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If the Nationals can't afford free agents today, they're in trouble tomorrow

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The Nats keep coming in second when they go after big free agents because they're trying to defer money in a market where players have a ton of leverage.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals were one of the most disappointing teams in baseball in 2015. They looked like a juggernaut before the season even started, and Bryce Harper became something like a god, but were slammed by injuries, forced to rush prospects to the majors, and finished with just 83 wins under overwhelmed manager Matt Williams. Projected to easily win the NL East, they ended up seven games back of the resurgent Mets.

And things aren't getting any easier for the paper tigers. They spent all winter trying to get in on some of the biggest free agents available, as they did last year with Max Scherzer. They were rejected by Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, and Yoenis Cespedes, and the best they could come up with was Daniel Murphy, Shawn Kelley, and Oliver Perez. They also patched holes through a couple of trades. In all, they didn't act like the contenders they were supposed to be.

The Washington Post's Barry Svrluga reports this morning that there's a good reason for that:

"People involved in free-agent talks with the Nationals say the team cites the dispute,€” which centers around how much income it feels it is due in rights fees from the Orioles-controlled Mid-Atlantic Sports Network,€” as part of contract negotiations. The Nationals structure their offers with the dispute as an influence - frequently making their proposals less attractive than the total dollar value might suggest."

What does that mean? It means the Nats were happy to hand out huge contracts, but that they were deferring a relatively huge amount of the money down the road, to when they will hopefully have a solution worked out with the Orioles and a steady, predictable, and competitive revenue stream. And it's that frugality that cost them this offseason.

It didn't really come back to bite them last year, when they signed Scherzer for $210 million for seven years, but deferred much of their financial commitment to him for another seven years after that. But in an offseason dominated by elite free agents who had enough leverage to force their clubs to give them opt outs after three, two, and even after just a single season, players had a preferable option to taking the Nats' deferred money. After all, Yoenis Cespedes, for instance, can come back on the market next year now and get a huge contract, and the other two years he can choose to play in New York provides him enough financial security that passing on the money the Nats offered makes sense. Only mid-level guys like Murphy (who, for the record, was not a bad signing), without the juice to demand more from their employers, got trapped by the Nats' promise to gladly pay them tomorrow for playing today.

What's more, this is a bad sign for the Nats going forward. They have already lost, and not adequately replaced, Jordan Zimmermann and Denard Span. Doug Fister went elsewhere. Ian Desmond isn't coming back.

If they can't get their finances in order quickly, how will they pay or pay to replace Stephen Strasburg when he becomes a free agent at the end of the year? How will they be able to afford to hold on to Bryce Harper, who is poised to win huge arbitration awards and then become the sign the biggest contract in baseball history in three years?

If they can't cover their losses with free agents, they'll have to turn to their farm system. Lucas Giolito and Trea Turner are great prospects, but they can't be counted on to replace all that the Nats are poised to lose after 2017, and the rest of the minor league system isn't great. Also, if Washington's television deal leaves them unable to pay the going rate for free agents, that could cause the Players' Association to step in and demand that Major League Baseball force a solution.

All isn't lost for the Nats. They still project to win the NL East, according to ZiPS. They still have Harper, Strasburg, and Scherzer. They have no immediate holes, even if their depth is again suspect. They also still have another year or two before the situation becomes critical. But looking ahead, there's a train coming straight for them. And unless they can work out this deal with the Orioles and build themselves a new track, the collision is going to be ugly.