bay, kept together the core of their World Series teams, to the point when, even though the franchise has fallen on lean years of late, it remains near the top in attendance. The Nationals play in a large and wealthy market between DC and Northern Virginia (half of the ten wealthiest counties in America, including the wealthiest, Loudoun County, lie within the Nationals’ media market territory), and could certainly absorb the short-term cost of resigning Strasburg and Rendon.
Interest in baseball in DC is no doubt higher than it has ever been, which presents the Nationals and their ownership with a golden opportunity: retaining Strasburg and Rendon may be costly in the short term, but if keeping them can keep the Nationals in a championship window for years to come, or even usher in a Giants-esque dynasty, then the Nats could become one of MLB’s marquee franchises. And that would be a true win for everyone involved, equal parts satisfying for the fans and (in the long run) profitable for ownership. And in a baseball world increasingly dominated by thinking about how to field a contender as cheaply as possible, no matter what hardship it costs the fans (see: the Tampa Bay Rays), that would be a most welcome development.