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Posted at 9:38 AM ET, 12/20/2010

Payroll flexibility a critical issue for Nats' future

By Dave Sheinin

The Philadelphia Phillies will have a payroll north of $160 million in 2011. They also have $106.95 million committed to only nine players in 2012 (and that's assuming they decline expensive options on Brad Lidge and Roy Oswalt), and $80 million to just four players in 2013. For the Nationals and their NL East brethren, the best hope for competing with the Phillies down the road may be that the Phillies' roster grows old and bloated, with no escape from these massive contracts and little financial flexibility to work around them.

The one thing the Nationals don't need to do is bog themselves down in future salary commitments in a similar manner. Although we all understand why the Nationals went as high and as long, in terms of dollars and years, as they did with Jayson Werth, the scariest part of that signing is the fact Werth will be pulling in $21 million each in 2015, 2016 and 2017 when he is 36, 37 and 38 years old. One of those deals is manageable; several of them could be untenable.

Still, looking ahead to the near future, the Nationals have only $28 million in payroll commitments for 2012 ($13 million for Werth, $12 million for Ryan Zimmerman and $3 million for Stephen Strasburg) and $30 million in 2013 ($16 million for Werth, $14 million for Zimmerman). (Of course, as with the Phillies' commitments, those figures don't take account the raises for arbitration-eligible players, which could boost the totals significantly.)

That's not to say Nationals fans wouldn't trade places with their Phillies counterparts in a heartbeat. But Washington's payroll flexibility -- assuming they don't squander it away by making more over-market signings this winter -- could be a major asset in future seasons, when they are closer to contending, and one or two big acquisitions could put them over the top.

This is one reason Nationals fans should be breathing a sigh of relief the team didn't trade for former Kansas City Royals ace Zack Greinke. Beyond the fact that the cost for such a trade was high, in terms of young talent, the Nationals would have been tempted to push for a long-term contract extension with Greinke, who is signed only through 2012, in order to justify that cost. (It wouldn't have made any sense for the Nationals to trade five more years of Jordan Zimmermann, plus other pieces, for two years of Greinke.) And such a contract, at least at today's market prices for a No. 1 starter ($20 million-$23 million per season), would have presented all sorts of problems, not the least of which is Greinke's history of emotional issues.

It made sense for the Milwaukee Brewers to mortgage a piece of their future for Greinke. They play in a highly winnable division, the NL Central, and saw themselves as being one piece away. For them the risk made sense.

But for the Nationals, it made little sense. As nice as Greinke might have looked on the mound on Opening Day next April at Nationals Park, those relatively tiny payroll commitments in future seasons look even better.

By Dave Sheinin  | December 20, 2010; 9:38 AM ET
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Next: Nationals sign OF Rick Ankiel to one-year deal


Wow, this flies in the face of what Pantsposter (brue) said in the last post, that we need to have more long term contracts. I guess this means AK and brue are not the same people.

Payroll flexibility is nice only if you do something with it; alone it makes you cheap. While I agree not spending $ just to spend them at some point management must realize that the repeated attempts to catch lightning in a bottle isn't the best hope to make a winner here.

Posted by: SCNatsFan | December 20, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

... or Sheinin...

Posted by: mojo6 | December 20, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

AK -- you have lost your freaking mind.

I guess those Yankee and Red Sox clubs are gonna break down any day now and those Phillies fans are gonna be sooorrryyy when after an 10-12 year run of World Series caliber clubs comes to an end and they have to break it all down and rebuild and find themselves finishing last every year like the Nats currently do. if that ever happens.

Payroll flexibility is a great strength of our club? You are actually selling the fact that the club's unwillingness to compete as a competitive advantage?? The Nats have the ability to add payroll as a great plus -- yayyy!! -- but if they actually added payroll they would lose that great advantage -- booo!! Oh the horror of this Escher drawing that is the map of Nats Town!!!

Can you be any more of an apologist for this club?

Posted by: dfh21 | December 20, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

CORRECTION: Sheinin is out of his mind, and I mean bonkers, not Kilgore. I should read more careuflly.

