A few thoughts on the Nationals payroll, and the Jayson Werth gamble

Baseball Prospectus took a look at the National League East payroll projections over the next five years. Here is the outlook for the Washington Nationals:

“Projected 2011 payroll: $63,791,429 (23rd)
2010 payroll: $66,275,000 Opening Day (24th), $71,937,323 year-end (24th)
Future commitments: $44.596 million for 2012, $35.921 million for 2013, $22.721 million for 2014, $23.821 million for 2015, $21.570 for 2016″ 

While we’ve heard it before, I’m still shocked every time that I see our payroll is lower this season than last. After all, the club added their largest contract in franchise history (by far) when they inked Jayson Werth to a seven-year $126 million contract this winter. That contract, plus the perception that the Nationals had an open wallet when they were courting just about every starting pitcher on the free-agent market and the trading block, led us to feel like the Nats were spending more than they actually were this winter.

The truth is that when you consider that the contracts of Cristian GuzmanAdam Dunn, and Josh Willingham came off the books, the Nationals saved money. 

Another large reason for the Nats low payroll this season is that the contract Werth signed this winter is extremely back loaded. Werth is set to make just $10 million in 2011, which is less than even Adam Dunn made last season. His contract quickly jumps to $13 million in 2012, $16 million in 2013, $20 million in 2014, and $21 million each year in 2015, 16, and 17. 

The deal was struck this way to give the National the flexibility to go out and make other big splash’s in free agency …and the Nationals tried…hard. They were early players for the winter’s biggest prize, Cliff Lee, who ended up signing for even more than Werth. They agreed upon a deal with the Brewers for former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke which had a multi-million dollar contract extension included in it for the hurler, but Greinke himself put the nix on that deal. The club also tried to get a strong first basemen, but ended up settling for their last serious choice, Adam LaRoche

Striking out more often this winter than Mark Reynolds (decided to spare Adam Dunn on that one), the club has put themselves in a precarious position with Werth’s back loaded contract. The initial strategy seemed to add a few stars to the club up front, and pay for it later once the revenue came in from a rejuvenated fan base and a winning ball club…Now, however, the Nationals have an ever increasing contract for Werth that will become more and more expensive as the Nats will look to re-sign guys like Ryan ZimmermanJordan ZimmermannStephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper

That’s not to say the club is screwed. The players listed above, who the Nats will eventually have to re-sign, are potentially talented enough on their own to help bring this team to competition. If that happens it is very likely the city will rally around the team, and Rizzo will have enough cash to keep these guys together. 

The risk still remains however, and we have to identify that Werth’s back loaded contract was a short-term gamble by the Nationals front office with the belief they could add more firepower this year. Washington wanted to buy relevance in the standings, but outside of Werth they may have fell flat. The Nationals will very likely be a losing team again this season, and with their low payroll it may have helped the Nationals to put more of Werth’s money up front when the size of his contract wont hurt them.