WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Fans on the sidewalks at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches are held back by wire fence, just a few feet away from players clicking past in spikes on concrete. It emulates two priorities: access and the idea the team’s managing principal owner, Mark Lerner, had when he was a kid at spring training.
“You want to be able to see your favorites,” Lerner said Friday.
When Lerner, 65, comes to West Palm Beach, he still does that. He stops in the clubhouse to distribute handshakes and hugs. Running into Anthony Rendon on a crosswalk near the fields really lit up Lerner, who is still using a cane following an amputation of his lower left leg in 2017 necessitated by the diagnosis of spindle cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer.
Not in West Palm Beach is a player Lerner had a close relationship with. On the day Manny Machado was introduced in San Diego, Bryce Harper remained, to the astonishment of many, unemployed.
Lerner last addressed Harper’s free agency when he sat for radio interviews, Dec. 10, the day Patrick Corbin was introduced. He said the Nationals were no longer in the mix for Harper. The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract which had an expiration date: when free agency began, it would be retracted. Harper declined, vaulting the baseball world into a months-long saga filled with tension, misinformation and growing exasperation.
“Nothing’s certainly changed on our end; we’ve moved on, as I said back then,” Lerner told NBC Sports Washington. “We had to. There was no way we could wait around. Bryce I’m sure will make his decision, hopefully in the next few days. But, we filled out our roster and like I said, we wish him nothing but the best. There’s always that -- the door’s cracked a little bit. I have no clue at this point what they’re up to. I mean, we really haven’t heard from them in a couple months.”
The prospect of a wait was of prime concern before the season ended. Washington used its personal window to negotiate with Harper, producing a lucrative baseline offer, with the aforementioned end date. Not long after, Corbin received a six-year, $140 million from the organization, which stood throughout the offseason as the benchmark in both length and total value prior to Machado’s decision. If Harper accepted the Nationals original offer, they would not have been able to pay Corbin, according to a source.
The organization moved forward plugging holes at catcher, second base and in the bullpen. It deemed the current outfield foursome as more than satisfactory. Also looming was the possibility of another year over the competitive balance tax, something that prompted the team to start shuffling finances late last season when it was clear the playoffs were not an option.
“It’s a pretty severe penalty if you go over and it’s been our goal all year to stay under that,” Lerner said.
Which complicates the future. Anthony Rendon is entering the final year of his contract. Rendon and the team are open to an extension, which has been discussed here and there for 18 months. Rendon reiterated his position when speaking with reporters earlier this week. Lerner turned his visual affection for Rendon into words Friday.
“We love Tony to death,” Lerner said. “He’s certainly one of the greatest players in the game today. He’s an even finer person. His activities with the youth baseball academy back in D.C. are phenomenal. He does it under the radar. It’s very important to him. Just a great example of the way a professional athlete should conduct himself. Like I said, he’s one of my favorites for a reason.”
Washington rose perennial losers upon coming to Washington to an organization with annual prominent expectations. It chose not to retain manager Dusty Baker, instead hiring Dave Martinez in an attempt to push the team beyond the first round. Martinez’s arrival came with the edict that something more than division titles and first-round bow outs were now necessary for the team. The Nationals finished 82-80 last year during a season filled with injuries, under-performance and often mediocre fundamental baseball. Lerner suffered through with the irritation of a typical fan.
“I have my routine [following losses]. I go into a closet and scream a little after,” Lerner said with a laugh. “No, no. That’s one thing that’s good about baseball. You’re going to play the next day. But I go home. I’m totally depressed. I won’t turn on the sports news or anything and get up the next morning, it’s a new day, get up and go after it again today. When I’m sitting down there, I’m very passionate as a fan. I’m yelling at the umpires like everybody else. I want to win. I hate losing exhibition games let alone regular-season games.”
Enter 2019. The Nationals are amid the favorites in a taught National League East. Short-term fixes frame the team’s mainstays. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Corbin possess the three long-term commitments in the clubhouse. Rendon may be next. The Nationals want to retain that talent level, avoid the tax and put together a team with a chance to win the division or more. Harper’s talent made that possible when here. His price made it difficult going forward. They decided to try it without him.
“Our goal every year is certainly to make the playoffs,” Lerner said. “In reality, we look back where we are in the world and where our needs are. It’s not just…certainly, we don’t want to go crazy with free agency. But we said when we first got the team, we’re going to build up the minor leagues, we’re going to get to a point where we can start to dabble in free agency, which we did with Jayson Werth, and when we find a need or a special player, we’re going to go after that player if it makes monetary sense for us. Our philosophy has never changed but, certainly, our goal is to make the playoffs and hopefully deep into the playoffs.”
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