The problem with Buster Olney’s comments about the Nationals and Max Scherzer

The payroll limit of the Washington Nationals has been a mystery since the Lerner family purchased the team back in 2006. Ted Lerner is the wealthiest owner in baseball, but the team doesn’t have the highest payroll. Washington D.C. is one of the largest and wealthiest markets in MLB, but the Nats are saddled with an unfavorable TV deal.

Meanwhile, contradictions abound. Mike Rizzo has repeatedly stated that the Lerners have always given him the necessary financial resources to compete. At the same time, Ted Lerner’s son, Mark, publicly stated last year that the Nationals were “beyond tapped-out” in terms of payroll. And this offseason, the Nats made a variety of penny-pinching moves such as trading Tyler Clippard and bypassing a number of affordable second base options (like Asdrubal Cabrera), only to give out the largest free agent pitching contract in baseball history to Max Scherzer.

No, this fiscal inconsistency isn’t unique. The Yankees publicly trimmed payroll prior to the 2013 season in an effort to get under MLB’s luxury tax, only to blow that plan to smithereens last offseason by signing Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann. Perhaps the lesson we can draw is this: people are inconsistent. Your average MLB owner is just as unpredictable as your average American who pinches pennies on everyday purchases only to run out and buy a luxury vehicle they can’t afford. Billionaires: they’re just like us!

This speculation about the Lerner’s desire to spend money would be a pointless parlor game if it didn’t have real world implications on the payroll itself. If that last sentence confused you, consider this tweet from Buster Olney last weekend after the Nationals signed Scherzer.

It’s a little bit of a mystery what Olney–who I otherwise really like–is trying say here. Whatever it is, Olney doubled down with this comment in his “winners and losers” column about the Scherzer signing.

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The troubling– and most logical–implication from Olney’s comment is this: why do the Nationals need more money? They just signed a huge contract with one of baseball’s best players!

Well then. How do I start to unpack this nonsense? First, let’s start with the understanding that Peter Angelos is making millions–hundreds of millions, really–of dollars from MASN that he is not reinvesting in his team. The numbers behind MASN are just now being dragged into court, but SNL Kagan estimated that MASN produced over $160 million in revenue in 2012, while sharing only a fraction of that amount with the Nationals. This, of course, was the design of MASN, which was originally conceived as a mechanism to pay off Peter Angelos to prevent him from challenging the Expos move to DC in court. Of course, MASN ended up in court anyway after a MLB panel awarded the Nationals a slightly larger share of the MASN profit (the Nationals initially demanded even more).

MLB, at its heart, agrees with the Nationals and attempted to make the MASN profit-sharing deal a little bit more equitable. Equitable is not a factor for Peter Angelos, who still views the MASN as a vehicle to transfer money from the fanbase of the Washington Nationals into the coffers of the Baltimore Orioles.

This leads us back to Olney’s comments. Why does anyone—MLB, the Nationals—need to explain to Peter Angelos why the Nats need more money. The MASN dispute is not about the Nationals demanding more money than they are entitled. The dispute is about whether the Nationals are receiving “fair market value” which they are guaranteed under the original terms of the deal. The Nationals define fair market value one way (somewhere above $100 million/year). The Orioles define it another (somewhere around $40 million/year). Major League Baseball split the difference (around $60 million/year). Now the Orioles are challenging MLB’s determination in court. Nowhere in this dispute is a consideration of how much the Nationals need. It’s about how much they’re entitled to under the MASN contract. The entire concept of the Nationals being under an obligation to prove how much money they need has been imported into this conversation by Olney. The Nationals are a party to a contract, not a kid asking for lunch money.

More troubling, though, is the implication that the Nationals will be financially hurt by any decision to invest in their team. Peter Angelos has decided to horde his money and run a payroll far under what he can afford considering the annual MASN windfall he is receiving. Peter Angelos could sign a Max Scherzer but he chooses not to. The Lerners, by contrast, appear to be investing in their team. The Nationals now have Top 5 payroll in baseball, despite not having a top 5 revenue stream.

Olney’s comments give the Lerners a perverse incentive avoid spending on their team. This of course is what Angelos wants, lest his competitor to the south win too many ballgames, and thus siphon off more fans from his already shrinking fanbase. See the MASN deal is fine! They can afford Max Scherzer! Such backwards thinking may lead the Lerners to fulfill Nationals fans worst fears by letting talented players like Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon walk away in a misguided attempt to play pauper to appease a crooked owner like Angelos who thinks the Nationals “have enough.”

