- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 5, 2014


One of the best things about the Super Bowl being over, besides the long lead time and hype involved with football’s Big Game, is it means baseball season isn’t far behind.

Forget about the ice and the cold and the chance for more snow: Pitchers and catchers report next week. Opening Day is less than two months away.

This isn’t about the “poetry” of the game or all that literative nonsense that gets spewed about baseball every year about this time. It’s much more simple than that: It’s baseball, it’s fun and it is almost here.

About the only thing that shouldn’t be excited about that is the checkbook belonging to the ownership group of the Washington Nationals. It should be afraid, very afraid. It is not terribly far away from getting a much more serious workout than it is getting now.

Tyler Clippard, philosopher extraordinaire and a pretty good relief pitcher, too, said it best about the Nationals almost two years ago. We’re about to get expensive, Clippard noted.

“About to” is upon the Nats. One of the more interesting things to watch about the team over the next couple of years is how it handles the roster math. Though the sport has no salary cap, you simply can’t pay every player his worth based on the rest of the sport’s market. The Nats will have to make some very difficult decisions about the team they have worked so hard to build.

Who will be here for the long term besides Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Gio Gonzalez? Who had we best enjoy over the next couple of years before the name on the front of their jersey changes?

Look at some of the deals being done with some of baseball’s current and rising stars lately. Once your eyes stop hurting, ask yourself how many of those kind of contracts the Nationals can absorb.

Atlanta just agreed to eight years and $135 million for young and talented first baseman Freddie Freeman. What is Bryce Harper eventually going to cost? Guaranteed the first digit is going to be a 2 and maybe even a 3.

Clayton Kershaw, inarguably the best pitcher in baseball right now, recently agreed to a seven-year extension with the Dodgers worth $215 million. Stephen Strasburg, who is not Kershaw yet but certainly has the ability to get to that level, is going to be looking at similar or bigger numbers before long.

Shortstop Ian Desmond (two years, $17.5 million) and pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (two years, $24 million) recently signed deals that take them through their arbitration years. When those deals end, those two will be free agents. Can the Nats be reasonably expected to keep both young talents, who already have All-Star on their resume?

A shortstop who can hit and field like Desmond and a pitcher with “ace” stuff like Zimmermann are going to have teams lined up to pay them a head-shaking amount of money.

Then there’s a guy like Clippard, the only Nat headed to arbitration at this point who is due a nice raise from the $4 million he made last season. Clippard’s reps can make the case that he was the best non-closing reliever in baseball last year, or at least on a very short list. He won’t make Zimmermann money (or even Zimmerman money) but he won’t be cheap.

What about catcher Wilson Ramos, who is a couple of years away from major cash but making progress like one who will be due to collect it? A strong hitter who calls a good game will be very much in demand when the time comes.

The team will gain some relief after the 2014 season when the expensive contracts of reliever Rafael Soriano and first baseman Adam LaRoche — a combined $26 or so million — come off the books. That will seem like chump change when the bigger bills come due. The Nats’ payroll certainly isn’t going to come down in coming seasons, not if they want to remain one of the game’s elite teams and retain a chunk of the core that got them there.

Things are much more enjoyable with the Nats as one of the best teams in baseball rather than one of the worst. The 100-loss days are in the rear-view mirror. This will be the third season the Nats can be considered among the game’s best, even with last year’s playoff miss. They may be the best team in the game right now.

But getting to that level has a price and nothing lasts forever. The Braves chose not to try and keep catcher Brian McCann, a seven-time All-Star and five-time Silver Slugger award winner who is now a Yankee. The Yankees lost the game’s best second baseman and maybe its best player, Robinson Cano, to the Mariners in free agency.

Things change and they will change here, too. How is the question we can’t answer yet.



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