Posted by: dfh21 | December 20, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

well, the Sox and the Yankees are a different story than even the Phillies. The first two teams can easily afford $150MM payrolls year-in and year-out. And the phillies, aside from their rotation, are an old, expensive team. What he's saying, pretty reasonably I might add, is that at least the Nats _have_ flexibility so that in 2012 and 2013, they'll be able to add pieces.

Now, if we could have gotten Grienke w/o giving up Zimmermann, I'd have loved it. And I think Grienke's kind of a tool for nixing the deal. But I don't think Milwaukee's miles ahead of the Nats, and personally, I think that'd be great bulletin-board material for the team this year. Just sayin'.

Posted by: Section406 | December 20, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Sign for a decent starter, who is looking to be dealt by a team seeking to cut payroll (white sox come to mind, though Edwin Jackson is no bueno)

Posted by: Cartaldo | December 20, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

So is the message here that we need to wait, oh, 3 or 4 more years before even trying to be a winner?

After six straight years of being in last place?

Dave, would you like to see crowds of 5,000 at Nats Park in 2011, 2012, etc?

Posted by: swanni | December 20, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

This will (already has) draw irrational hoots and hollars. But it is essentially correct that payroll flexibility is currently a strength. I would not take that to mean that further player acquisition is not desireable - it is. But, Philly is heavily invested with older players. Older than San Fran, Boston, and even New York. They have had success and they are affording it. They are careful where they spend their money. I think Dave's point was that you don't want to give up young talent for the right to pay big long term bucks to risky talent. On that point, he is correct.

Posted by: natbiscuits | December 20, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Your 2011 Washington Nationals: We suck, but hey, we've got payroll flexibility! Expect it.

Posted by: CoverageisLacking | December 20, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

The Nats have $31.85 million in commitments for 2012 and $34.1 million in 2013. In 2012, the numbers include $12.1 million for Zimmerman, $13 million for Werth, $3 million for Strasburg, $2 million for Maya and $1.75 million for Harper. In 2013, the numbers are; Werth ($16 million), Zimmerman, $14.1 million) and $2 million each for Maya and Harper.

Posted by: KenzAFan | December 20, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Your 2011 Washington Nationals: We suck, but hey, we've got payroll flexibility! Expect it.

Posted by: CoverageisLacking | December 20, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

The Nats have $31.85 million in commitments for 2012 and $34.1 million in 2013. In 2012, the numbers include $12.1 million for Zimmerman, $13 million for Werth, $3 million for Strasburg, $2 million for Maya and $1.75 million for Harper. In 2013, the numbers are; Werth ($16 million), Zimmerman, $14.1 million) and $2 million each for Maya and Harper.

Posted by: KenzAFan | December 20, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the ammunition Kilgore...

Now when I'm surrounded by Phillies fans at Nats park watching my Nats lose 20-0 every game of the series as we are unable to score on their pitching staff and they eat up our AAAA pitching. At least I'll be able to yell...


Ask the Pirates how well their Payroll Flexibility is working for them.

This post is epic AK...

With the exception of the Magic of the beginning of the 2005 season I'm not sure why I should bother watching the Washington Nats. All of their "potential" has been traveling through Potomac which is much more fan friendly with 3 kids. My wife and kids enjoy going to the Potomac games more because they WIN and it's more affordable.

I have no problem with being patient, but in my opinion the Nats are charging too much to watch a product that doesn't compete nightly. To Riggleman's credit it's not a matter of effort, it's a matter of a lack of enough talent, specifically in their pitching staff.

If you are going to play and win as many games as the Pittsburgh Pirates, then charge their prices

Which are roughly 1/2 of the Nats prices.

I guess there is more reason to sign ex-Phillies so when Nats Stadium gets invaded by opposing teams fans at least they can watch players they are familiar with.

Payroll Flexibility... lol... you crack me up Kilgore.

Posted by: PNatsFan | December 20, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

I think Sheinin makes some very valid points but long term deals for young players make sense like with Ryan Zimmerman.