With the Scherzer signing, the Lerners plans became a little clearer: they’ll fight for their contractual rights under MASN deal, but they won’t let the dispute prevent them from building a winner. After a few more ignorant comments like Olney’s, those plans might change.

Insta-Reaction: Nationals Sign Max Scherzer

Today is a great day to be a Nationals fan. Max Scherzer is an absolute assassin on the mound. Already one of the best pitchers in baseball, like Doug Fister before him a move to the NL East will make him even more deadly. Scherzer’s numbers will get a boost from the lack of a designated hitter and pretty good infield defense (Ryan Zimmerman at first!).

Since it’s so obvious Max Scherzer makes the Nationals a better team short term and long term, let’s break down the implications of this signing–of which there will be many–and try to answer some of the biggest questions.

Does someone get traded?

Likely. It’s really hard to imagine the Nationals going into 2015 with six above average starting pitchers (and “above average” is really underselling how great they all are). It just seems like an incredible waste of resources to have Gio Gonzalez or Tanner Roark in the bullpen when either one of them could be a number 2 on a number of MLB teams. It’s highly likely Rizzo will try to leverage his resources by trading one of his starters for future assets (i.e. prospects).

But who to trade? The most obvious candidate is Jordan Zimmermann, who becomes a free agent next year. In fact, it seems like the Nationals took some of the money designated for Zimmermann’s contract extension and gave it to Scherzer instead (more on that below). Therefore, it seems logical Zimmermann would be the player traded, essentially making this a Seven Years of Scherzer plus prospects for one year of Zimmermann transaction. You can’t just assume Zimm will be traded however, simply because we don’t know how hot the market is for a pitcher one year from free agency. If recent history is a guide (Jeff Samardzija to trade to the White Sox), the Nationals could fail to attract an elite prospect for Zimmermann.

Stephen Strasburg, with 2 years until free agency and just as unlikely to re-sign with the Nationals, seems like a better trade prospect. Strasburg would demand more in a trade and Rizzo might be willing to move him with 2 top pitching prospects (Lucas Giolito and AJ Cole) on schedule to join the rotation in 2016.

Doug Fister, with one year until free agency, has the same problem on the trade market as Zimmermann. And since his return is likely lower, the difference between the trade return and a first round pick in 2016 (the compensation if he leaves) is that much lower.

Gio Gonzalez, under team control for 3 more years, is an underrated trade candidate. He may draw some interest as a lefty, but shoulder troubles last year might scare off a few trade partners.

Considering all factors, the best guess here is a Strasburg trade.

What if the Nats don’t make a trade?

This is where it gets weird. Do you move Tanner Roark, and his 2.85 ERA in 198.2 innings to the bullpen? Even though Roark is considered the Nats “5th starter”–judging by his move to the bullpen in the 2014 playoffs–it seem illogical to move him there full time. First, Roark doesn’t have traditional “bullpen stuff”–a big fastball and devastating secondary pitch. Moreover, Roark is under team control for 5 more seasons, meaning he has a big role in future starting rotations. It seems like a poor player development choice to move a guy to the bullpen only to move him back one year later. The franchise is better off letting him continue to develop as a starter.

By the same token, can you move Gio Gonzalez, a 2012 Cy Young contender, to the bullpen? As a lefty, Gonzalez would create more matchup problems for opposing hitters, and his high strikeout numbers (9.2 per 9 innings in 2014) make him an attractive bullpen candidate. On the flip side, Gio Gonzalez would need to harness his control to be effective as a reliever. Gio might have trouble transitioning to the bullpen, considering he often takes a few innings to “settle in” as a starting pitcher.

One outside the box solution that’s unlikely but intriguing: go with a 6 man rotation to keep your starters fresh throughout the season and operate assuming one of the six starters will get hurt, thereby having the problem solve itself. The 6 man rotation isn’t as crazy as it sounds, as the difference between the Nats’ number 1 and number 6 starter is the smallest in baseball. And if you were to look at numbers alone, you’d have a hard time even distinguishing starter number 1 from number 6. The Nats are truly is a weird world right now.

If the Nationals have the money to sign Max Scherzer, why didn’t they just re-sign Jordan Zimmermann?

This is the question that’ll be asked a million times, and only Mike Rizzo has the answer. But here’s my best guess. First, Rizzo might prefer Scherzer. Why is there the presumption a team prefers to sign it’s own players? Scherzer is an elite starter and one Rizzo is very familiar with (Rizzo drafted Scherzer with Arizona). With Scherzer and Zimmermann on the table side by side, each demanding market money, maybe Rizzo simply chose the better player.

