I think we can officially say that the hot stove is finally burning. In fact, I might be so bold to borrow a phrase from the Millennial set and say that it’s lit af, especially after we got Shohei Ohtani’s decision and a Giancarlo Stanton trade in a 24-hour period. With those headliners out of the way, we should now see some serious movement with the free agent class.
Sitting at the head of that class is Jake Arrieta, who figures to have plenty of suitors as he looks to score the massive deal that has been in his sights for the past two years. Several teams have linked to him at this point, including the Cardinals and Brewers, but Ken Rosenthal reports that the Nationals might be interested (subscription) in completing their limited-edition Scott Boras pitching triumvirate set.
With Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg already set at the top two spots in the rotation, Arrieta would give the Nats a very formidable top three. It’d also be a very expensive one, as Washington would be adding what figures to be around $25 million AAV to contracts that already average $51 million over the next four seasons (more on that to come). That’s basically 35 percent of the luxury tax threshold tied up in three pitchers, the youngest of whom will turn 30 next season.
Just looking at the numbers alone, the idea of adding Arrieta to the mix sounds ludicrous. But as Rosenthal points out, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark will be free agents after 2018 and ’19, respectively, and the Nats aren’t sure young righty Erick Fedde is ready. Sweet rhyme, bro. And it doesn’t sound like they’re trying to save their money for a run at re-signing Bryce Harper, so they might as well lock down a big-time starter.
Beyond the roster and payroll, a big reason this makes a lot of sense for both sides is the Nats’ excellent relationship with Boras. Mike Rizzo, Washington’s president and GM, has regularly worked with the super-agent to purchase plots of land in Playoffville. And their history involves not only big transactions, but imaginative ones.
Arrieta was particularly aware of Strasburg’s deal, a seven-year extension that essentially set the bar for what the Cubs pitcher would be looking for in free agency. Both the size and structure of that deal could factor heavily should the Nats indeed pursue Arrieta. Strasburg has opt-outs after both 2019 and ’20, and a belief that he might exercise one of them would give the team confidence to add payroll in the near term.
But let’s say Strasburg sticks around, which he likely will if he has any hiccups in health or performance over the next three seasons. The Nats can still go after Arrieta because of the creative nature of the contracts to which they’ve signed both Strasburg and Scherzer. The deferred money in both deals not only helps to lower payroll obligations*, but could also appear very attractive to a guy who’s angling for his last big contract. And, again, we’re talking about three pitchers who share an agent.
While Scherzer and Strasburg agreed to respective deals of $210 million and $175 million over seven years, the true length of those deals is actually twice that. Scherzer will receive $15 million annually from 2022-28 and Strasburg will get $10 million per year from 2024-30, provided, of course, that he opts back in twice. If I’m correct, the younger pitcher will still receive three of those deferred payments even if he leaves after 2019. That’s a helluva deal.
Washington’s willingness to work with Boras to secure huge paydays for his clients — there were actually eight Boras-repped players (!) on the roster at one point — surely speaks volumes to someone in Arrieta’s position. And if one of the top two pitchers on the market is looking for a deal of 6/$150M or even 7/$175M, the nation’s capital might be the best place to find it.
I still think the comfort of Texas or California will pull Arrieta westward, but it’s impossible to deny the connection he has to the Nats through his agent.
*Ed note: given the interest generated by the Yankees’ deal for Giancarlo Stanton, I thought it best to retroactively offer further clarification for the above info. While the Nats will have lower actual payroll, the calculation of their payroll toward the competitive balance tax (CBT) will still factor those deferments.
For CBT purposes, deferments are counted in the contract year with which they are associated or — and this would be the case if the number of deferred annual payments differs from the number of guaranteed contract years — they’re averaged over the life of the actual contract.
Since the Nats have reduced the actual money they’re paying out in a given year, though, they might be more willing to push past the CBT threshold. Or they might see a rotation of three stud pitchers as enough to allow them to go cheap on position players.