The Phillies are one major injury away from imploding. If Lee or Halladay go down, that team may never recover. ;-]

Posted by: GoingGoingGone | December 20, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Section406 -- I can't agree with the DS. What club is Sheinin following that he thinks it needs fiscal restraint?

Asside from him offering the Lerners an out for having sat sat on the money for 5 years, it is reckless and wrong to state that payroll flexibility is a critical issue for the Nats future. It lends credibility to stalling the finally here Phase 2 to a snail's pace.

I get the idea that having the ability to add payroll is a good thing, but the Nats do not have some critical need to keep payroll well below the MLB average that is a must for them to be able to assemble a winning club some day, they have the market to support a payroll MUCH higher than they carry every year.

The Brewers did not go and get one piece, they also added stud Shawn Marcum this off season and they have spent years trying to compete, adding pieces (Randy Wolf last year) and trying to get better in a tougher market. They have not been afraid to build the club; they were not afraid to trade for a Sabathia, as an example to make a playoff push. They did not sit around and wait to get to the point where they might actually be good enough to dream. And Sheinin's argument leaves out the fact that the Brewers outspend the Nats by $20M every year!! AND, the idea that the NL Central is easier to win -- with an extra club in there and the Reds and Cards being elite with the Cubs and Stros being decent -- is a joke. I guess the O's should just pack it in and wait for Tex, CC and A-Rod to near 40 and THEN pull the trigger on some moves in 2018.

The club finally makes a bold move and Dave warns: HOLD ON folks, let's not get all crazy-eyed with thoughts of actually adding MORE of these All Star caliber players.

Posted by: dfh21 | December 20, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Is Kilgore on the Nats payroll? The stuff he trots out here is not just party line after party line, it's downright laughable.
As far as Greinke, yea whatever you do, you don't want to get an ACE for your staff for the magnificent Ian Desmond (who led the league in errors last year I believe)or future Sandy Koufax, Jordan Zimmerman, who if I'm correct, has never had a winning season. Bennie and the Jets. Kilgore and the Nats---Dumb and Dumber.

Posted by: skins_fan_22 | December 20, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Good players cost more money than not-so-good players. Simple as that. Your payroll can bend itself into a pretzel but if you don't spend the money you won't field a competitive team.

Posted by: pwilly | December 20, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I apologize I now realized this article was written by Dave Sheinin and not Adam Kilgore... My only excuse is that I was laughing so hard my eyes teared up...

Still it's laughable... Go Payroll Flexibiliy!

Posted by: PNatsFan | December 20, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

This is bizzare.

Take any team in the bottom third of payroll expenditures, and you can claim the big benefit of payroll flexibility.

So let me ask.
Did the Nats not have payroll flexibility in 2006? In 2007? In 2008, 2009 and 2010?

What sort of tangible success resulted from having a flexible payroll for the last 5 seasons?
It's like having a get out of jail free card, and sitting in jail scared to use the card to get out, cause then you won't have a get out of jail free card.

Posted by: Sunderland | December 20, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

We just signed Ankiel to a 1 year deal. A feel slightly better now for when Morgan implodes.

Posted by: FriendofalltheWorld | December 20, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: JDB1 | December 20, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

The key here is the willingness to spend money (see Werth signing) but to spend it wisely so they don't end up like the Redskins (high payroll and low production from highly-paid players).

Since thye won't beat out the Phillies over the next couple of years no matter how nuch money they spend, Rizzo should be patient and make sure he spends the money well so the Nats are well-positioned to over take the aging Phillies in 2013.

Posted by: hapster | December 20, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Nats to add Rick Ankiel. I kind of predicted this one a couple weeks back. LF platoon with Morse, I'd guess.

Posted by: dfh21 | December 20, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Ladson says Ankiel will compete with Bernadina for LF.

Man, Nyjer must still have those compromising pix of Ted Lerner with Betty Grable from the 1940s.

Posted by: swanni | December 20, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

The key here is the willingness to spend money (see Werth signing) but to spend it wisely so they don't end up like the Redskins (high payroll and low production from highly-paid players).

