The Washington Nationals signed Patrick Corbin for six years, $140 million. It’s a bold move. It’s an extravagant move. We have to figure out if it’s a good move, though, both on the diamond and with respect to future payrolls. Hint: Yes, it’s a good move. Probably.
It’ll probably help the Nationals win in 2019. They’ll have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Corbin at the front of the rotation, which means that about two out of every 1,000 balls will be put in play. The Nationals saw the Braves’ move for Josh Donaldson and raised, then saw the Mets’ move for Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano and re-raised.
Start with the idea of tanking. The baseball world is obsessed with tanking. Tank, tank, tank. Git busy 95-win livin’, or git busy 95-loss dyin’. There are only two ways to build a baseball team, and either you’re a tanking team or a post-tanking team. Get on board with the way baseball works now.
It makes for a dull, boring team, a lot of the time.
But we’ve talked about the Mariners and the White Sox and the Reds and the Tigers, et al. Those are the teams that decided that gray skies are going to clear up (in three or four years), and that they should put on a happy face. That’s the default for a team that finishes even just a hair under .500.
It’s rarer now to see a team absolutely go for it. Teams used to spend for free agents like they were bidding for an undiscovered Van Gogh at Sotheby’s, but forget about the usual suspects. The Yankees are in a post-George fiscal reality. The Dodgers are trying to get under the luxury tax. The Giants spent wildly before they tried to do get under the luxury tax, and now they’re the laughing stock of baseball. The Nationals are the likeliest team to go bananas for a free agent now.
The Nationals gave Corbin about $50 million more than most folks predicted. The Nats came over the top and pushed the Yankees and Phillies out of the way, even though the latter team declared that they were ready to “be a little bit stupid” in free agency this year, and the Yankees are the Yankees. It was the Nationals who pushed everyone else out of the way, just like they’ve certainly done in the past.
The Nationals are that team now. Like the Ilitch-owned Tigers before them, they’re chasing after something the rest of us can’t see, usually the validation of an older, ludicrously wealthy person who is interested only in the things he can’t buy retail. It’s almost refreshing.
It’s also a little bit strange, considering the push around baseball to shorten games and focus on bullpens. If the Nationals were going to spend $140 million, you would have figured that they would have built a bullpen of the gods. Especially when you remember that they’ve been stabbed by a bullpen in a dark alley in just about every October over the last. But those are the minor points. The larger point is that the Nationals want to win, and they’re spending and outbidding other contenders like a classic rich team.
I never thought I’d miss the classic rich teams.
But what does it mean that the Nationals are spending this much money? What does it mean when anyone spends this much money? Like, as a fan who wants his or her team to be good forever?
There are three scenarios.
Scenario #1: The team can spend indefinitely
Ted Lerner is worth $4.7 billion. When thinking about billionaires, it’s helpful to think about what a billion really is. If you had $10 million, you would be unquestionably rich. Even a million dollars would put you in an elite group. Yet Lerner could give away $999 million — here, just take it — and be worth $3.7 billion. That $3.7 billion isn’t functionally different than the first total I put up there. It’s all in the amorphous glob of billions that makes you whistle, real purty-like, when you hear the total. $4.7 billion, $3.7 billion, $5.7 billion ... really, who cares?
Another way to describe the scale it that a million seconds is 12 days, and a billion seconds is 30 years. Millionaires and billionaires seem like they’re in the same genre, but they really aren’t. And if Lerner wanted to sign a Patrick Corbin out of his own pocket, forget the team’s budget, he would be worth $4.6 billion next year, $4.5 billion the year after that, $4.3 billion the year after that, et cetera.
In 2021, after getting eliminated in the NLDS for the 11th straight season, Lerner might say, “Wait, I need to cut this out,” and still be worth so much that he could still spend $100 million on Honus Wagner cards every year for the next three decades before he wasn’t an official billionaire again. He would just be a measly multi-multi-multi millionaire who was worth more than Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols combined.
That’s the difference between a multi-billionaire and a multi-millionaire.
At this point, we should mention that Lerner is 93 years old. Which is to say that the Nationals can keep doing this if Lerner just wants to win a World Series. It’s like my grandpappy said, you can’t shoot a World Series trophy on an African safari. And if a World Series trophy is really what Lerner wants hanging over his fireplace ...
This scenario is good for Nationals fans. Let the rich people spend their money.
Scenario #2: This kind of spending will screw the Nationals ... eventually
Let’s suppose that there is a Nationals team after Ted Lerner. We’ve already seen a Yankees team after George Steinbrenner, and it’s the kind of team that gets outbid by the Nationals. That future Nationals team might recoil in horror about the payroll they were bequeathed.
The details of Corbin’s deal aren’t official as of this writing, so we’ll have to use an average of $23.3 million. That means the Nationals are spending this on three starting pitchers every year:
2019: $103.7 million
2020: $90.4 million
2021: $80.4 million
2022: $38.3 million
2023: $68.3 million
2024: $23.3 million
Corbin’s deal is probably back loaded or contains deferred money, like Max Scherzer’s, but you get the overall point. That’s the kind of money that can make a newly austere franchise give up on an offseason. Maybe the next group in charge of the Nationals won’t throw good money after bad, especially when you consider the chance that none of these three pitchers are a guarantee to help a major league team in 2021.
Look, they’re pitchers. It’s probably going to be a mess.
If Corbin’s money forces the Nationals to pinch pennies when the roster declines, like the Rollins-Utley-Howard Phillies of yore, it’s a neutral deal because, buddy, that future team was probably going to suck anyway. The problem for those Phillies wasn’t that their stars were making too much money for too little production; the problem was that the rest of the team sucked around them.
The odds of Corbin’s contract preventing the team from getting the exact difference-maker the Nationals will need in 2022 are lower than you think. This is true for just about every team and always will be.
There’s also the chance that this Nationals team is making a specific choice between Patrick Corbin or Bryce Harper. That is, a choice between an oft-injured enigma whose production might be an unsustainable blip, or a 26-year-old who has already made six MLB All-Star teams and won an MVP. If this is the case, this deal is bad, very bad. Which leads us to ...
Scenario #3: The Nationals will set an artificial payroll cap, and Corbin’s contract will be one of several that prevents them from breaking the glass ceiling
This one is just annoying. And it’s the likeliest one. This is how most rich teams operate now. They’ll stack all of their extensions and free-agent contracts until they make an unstable tower, wobbling hither and thither. Think of the Giants, with Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Mark Melancon, and a pair of Brandons, getting about 5 WAR for $100 million next year. The shell game they had to play last year to add expensive veterans and stay revenue-neutral cost them solid prospects. They couldn’t just go out and buy the player they wanted.
Let’s pretend the Nationals were in this spot this offseason. Let’s say they were the ones with Cueto, Samardzija, and Melancon, and that combined $60 million pushed their payroll right to the limit. They wouldn’t be signing players like Corbin in that case. They would be exploring trades for Sonny Gray and James Paxton, tossing their best prospects away and hurting their future chances.
This is probably what’s going to happen in a post-Lerner world. The Nationals will still spend. But what they’re paying Corbin, Scherzer, and Strasburg will affect every last roster decision, even if some or all of those pitchers are ineffective. It will be annoying for Nationals fans.
For 2021, though? Good. Unquestionably good. Starters are out of fashion now, yet it sure helps when a team has several good ones. The Nationals have a chance to have several great ones. All it cost them is money, which they certainly have. We’ll just have to see if it will cost them wins in the distant future, too.
But we shouldn’t care about that, either. The Nationals are better. Fear the Nationals. The NL East is going to be wild next year.