Prince Fielder’s Impact on Washington’s Future Payroll Obligations


Over at his Nats Insider blog, Mark Zuckerman (who’s quickly become one of my favorite Nationals writers) took a fairly thorough look at the organization’s future payroll obligations in the coming years. It’s an important topic to consider, particularly with the ongoing speculation and discussions centered on whether the Nationals are a serious contender to sign Prince Fielder. Without any additional moves, the team is looking at a 2012 payroll in the vicinity of $70 Million – roughly the same place they were in 2011. By 2015, that figure could rise above $100 Million for the first time in franchise history – without any significant personnel moves.

As Zuckerman suggests, there are two payroll-related concerns to take into consideration with regard to the Fielder possibility. These wouldn’t necessarily affect the organization’s 2012 roster much, as it’s widely believed that the team’s owners are among the richest in all of professional sports so the expenditure is one they could safely handle, but would truly start to have an impact on the roster starting with the 2013 season and beyond.

First, any deal that Fielder may agree to is likely going to require a commitment of at least $20 Million per year. At the moment there aren’t any players on the roster who will be paid a figure that high, but that fact will change with the start of the 2014 season. The seven year, $126 Million contract signed last winter by Jayson Werth calls for an increase in his salary starting in 2014. Werth is scheduled to make $20 Million that year, with a raise to $21 Million for each of the 2015-2017 seasons.

After the conclusion of the 2013 season, Ryan Zimmerman will also reach free agency. There are few who expect that the Nationals will let their homegrown star and face of the franchise leave, but a contract extension is no certainty either. The two sides have reportedly at least had informal discussions about an extension this offseason, but the two sides do not seem close to resolving the matter by any means. Presumably discussions will renew as early as this Spring as I’d imagine both sides would prefer to reach an agreement before Zimmerman does reach free agency. Once again, there is no certainty here, but it seems safe to assume that Zimmerman will be in line for a payday in the neighborhood of $20 Million per season.

With a possible signing of Fielder, this could leave the Nationals with three $20+ Million players beginning with the 2014 season. Will the organization really be willing to commit $60-65 Million in payroll to just three players? The idea seems highly unlikely and there currently are only three other organizations primed to be in such a position: the Yankees are committed to pay $68-72 Million in 2014-2016 to Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and C.C. Sabathia; the Phillies will pay $65 Million in 2013 (but only that one season) to Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Ryan Howard; and the Angels are on the hook for $65 Million in 2016 (but again, only the one season) to Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver, and C.J. Wilson.

Committing such a large portion of a team’s payroll to just three players is a risk most teams simply cannot afford to take. It remains to be seen just how willing the Lerner family will be with regards to making such a commitment. It’s a move that doesn’t seem likely, given the history they’ve shown in their financial decisions, but it can’t be discounted either. The Lerners have always said that they’d open the wallets only once the team is ready to be a serious contender. The time seems to be approaching, but just how much will they open those wallets?

The second payroll-related concern that has to be taken into consideration here are the future arbitration raises of the team’s young nucleas of talent. First, in addition to Zimmerman, Michael Morse and John Lannan will also reach free agency after the 2013 season. Lannan’s fate may be decided before that time, depending on whether he or Ross Detwiler win the last spot in the rotation and if the “loser” is subsequently traded to help address the center field problem. Morse, however, has emerged as a major piece of this team’s lineup and one would presume that with another season like 2011 the organization may want to extend him as well.

In addition, starting with the 2013 season, players such as Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, and Jordan Zimmermann will be due for sizeable raises through arbitration. Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos will join that group starting in 2014. By 2015 it’s conceivable that Gonzalez, Strasburg, Storen, and Zimmermann could each be earning an eight-figure salary. Without any significant additions and discounting potential future commitments to Zimmerman and Morse if/when they are resigned, arbitration raises for the above group when added to the players currently under contract (Werth, Bryce Harper, Matt Purke, Anthony Rendon) could push the team’s payroll above $100 Million for the 2015 season. That figure, as Zuckerman estimates, only factors in 15 total players on the roster – so it’s certainly not complete, but it does illustrate a significant point.

Bringing in a player like Fielder is naturally going to make this team better in 2012 and beyond, as I stated when I first took a look at the possibility of him signing in Washington on Monday. But thanks to the calculations that Zuckerman completed for us, there’s further evidence arguing against such a deal due to the ramifications it would have on the remainder of the team’s roster. In particular, it could pose a serious roadblock to the team’s pursuit of a contract extension with Zimmerman and how the team affords to retain all of its promising young talent.