Posted by: hapster | December 20, 2010 11:14 AM








Posted by: Kev29 | December 20, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Kind of amazing also that DS listed payroll commits and got them wrong.
Thanks for filling in the blanks KenzAFan. I knew we had a Harper commit, I hadn't thought of Maya.

Posted by: Sunderland | December 20, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

The Nats are in a catch-22 in my opinion. We NEED to be spending more in payroll; by most accounts $30-$35M more just to be in line with comparably sized cities (see for more detail and notes).

By my notes for 2011 we have $49.55M committed right this second and probably in the $61.5M range once we do arbitration cases and all the minimum salary guys on the 40-man. This is still LESS than we spent last year (Werth at $18M in, Dunn/Guzman at $20M out).

BUT, we shouldn't just spend money for the sake of spending it. If there's nobody worth spending $$ on, then by all means we should keep payroll flexibility where it is. Let the kids play in 2011, wait out Strasburg's injury and in 2012 when we're looking like a team to be reckoned with we start augmenting with pricy FAs.

Hate to say it, but we (fans) just have to be patient. 2011 may not be the year we turn this around but 2012 might be.

Posted by: tboss | December 20, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

If the Nats want to win and compete, they will need to over-pay and get a solid team together

Posted by: Bious | December 20, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

@DFH21 - You're right, you can't just say "but look how much money we have!". But look at this rationally:
Strasburg won't be here in 2011.
Harper won't be here in 2011.
_good_ players won't sign one-year deals.
_great_ players won't sign here anyway.

Now, I'd LOOOVE to have the nats win 85 games next year, just on general principle. And if there was a player (such as Cliff Lee) who would have signed here for any amount of money and who was worth it, great. But the truth is that the Nats have 2 very exciting players coming in 2012, and other than them, committing to guys who could be _well_ past their primes in 2012-2014, that'd be foolish. (And I love Adam Dunn, but that's a risk.) And where do you think Willingham will be then? Are you comfortable gearing up for a stretch run in August hoping Hammer's knee doesn't fail again?

Posted by: Section406 | December 20, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Shiner, Normally, I love your stuff, but this one has me puzzled.

Payroll flexibility is easy to achieve, just keep your wallet in your pocket at all times. For the Nats, mission accomplished.

The Nats will have no trouble with payroll flexibility when it comes to resigning Strasburg, Harper, Zimmerman, et al - because they'll be on the first plane out of town headed for a city that is interested in fielding a Major League team.

Today, I feel completely vindicated. For years, I kept saying that the Nats needed to put a better product on the field. And what have we learned this winter? We learned that the Lerners' money is no good. Greinke declined a trade here, de la Rosa took less money to go back to the Rockies, and the same with Vazquez and the Marlins. Sure, we signed Werth, but only because we gave him crazy dollars. And rather than protect Werth in the lineup, we trade Willingham for 2 middling prospects (yes, H-Rod and Brown are middling prospects).

And Shiner, all you can say is hooray for payroll flexibility. Ugh.

Posted by: comish4lif | December 20, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse


I think you all are getting emotional and missing the point Dave is trying to make here?

He is saying that re-upping a Grienke to a huge contract might be risky. However, say the Nats managed to trade for 23 year old Justin Upton. That would be a case where locking him long-term using their payroll flexibility would make sense.

If the Nats were able to land a YOUNG pitcher Matt Cain when he becomes a free agent in 2012 I think? That is where you use your "payroll flexibility" to maximum effect.

Meanwhile the Phillies are growing older and are locked into older players who may just be about at the end of their prime. While the Nats are not.

There's a very young first baseman named Prince Fielder who happens to be a Scott Boras client who will be a free agent next year. Wouldn't it be smart for management to use their "payroll flexibility" in his case?

Sheesh Shenin makes a post and everyone flies off the handle. He is trying to think like the Nats brass.

What Dave might have failed to broach is how do you get the players to come here and take that money? The hope of management probably is that with the advent of Harper and the return of Strasburg perhaps the team will seem more attractive. You sign a guy like Fielder and a pitcher of Cain's ilk now you just might be knocking at the Phillies door ... if certain prospects like JZmnn finally progress as expected.

