Four winters ago, fans of almost any other team had good reason to be envious of the Washington Nationals. They were lucky – blessed, really – that their previous futility had earned them the top slot in the draft in consecutive years that produced once-in-a-generation talents in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, their window for success was just opening, and they were armed with an aging, deep-pocketed owner intent on winning it all before his demise and willing to spend the bucks to back up his aspirations.
The Mets, on the other hand, were almost unanimously viewed as a poor stepchild, eating the crumbs of talent falling off the big table and beset by Madoff-related financial woes that forced the team to reduce its payroll to mid- and even small market levels.
Fast forward to last winter, when the Nationals, already armed with what most considered one of the top rotations in baseball, sent a shot across the bow by dropping $210 million on the biggest get in the free agent pitching market, Max Scherzer, thus cementing what was thought to be a rotation for the ages.
Meanwhile, the Mets signed…Michael Cuddyer. Enough said about their financial fragility, and the word out on the market that they won’t – or can’t – dish out the bucks.
This is why it’s so remarkable how things have turned so dramatically…for both teams. Call it a true reversal of fortune.
Of course, it started for the Mets with their multiple acquisitions at the trade deadline. Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Uribe, Tyler Clippard et al. did not cost a lot of cash. But we all know how much these judicious investments mattered in the Mets’ run to the World Series. Enough, apparently, to convince the Wilpons to drop three years and $75 million (if he doesn’t opt out) on Mister Cespedes and raise their payroll by some 40% to around $140 million for the 2016 season. Enough, apparently, to sooth the savage beasts known as a fan base deeply angered by the team’s perceived cheapskate owners.
Sandy Alderson put the issue to bed, at least for now, by declaring “if the Cespedes signing says anything, it’s that there are no possibilities that will be dismissed out of hand strictly for financial reasons.”
At the same time, we are realizing the Nationals’ days of wine and roses – their window for winning with their current squad – are closing just as we discover how their own financial competitiveness is now seriously threatened by a scarcity of television revenue, the result of a bitter feud with the Orioles going all the way back to their controversial move to DC.
In fact, we have now learned that a significant factor in Mister Cespedes’ decision to rejoin the Mets is that the Nationals’ offer, reported as $110 million over five years, was less than met the eye. This was because their offer called for substantial backloading, with deferred payments that rendered the Nats’ offer as clearly inferior – $77 million over five years in current value, compared to $75 million over three years from the Mets.
In fact, though we don’t know what other offers might have been made to him, the Nats’ offer was riddled with so much backloading that Cespedes might actually have signed with the Mets without the opt out. We’ll never know.
We have also discovered that the Nats’ rejected offers to Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward – both reported at the time to be larger than what they signed for elsewhere – were both replete with backloading as well.
Add it all up, and what we’ve got is a clear reversal of fortune. The Mets having already won a pennant as their window for success opens, with historically dominant young pitching, an envious clubhouse atmosphere, the prospect of filled coffers in the years ahead, and now the stated ability to draw top talent to what is fast becoming a destination franchise.
Meanwhile, the Nats have failed to win a single playoff series as they near the close of their window, with a team and clubhouse still trying to shake off the demons of an awful season, having lost Cespedes to their biggest rivals, and now plagued by financial woes which may not be Madoff-level, but which have already had a palpable negative effect on the team.
What a difference a year makes!