Can someone explain to me what the deal is with trades and contracts? Is it like basketball with a salary cap?
As much as a love Morse id like to see a bit more speed in the outfield. Other than that I dont see why we should make drastic changes. We had the best regular season record which could have been 100+ wins if we had more luck.
I may be talking complete crap so excuse my rookie opinions!
NickNats - you are probably familiar with the American professional team sports practice of swapping players rather the sort of signings and transfers common in soccer / football. Unlike basketball, there is no hard cap or budget limit. What baseball does is sets a level of spending above which you will be taxed by the league and the money redistributed to other teams. It is somewhere around $175 - $180 MM, I think. The tax ranges up to 40% of the exceedance of the "luxury tax threshold," as it is commonly called. The Yankees regularly exceed that threshold, every year for at least the past decade, by tens of millions of dollars, while Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, and the Los Angeles Angels have exceeded the threshold for 1 or more times, often by a few million. The luxury tax is not an issue for the Nats because they have regularly been one of the lowest budget teams.
The pay rules work so that players typically get paid less early in their career, so players like Desmond, Mattheus, and Espinosa have been making around $400,000. A guy like Harper or Strasburg have higher initial contracts as part of their agreeing to come to the team, but even those are small change compared to their value. These young players are not allowed to become free agents and sell themselves to the highest bidders until they have been in the majors 6 years and their contracts lapse, or the team refuses to re-sign a player.
We talk a lot about Adam LaRoche because the Nats signed him in before 2011 for two years and an mutual option for 2013. Both the team and LaRoche would need to agree that the 2013 deal is reasonable for him not to become a free agent, which is unlikely. That is why we talk about the need for a lefty hitter, preferably a first baseman or left fielder, if we cannot reach agreement with LaRoche.
In contrast to LaRoche, Michael Morse is under contract for next year. If LaRoche signs with another team, we could move Morse to first because he played much better defensively last year at first than he did this year in left field. We would then look to backfill in left with a major star like Josh Hamilton, who would command a large contract, or could go with Bernadina and Moore "platooning" (splitting playing time depending mostly on whether the opposing starting pitcher throw right handed or lefty), or some in between option.
If LaRoche returns, we could just play Morse in left, or we could look to swap his contract to another team for players, either in the majors or in the minor leagues, who better fit our organization. You can only trade players under contract or early enough in their experience to not have hit 6 years in the majors.
Last year, we acquired Gio Gonzalez in a trade for four players who had little or no major league experience. Gio had less than 6 years experience but was near enough to that limit that he was likely either to leave his old team or to cost them a lot of money, while the four players we sent would be cheap for many years. That is a common trade, sometimes called a "salary dump," which is not unlike a smaller football club agreeing to a transfer to a big club, except instead of getting money back, the team dumping the salary got players they could develop, control for multiple years, and pay them little money. Kurt Suzuki was also picked up on a salary dump because he is due over $7MM in 2013 (counting a temination fee or "buyout" of 2014). In a quirk, one of the players we sent to Gio's old team, Derek Norris, is the guy who replaced Suzuki (suzuki and Gio played for Oakland).
Another common trade motivation is to trade surplus to fill gaps. The surplus is referred to as trade chits or tradeable surplus. Danny Espinosa is a trade chit because we have Lombardozzi and two minor leaguers who could fill in for him eventually in Anthony Rendon and Jeff Kobernus (there are even more potential replacements we control). Espinosa, despite striking out a lot, is an excellent defensive player with pretty good power for his position and is a good base runner, so teams that value that might find him attractive. Another player viewed as a trade chit is Tyler Clippard, who has shown he can close. Some teams value that highly. For example, Boston to traded Oaklan, Gio's and Suzuki's old team, a player named Josh Reddick, who was not a regular with Boston (seen as surplus) but who became an All Star when he played for Oakland this year.
Just mentioning all these Oakland moves probably gives you a sense that they are a low budget team that made a number of good moves this year. You are right. That's how they made the playoffs.