Second, Scherzer was a free agent; Zimmermann was not. This may seem like a distinction without a difference to you, but extending a player carries more risk than signing one via free agency. Zimm is already under contract next year, meaning the consequences for a bad 2015 (performance or injury) falls entirely on the Nationals. This is why teams often demand players accept less money if they’re extending before they’re eligible for free agency. It might be as simple as this: if a player wants free agent money, he better be a free agent.

Does this mean Zimmermann and Desmond will leave as free agents?

Yes.

Insta-analysis: Tyler Clippard traded to Oakland

We knew Tyler Clippard was the Washington National most likely to be traded heading into this offseason. Relievers–especially relievers with closing experience–in their final year of arbitration often are. The reason is simple: they can be replaced at a fraction of the cost. Tyler Clippard is headed into arbitration this offseason, and history tells us he may earn up to 9 or 10 millions dollars in salary. For a team looking to cut costs–and yes, it appears the Nationals are closely monitoring their payroll–players like Clippard are prime trade bait.

We made it through the Winter Meetings and into the New Year with Clippard still a National. For a moment, it looked like he’d have one more run at the World Series in a Nats uniform. But there was an opening at second base, and Rizzo needed to fill it.

We knew Rizzo wouldn’t go into the season with Danny Espinosa as his everyday second baseman. Some folks on Twitter have been the debating the merits of that lately, but in reality it was never a realistic possibility. If Rizzo wouldn’t trust Danny with the second base job last year, there’s no reason he would this year.

The writing on the wall for this trade probably arrived when Asdrubal Cabrera signed with the Tampa Bay Rays for a reasonable one year deal last week. Cabrera, the Nats second baseman at the end of last season, was not a hot commodity on the open market. While Cabrera didn’t bounce back to his all-star form last year, he was a reasonable option as a plug-in for an otherwise complete Nats team. By letting a player like Cabrera walk out the door–on a reasonable one year deal–it was a signal the Nats wouldn’t be upping their payroll this year.

So second base would be filled via trade. Enter Clippard.

The Nats last week allegedly tried to get Yunel Escobar in a blockbuster trade involving Ian Desmond and Ben Zobrist. We’ll never know how close that trade came to being reality, but after Escobar got shipped to Oakland instead, Rizzo didn’t take long to zero in.

Escobar isn’t exciting, but he plays a serviceable middle infield and carries a respectable lifetime OBP of .347. Batting in the 8th hole, he’s an offensive upgrade over what we’ve seen the past few years from the Nats. More importantly, Escobar is under team control until 2017 with reasonable salaries. Mike Rizzo saved himself a lot of sleepless nights knowing he has a backup option if the Nats are unable to find a replacement for Ian Desmond next season. Rizzo, again, is thinking long term. He swapped one year of a replaceable reliever for three years of a middle infielder, where the Nats may soon have a huge vacancy.

And Clippard is replaceable. Rizzo stockpiles young arms for exactly this purpose. Aaron Barrett may soon find himself pitching in the 8th inning, while a rookies like Blake Treinen or Erik Davis might fill the opening in the bullpen.

This brings us back to salary. Treinen or Davis will literally earn a twentieth of Clippard’s inflated salary next season. If the Nats had unlimited payroll (or big MASN money), a trade like this wouldn’t be necessary. But bullpen is a place salary can be trimmed. The Nats will miss him, but maybe not in the standings.

Were this trade hurts is on the emotional level. I try not to get sentimental about baseball players since they’ll all inevitably leave us, but with Clipp, it’s hard not to. Clippard was here for the bad years. In fact, for a few years, he was a bright spot on a pretty dreary landscape. His 2011 season stands out in particular with a 1.83 ERA in 72 games. Clippard’s biggest asset was his durability; he’s had over 70 appearances in each of the last 5 seasons. For a time, it appeared Clippard had a rubber arm. We kept waiting for him to break and he never did. He kept going and going and eventually played a huge role in 2 division championships. Clippard’s swagger, goggles, and devastating change ups have been staples at Nats Park since he was traded for Jonathan Albaladejo in winter 2007. The Nationals got six years of lights-out relief for guy nobody will remember.

We’ll miss Tyler Clippard. I wish there were another way. But this is baseball. Rizzo did what he had to do.