Posted by: periculum | December 20, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Te Nats aren't locked into anyone, which is a bad thing - that means there's no one worth locking into.

Furthermore, this underscores why some of us felt that the Nats should have front-loaded Werth's contract - and not backloaded it. Right now, the Nats payroll is about $52M for the 2011 opening day. If they had frontloaded Werth's contract, they could be paying more on it now, when they have a low payroll, and less salary later when presumably, they'd be renewing Zimmerman and Strasburg, Harper and Zimmermann would be starting arbitration.

If the Nats go after Fielder, that means that everything they told us about Dunn was a lie. Fielder is huge, his body type will not age well, and he is a poo first baseman. He will cost more in years and dollars than Dunn would have. So, no, even knowing that the Dunn ship has sailed, I'm not interested in Fielder - especially at 6 years and $120M.

As for having Greinke. Personally, I'd love a 1-2-3 in 2012 of Strasburg, Greinke and Zimmermann. Sounds like a good problem to have. They might win some games, and people might go to the Park.

Posted by: comish4lif | December 20, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

This is a really stupid argeement. Yes I understand that baseball is now all about the business end of it but frankly do you think the Nationals feel for my financial situation in coming up with the $7 grand for two club level seats? The same with the Nats, I couldn't care less about what kind of shape the Lerners are in if they sign more free agents. Frankly I don't think they have done enough, yes they signed a very expensive Jason Wyreth but frankly I haven't seen them get anyone else in this open market. When I see teams like Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Oakland, aggressively get better players I wonder what is up with the Nats.
I couldn't care how much money the Nats spend but I do care about spending $7grand for a crappy team. This is my seventh year as a season ticket holder and I would like to see more cheer after the fourth of July than what I have seen the last 6 years in which we try to root for them to lose less than a hundred games. I want a team that won't be a joke as they have been the last six years and I am getting tired of people telling me that they don't want to buy by $45 front row tickets because they can get the same ticket at noon on the day of game for $20.
The bottom line I am getting impatience over this and what to see better players, better coaching, better management and more wins.

Sorry to be rude

Posted by: Golfersal | December 20, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

So if having the payroll flexibility of spending later vs now is better, why spend so much on Werth now? Why not just re-sign Dunn for less years and much cheaper? Why not spread all that money for 3-4 good FA, instead of just Werth? By the way, Werth is 2 for 20(0 HR, 0 RBIs, 4 walks and 8Ks) against Roy and Roy of the phillies. And once the phillies grow old and can't afford FA, then the Nats have to worry about the Mets and Braves. I wager that Werth is traded around the trade deadline in 2012 to a contender(Yankees or Red Sox) that can afford his high salary.

Posted by: larry40 | December 20, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if dave is even aware the Nats would get prospects if we didn't sign him in 2012...

Posted by: CJArlington | December 20, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

The Greinke trade would've been so bad for the Nats that Rizzo was willing to do it? What, was he hoping that Greinke would nix it? Rizzo knows that it would've been a good thing for the Nats, & not just to keep the fans happy. Zimmermann's won all of 4 games in his illustrious career. I think they'd have survived his loss, & Greinke would've made the fans say, "Jordan Who?" by the end of June.

It would've been a good trade & that's why Rizzo wanted to make it.

Posted by: nyskinsdiehard | December 20, 2010 10:56 PM | Report abuse

My Nats need Derek Lee, I wish Derek Lee needed my Nats. The weak errors at that position would cease, same as right-field. We need a innings eating starting pitcher and hopefully he won't be a big name star. We need Nat free-agents not MLB free-agents,(those type will play like crap as a Nat).

Posted by: CTaylor42 | December 20, 2010 11:52 PM | Report abuse

I'll worry about payroll flexibility right after I worry about whether the World Series tickets were fairly allocated to partial season ticket holders, and right before I worry about whether I can get into Ryan Zimmerman Day. And the articles about how smart the Nats were not to do a deal for Greinke need to be re-written.

Posted by: markfromark | December 21, 2010 6:39 AM | Report abuse

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