ESPN the magazine published their money issue a few weeks ago. One particular article compared team payroll to team performance. Based on the formula which attached a dollar figure to player WAR, the Nats ended up the 3rd best team in MLB last year and 12th best overall in sports. This is pretty impressive, considering baseball does not have a salary cap like basketball and football that artificially caps expenditure; this demonstrates a well run team.
To understand why, you need to understand that peculiarities of the MLB salary structure. It is built on a very simple tenant: Player salaries are negotiated in collective bargaining between the owners and the players union to artificially limit young players salaries and over-compensate veterans. Once you understand that, the results are not surprising.
According to ESPN here are the Nats whose performance outplayed their contract:
LaRoche was still a net positive even though he was on a FA contract (easier to understand why he was so frustrated this offseason). I didn’t post the negative value players, but almost all were cut, not resigned or traded (Morse). Denard Span was a plus 10 million player for the Twins. I think that was one of the reasons why his acquisition in the off-season was such a good move by Rizzo, he is a good player, but also one that overproduced his contract. If you were to look at this list this year, you are still looking at Bryce, Gio, Jordan, Desmond and Stras, Ramos and Rendon creating significant surplus value. Zim, Werth, LaRoche and Haren would be in the negative category; Haren’s contract might counterbalance all the good ones by himself.
The Nationals built their team from scratch, similar to what the Houston Astoros are doing and what the Tampa Rays did. One of the advantages of shedding virtually all veteran contracts is players under team control (read, the first 6 years of MLB service) are remarkably underpaid. The below chart is pretty obvious, veterans who got hurt were bad deals, good young players who are still under team control are great deals Note: Posey and McCutchens had their final arbitration years bought out over the off season plus additional years. They are no longer such a good deal. What is interesting is comparing the Phillies and the Nationals. The Phillies are the worst team in baseball for surplus value.
There is another darker way to look at this. The Nats are developing a core group of players who have provided more value than they have been payed by the club. Does this in some form or another build resentment with the players? The Phillies are in the boat right now where they are playing some of their core players for performance already rendered. Is that the future of the Nats? If not, does that mean letting players walk over hurt feelings. The Cardinals and Rangers went through this the last few years. Both teams seem fine after letting their vets walk.