2018 was the end of an era for the Washington Nationals. After failing to get Bryce Harper to agree to a long-term contract with the organization, his final year in D.C. appeared destined to have something of a valedictory nature, a long farewell to the player who was drafted to be the face of the franchise. The script seemed to be in place for one last hurrah. After all, this was a team that during the Pax Brycetania won the NL East four times in six seasons, with their 555 wins second only to the Dodgers. 2018 would be the year they finally got over the playoff hump and won the World Series, after which the credits would roll, and captions would indicate what had happened to each of our favorite characters.
Projected to go 89-73 by ZiPS, the Nats underperformed by seven games, finishing 82-80. Thanks to the Braves misbehaving and butting into contention before their number was called, Washington fell out of the postseason race for good by the All-Star break. There was a silver lining in the emergence of Juan Soto, who somehow needed just a month more seasoning to turn from a South-Atlantic League star into a major league one, effectively becoming better at being Bryce Harper than Bryce Harper. The way forward in 2019 was clear: a full season of Soto and Victor Robles, together with Patrick Corbin, would make up for the loss of Harper, and constitute enough of a gain that it wouldn’t be a major problem that Brian Dozier was a poor replacement for vintage Daniel Murphy. ZiPS even projected the Nats to be better in 2019 than it did in 2018.
An 8-18 run from mid-April to mid-May left Washington rubbing elbows with the Marlins in the wastelands at the bottom of the NL East. The team’s gone 20-9 since, but that’s only been enough to get them to the precipice of a .500 season, rather the edge of greatness. At 39-40, they still stand eight games behind the Braves, a team with a lot more prospect currency to trade for short-term improvement at the deadline.
If the Nationals were a disaster, the decision to rebuild would be a somewhat easy one. But with them hovering around .500 with half a season still to go — and it looking like 90 wins will get you the second wild card in the NL — the temptation to double-down for a last-last-hurrah season may be justified. Most of Washington’s value has been tied up in just three players in 2019: Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, and Max Scherzer have combined for 10.2 of the team’s 16.4 total WAR, or about 62%. And one thing this troika has in common is that Washington will have to make franchise-altering decisions concerning their futures in the next year or two.
Anthony Rendon’s put his early career fragility behind him and is on track for his fourth six-win season in the majors. Hitting .313/.402/.625, and on-pace to pass the 30-homer mark for the first time, he’s the center of the team’s offense. He’s also a free agent at the end of the season, and likely mighty expensive one as well. And while his age (29 1/2 when he hits the market) will keep his contract from being in Harper/Machado territory, he’s a legitimate superstar. It would take a mighty miscalculation of the market to leave Rendon signing for pennies on the dollar next March or a one-year deal next June. Given that I know the passwords for the ZiPS SuperComputer©, it seems like it would be useful for me to be the one to run Rendon’s up-to-date long-term projections, including salary:
ZiPS generally takes a dim view of players in their 30s because, well, history has imposed a dim fate on players in their 30s throughout baseball history. But the projections still leave Rendon with some terrific remaining seasons, and a forecast somewhat better than J.D. Martinez’s was going into last offseason. Assuming that the rough number for $/WAR bumps 5% from the $7.5 million ZiPS estimates for 2019 (this number has come down over the last two offseasons), that still leaves a projection in the six-year, $180 million range.
Max Scherzer’s seven year, $210 million contract has worked out marvelously for Washington, with the Silver Hammer winning two Cy Young awards in four years and being a serious contender in the other two. Arguably the most dependable superstar pitcher in the majors today, Scherzer is 34 and has two more seasons remaining on his contract. If the Nats offered Scherzer on the ol’ trade market, you’d find no shortage of suitors willing to pay quite a bit for the privilege of picking up the just-over $100 million tab for the remaining 2.5 years of his deal. Keeping him, you run into the question of extending him. You can hardly pay Scherzer much less than you’re paying him now, given his performance, but his next year of free agency is also his age-37 season, making it somewhat of an awkward issue.
If Washington can’t keep Rendon past this season, the state of the farm system, and the holes in the lineup, the bullpen, and the back of the rotation, make contention hard. And if contention is hard, then you’re paying a lot of money to have Scherzer competing to win a Cy Young award every year for a 78-84 team. Without Rendon and without the willingness to support a $250 million payroll — even with all these questions and holes, and a team floating around .500, Washington’s payroll is at $200 million for 2019 — trading Scherzer sooner rather than later would be preferable.
On its face, Stephen Strasburg would appear to be the easiest question, with a contract through 2023. But that contract contains a monkey wrench common in 21st century big money deals, ye olde opt-out clause. Strasburg has two opportunities to opt-out, after the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Opting out after 2019 involves a remaining contract of four years, $100 million. After 2020, the remaining contract would be three years, $75 million. ZiPS think it’s likely that he could do much better than that in free agency, should he choose to do so.
ZiPS believes Strasburg could hit $180 million if he went into free agency this year, and while he has expressed a desire to stay with the Nationals, that preference is borne from seasons in which, up until 2018, the team was mostly crushing their NL East enemies. A down spell for the team might mean that staying in Washington isn’t worth tens of millions of dollars to Strasburg. And that’s before you consider that he’d be 35 at the end of his current deal; an opt-out this year or next may be the last chance he as for another big contract.
The Nationals, like the Giants and Tigers a few years ago, are at a fork in the road and need to decide where the organization is heading long-term. They don’t necessarily need to rebuild, but if they decide to stay the course, it will require spending prospects and treasure. Kicking that decision down the road rarely clarifies matters; it just doubles the stakes. There’s a month to go until baseball’s trade deadline. That month could be one of the most crucial for determining the future of the Washington Nationals.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.