Keibert Ruiz’s contract is an intelligent risk for the player – and the Nats


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Washington Nationals have spent hundreds of millions of dollars more on individual players than they have just spent on Keibert Ruiz, who is now locked in as their catcher not just for the next five years, but maybe for the next decade. But this deal — an eight-year, $50 million deal signed Friday and announced at a news conference Saturday — is new territory in many ways. It’s a gamble on a young player years away from a free hand. The snack long before we can be sure what will become of Ruiz: Finally.

“I think the best deals you can get is that both sides are a little bit uneasy,” general manager Mike Rizzo said at the Nats’ spring training headquarters. “Where there’s a long-term deal on the table, the team has a small risk and the player has a small risk of being tied down for so many years. … If there’s a little uneasiness on either side, I think you got a good and fair deal.”

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It’s important to remember that signing a 24-year-old catcher with just one year in the majors for an eight-year extension — which could be a decade since the deal includes year-long options in 2031 and 32 — isn’t the Cases like Trea Turner or Bryce Harper are signing up for a decade-long renewal after they were established All-Stars. Those $300 million+ contracts tie up present and future funds, and a single franchise can only have so many. (Right Phillies?)

Rather, this is the kind of deal that rival Atlanta Braves have specialized in — a development Nats fans have taken note of with rue. As Rizzo said, there’s risk here, just not the franchise-crippling risk that comes with a drawn-out deal that only covers astronomically expensive free agent years. (See: Strasburg, Stephen and Seven Years for $245 million.)

For the first two years of Ruiz’s extension, he was completely under team control and could have been paid the major league minimum salary, which is $720,000 in 2023, by the club. In relation to the total remuneration, these two years are negligible. Over the next three years, 2025-27, Ruiz’s salary would have increased through arbitration — the system essentially akin to real estate compensation. What are houses (catchers) of the same neighborhood (experience) and size (production) sold (paid) for?

To be clear, Ruiz would have been a National by 2027 if they never struck that deal. So the important part is really the last three seasons, covering what would have been those free agent years and what Ruiz has become by then. A person familiar with the contract said those three seasons will pay $7 million for 2028, $9 million for 2029 and $9 million for 2030, totaling $25 million, adding that the contract includes a signing bonus and more money in the second year, when nationals’ payrolls are expected to remain low.

A recent deal that might provide a reasonable comparison to Ruiz’s is the six-year, $73 million deal the Braves awarded Sean Murphy, the catcher they acquired in a trade with Oakland over the winter. Murphy is older than Ruiz (27) and had two years more experience, so his contract only includes his years as an arbitrator and three years of free agency. He also bats for more power (.429 career slugging percentage to Ruiz’s .373) and is generally more productive (.755 on-base plus slugging percentage to Ruiz’s .689).

So Ruiz is cheaper. But the Nats are betting here that after coming over in the Turner-Max Scherzer trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2021, he’s not done developing.

“We see benefits at Keibert,” said Rizzo. “…He was thrown into a situation – weird town, weird organization, weird pitching staff, and I thought he handled himself remarkably well last year. I think it came into this winter and this off-season and spring training more as a kind of lead mode, even before we started talking about any sort of overtime and stuff like that. It gave me a duty to really think carefully about who we want to retain in those positions and build around that team.”

Ruiz doesn’t need to morph into JT Realmuto, Philadelphia’s all-star catcher – and he almost certainly won’t. But it’s instructive to point out that Realmuto’s batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage-slash when he was 24 and a rookie with Miami was .259/.290/.406. Ruiz last season, at 23: .251/.313/.360.

Put the money aside, and there’s at least a cultural element to this signing as – and probably more – important. Almost nothing is better documented about the Nationals’ inability — or reluctance or whatever — to retain native talent. Ryan Zimmerman pre-signed agency extensions with Washington. Stephen Strasburg signed one. The rest of the Cores from past competitive teams — Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Harper, Anthony Rendon, Turner, Juan Soto — either reached the free hand and left or were traded before they got there.

“It’s the first thing we’ve ever done, yeah,” Rizzo said. “But it wasn’t the first attempt.”

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Breaking down and understanding these results one by one is an exercise we’ve been through ad nauseam. But there is a collective attrition not only in the fan base but also in the clubhouse. Players would love to grow up with a team that has a reputation for looking after and building on their own team.

These are the players who know the front office and ownership best—their work habits, how they respond to adversity and success, how they interact with teammates, how they receive direction. No research, no phone calls can yield the same information about a potential free agent signee from outside the organization as years spent on planes, in hotels, and in the clubhouse with your own players.

An indication that this deal is low-risk for the Nats: It’s on the books until at least 2030, when there’s no way of knowing who will own the team. The defining feature of this spring training session isn’t Ruiz’s extension or the excitement surrounding some of the prospects the Nats have recently garnered. It’s the uncertainty surrounding the Lerner family’s investigation into a sale, an investigation that is now 11 months old.

“We’re going to continue as before,” said Rizzo. “We’re doing things the way we think is best for the Nationals today and for the long term. And we thought this species achieved both goals.”

Feasible with this type of deal with high upside and low risk. Not with what might be needed in the next off-season when there might be high-impact free agents to pursue. Small steps.

After all, it’s not the next offseason. At the moment, in spring 2023, the bet is: Keibert Ruiz is a player who plays a fundamental role in the clubhouse and on the field. He’ll improve production to the point where $25 million or whatever over the last three years of the contract is more of a bargain than a liability. And for a franchise that seems headstrong, there’s at least a passing sense of stability and possibility. Keibert Ruiz’s contract is an intelligent risk for the player – and the Nats

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