How Long can the Nationals Contend?


In his most recent article, The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore listed the arguments in favor of the Nationals signing Robinson Cano. In the article, which as always, is well-thought-out, Kilgore includes this:

The Nationals are in position to prioritize now over later. Having won 184 games over the last two seasons, they are a contender that cannot afford to keep powder dry. The Nationals can win the World Series this year, and that consideration should trump all others.

If the Nationals do not win a title in the next three seasons, then when will they?

It may seem like the Nationals’ window to contend has only just begun. After all, the memories of mediocrity are still fresh in the heads of most fans, and it seems like only yesterday (it was only 2012) when the Nationals took the baseball world by storm. But for most teams, the window closes faster than one would expect, and often closes with a thud. Look at the Phillies; in 2007, they were the toast of baseball, fresh off a division title, and with a young core that was going to keep them on top for years to come. But by 2012, the core had aged and gotten costly, and the team’s reign of dominance had ended. With that in mind, we ask the question: how much longer do the Nationals have?

The best way to look at how long a team has to contend is to look at their core, and first that core must be identified. By my estimation, the Nationals have 7 members of the club who form that core: Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, the three aces Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Gonzalez, and of course, Bryce Harper. The average age of that group in 2014 is 27.7 years old, right in the prime of their careers, and as far as cores go, are relatively inexpensive; they combined for $51.9 million of salary in 2013, and produced 25.9 bWAR, an average of $2 million per win. But the core is about to get expensive — though they are all under contract for next year, through backloaded contracts and arbitration, the combined cost is expected to rise to over $64 million in 2014, and more in 2015. After 2015, Desmond and Zimmermann, each at age 30, will become free agents, and will command market value for their services. And as we’ve seen, market value for shortstops and quality pitchers is already high, and will presumably rise over the next two years. Of course, an extension for both players is more than possible, but both will likely command 9-figure contracts, and more importantly, will be on the wrong side of thirty when they get those contracts.

The next of the seven to be eligible for free agency is none other than Stephen Strasburg. And with Scott Boras as his agent, lord knows he won’t come cheap. Assuming Strasburg avoids injury and realizes his otherworldly potential sometime in the next three years (a big if), the price to retain him will be astronomical. Werth is eligible for free agency after 2017, and at that point, he will be 38; the odds of him still being a productive player are very low. Both Gonzalez and Harper escape team control after 2018; by then, Gonzalez will have just completed his age 32 season, while Harper will, of course, be only 25, and likely looking for the largest contract in the history of the sport. All this adds up to a team that seems to have only 2 years left at the top of their game, and maybe 3-5 if they are able to extend all their key pieces.

But this, of course, ignores the caliber of the organization. GM Mike Rizzo will have a chance, through the draft, trades, and of course, free agency, to make the window last longer by gracefully transferring the team from one core to the next. The process has already begun; in Lucas Giolito, Anthony Rendon, AJ Cole, and perhaps players like Brian Goodwin and Sammy Solis, Rizzo has already amassed a base of talent that could form the next Nationals core. Building the Nationals into contenders, if not an easy process, was made a great deal easier for Rizzo when years of futility allowed two once-in-a-generation prospects to fall into his lap. But while nobody would mistake the Nationals for the Yankees or Dodgers, they are well-equipped to build a new core; they have the richest owner in the sport, and exist in a market (9th-largest in baseball) that can easily support a $150 million payroll. Over the next five years, Rizzo will have to earn his money. His real challenge is to create an organization whose success is not ephemeral, but lasting.


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