Coming off of a 2012 season that saw the club win a franchise-best 98 games and their first full season NL East title ever, the Washington Nationals went all-in for the 2013 season. They bumped their payroll by nearly 30%, signing Rafael Soriano, Dan Haren, and Adam LaRoche to eight figure contracts while trading for Denard Span.
The moves didn't work out all that well. Washington won just 86 games, finishing four games behind the Reds for the National League's second Wild Card berth. Furthermore, the club already has over $81 million committed to just 11 players for 2014 – including $5 million dedicated to players that are already in their pre-arbitration years. MLBTR projects the Nationals' eight arbitration-eligible players to earn a whopping $37.3 million, putting them right around their 2013 payroll.
Now, where will things be getting interesting? In 2015, of course. The club is going to be in even worse shape when it comes to their payroll next year. Rafael Soriano has a club option for $14 million (half-deferred, just like 2013-14) that will become guaranteed if he finishes 62 games in 2014. Adam LaRoche has a club option with a $2 million buyout that will surely be declined. Denard Span has a $9 million option with a $500,000 buyout which could be declined if prospect Brian Goodwin puts it all together (or the team goes in on a free agent outfielder this winter and deals Span). The club has $51 million already allocated to their payroll in 2015 including the buyout options, and that number will balloon when they have to deal with even more arbitration raises that winter.
Then, there's the Bryce Harper situation. Harper is owed $2.15 million in 2014 and $2.25 million in 2015 per his rookie contract, but that 2015 salary could increase. Harper and the club are headed for a grievance hearing next offseason in regards to that final year of the contract being voided and Harper heading to arbitration for the first time as a Super Two player. If the Nationals win the hearing, they'll be able to save millions on paying Harper to set themselves up better for the future – but his relationship with the club could be damaged.
In order to keep their young core together, the Nationals might have to let Span and Soriano walk, and maybe even make another trade to free some more payroll. If Harper wins his grievance and becomes eligible for arbitration next winter, the team could be looking at upwards of $40 million in salary for just Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and Wilson Ramos – and they'd still need to fill at least one spot in the infield and in the outfield. Maybe Goodwin will be ready for 2015. Maybe Danny Espinosa can start in the majors like he did over the past two seasons before falling off a cliff in 2013 and earning a demotion to the minors. Or maybe the Nationals will have to scramble to fill those spots with free agents from a crop that doesn't look very appealing at all and stare mediocrity in the face once again.
Is it possible that the Nationals' window may already be closing? Sure it is. Zimmermann and Desmond only have two years of control left, and those are the guys that should be getting some of the huge chunks of money allotted to Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. The team could be OK going forward, but things are going to be getting very dicey start in 2015, and could get downright ugly in 2016.