The Yankees lost out on another potential trade target when Gio Gonzalez was traded to the Washington Nationals for a package of prospects. At the price the Nationals paid, the Yankees probably weren’t a player for Gonzalez anyway, so the trade really doesn’t alter the team’s offseason strategy. However, it does further an interesting development taking place around baseball, and particularly in the N.L. East.
There are a variety of differing opinions on Gonzalez. Some believe he is gradually emerging as one of the best young arms in the game, while others suspect he may not be able to continue outperforming his relative inability to throw strikes. As with most young pitchers, it’s hard to predict what path Gonzalez will take in Washington, but regardless, the Nationals’ aggressive move speaks volumes about the internal view they have about their team as well as the economic boom taking place throughout the game.
When the Angels signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, we learned that Arte Moreno’s shopping spree was being funded by a new multi-billion television deal. Similarly, the Rangers aggressive spending since being sold to the ownership group fronted by Nolan Ryan has been linked to TV money. Now, it seems, we can also add the Nationals to that list.
According to a report in the Washington Examiner, the Nationals are in the process of negotiating a new payout from MASN that could be substantially higher than the $29 million fee they currently receive. With the expectation of increased revenue, the Nationals’ decision to accelerate their rebuilding strategy makes perfect sense. Even though Gonzalez, who is entering his first year of arbitration eligibility, won’t cost the Nationals much initially, the price in prospects was very steep. The team’s willingness to cash in so many future chips for instant gratification must mean the Nationals either think they are ready to contend now, or have the financial wherewithal to significantly expedite the process. When Washington broke the bank to sign Jayson Werth last year, many pundits scratched their heads, but clearly, the organization has adopted a very optimistic outlook. Even though GM Mike Rizzo probably already regrets the decision to sign Werth, it says a lot that he and owner Mark Lerner remain undeterred in their attempts to quickly improve the team.
The Nationals have every reason to be optimistic. They were, after all, a near-.500 team in 2011, so any marginal improvement will gradually bring them closer to contention, especially when you consider the additional wild card that will be implemented this season. If Gonzalez continues his progression and Stephen Strasburg’s recovery from Tommy John surgery remains on track, the addition of those two pitchers alone could vault Washington right into the middle of the playoff picture. Although the offensive remains a little thin, especially in the outfield, the development of young players like Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa, combined with better health from Ryan Zimmerman, could further lessen the gap between the Nationals and the National League’s elite.
Of course, the Nationals aren’t the only team in the N.L. East who seem willing to open their wallet. The Phillies have grown their payroll to levels only reached by the Yankees and Red Sox, while the Marlins have nearly doubled theirs this offseason. Although the Braves have maintained a very stable payroll over the last decade, the team’s finances are very healthy and its farm system very deep, so they too could quickly become participants in the N.L. East arms race. Ironically, the only team going in the opposite direction is the New York Mets, who are currently trying to sell off minority shares of the team, as well as special access to their mascot and other perks, just to remain solvent.
When money was tighter, hoarding prospects was the new market efficiency. Revenue-deprived teams like the Rays still successfully employ that philosophy, but for the most part, it seems as if the revenue boom in baseball has placed an emphasis on instant improvement. With little exception, baseball’s financial landscape has evened out, and competitive balance in the game has never been greater. When one of the few teams talking about a budget happens to be the New York Yankees, it’s a good sign that the sport is enjoying unprecedented prosperity. And, who knows, as a result of this changing economic climate, Washington might not only be first in war and first in peace, but, soon, first in the National League East as well.