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Nationals owner Mark Lerner on Davey Martinez, the turnaround and Anthony Rendon’s future

Nationals owner Mark Lerner on Davey Martinez, the turnaround and Anthony Rendon’s future

WASHINGTON -- Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner surveyed batting practice Tuesday in his red Nationals jacket, watching everything he pursued coming to fruition.

His family’s team was one win from its first World Series berth. Often tense when watching even regular-season games, Lerner felt a bit of joy with his team so close to a conclusion which seemed so distant at the start of the season.

“Obviously I wasn’t too happy, nobody was,” Lerner said. “I couldn’t imagine what happened the rest of the season. I would have never believed where we are today. A turnaround like that only happens once in a blue moon, so I can’t say I totally expected it. I didn’t.”

When the crumbling season hit its low point May 23, Lerner had options. He could fire Davey Martinez. He could have demanded several other changes. He, like everyone else, had the choice to panic as a result of his irritation with the team’s beginning. Instead, he kept the manager his family preferred over Dusty Baker, the one who was assigned a clear edict when hired: take us to the World Series. 

“It never crossed my mind to dismiss Davey, no matter all the pressure that was put on us,” Lerner said. “I think he’s become a very, very good manager, and I think in the years to come he will become a great manager. I have total confidence in him and delighted that all these good things are happening. Nobody deserves it more than him.”

Slowly, his team began to pivot. Winning months followed. The rallying perpetuated until the end of the season, culminating with a 3-0 start to the National League Championship series. “I was talking to my sister [Tuesday] it’s just hard to believe, just the whole thing,” Lerner said. “Even if we didn’t have this turnaround season, if it was just a solid season, to get to this point is just such a special thing and we’re in uncharted waters. The Cardinals have been through it, the Dodgers have been through it, this is all new for everybody in this building. So it’s very special.”

Anthony Rendon’s best season as a professional was central to the push. Rendon is set to become a free agent after multiple negotiation attempts to reach a contract extension failed. Lerner lauded Rendon in spring training. He did so again Tuesday.

“We certainly want to keep him,” Lerner said. “That's 110 percent. It's really in Tony's and his family's hands at this point. They have to decide what they want to do. He's earned that right as a free agent. It couldn't happen to a better guy. We love him to death. And I hope that his decision is to stay here and I'll go pick him up and bring him over.”

For now, Lerner will spend his time watching Game 4 and his club, eventually, advancing to the World Series with one more win. No team with a 3-0 lead has lost the NLCS.

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How Carter Kieboom influences Nationals’ needs in Day 2 at Winter Meetings

How Carter Kieboom influences Nationals’ needs in Day 2 at Winter Meetings

SAN DIEGO -- Stephen Strasburg is back. The rotation is set, at least one through four, and a crab-bucket crawl is ready for the fifth spot. Howie Kendrick signed to play second and first, as well as pinch-hit. Ryan Zimmerman is expected to return. Anthony Rendon remains in limbo.

So, what now?

Day Two at the Winter Meetings for Washington should bring calm. Or at least lesser salvos. The Nationals entered the San Diego soiree with noise around them. Rendon and Strasburg were huge factors in the offseason. Washington is the World Series champion. It, as much as anyone in baseball, was on the marquee when everyone gathered.

Business now is more pragmatic. The Nationals are likely out on Rendon -- despite meager attempts Monday to say they are not -- which means bullpen and second base are at issue. 

Prospect Carter Kieboom is an option at second base. The Nationals began to work him there last offseason and continued to do so throughout 2019 with Triple-A Fresno. Kieboom made limited appearances at third base (10 games, nine starts, four errors) and is not ready to play that position at the major-league level. His work at shortstop in the major leagues showed he’s not ready to play there, either. There’s also no need with Trea Turner under contract.

Which means Kieboom’s future influences possible spending, which influences Rendon -- slightly -- and has a bearing on the bullpen expenditures. 

“He's close,” Davey Martinez said of Kieboom. “After we had him, he went back down to triple A, kept his head up, and played really well, hit well, did some adjustments. He's going to come to Spring Training and get a shot to play different positions. We'll see. We'll see what transpires, but he's a kid that we value very much. We know what he can do with the bat. We've got to figure out a position for him, whether it's second base or third base, but I think that he adds some value and he could help us in the future.”

This is expected and necessary posturing from Martinez. They don’t know where Kieboom should play. They think his bat will play. Can he become a productive hitter and average defender at second base? If so, that’s high value. Could he eventually take over third base? Washington has to consider the notion when tangling with whether to pay Rendon, or, more likely, Josh Donaldson via a shorter contract.

“I really feel that he learned a lot just coming up that short period of time,” Martinez said of Kieboom. “We know what kind of player we think he can be, and like I said, he's learned how to become that player. He went back down, and I've seen a lot of guys that came up and had a rough time that go back down and don't quite put it together. He went back down there and had a really good year in triple A.

“So it's just a learning process for him. ...And the biggest thing I'll tell Carter is that he's a guy that needs to use the whole field when he hits and not to take his at-bats out to the field. It's two different things. You've got to play defense, and then you've got to hit. I think that's something, as a young player, that you need to learn to be consistent up here.”

The organization’s belief in whether Kieboom can do that will factor into its decisions in San Diego. Monday’s Strasburg splash kicked things off. Tuesday is likely to be more about filling gaps than record contracts.

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Anthony Rendon’s future appears set following Stephen Strasburg deal

Anthony Rendon’s future appears set following Stephen Strasburg deal

SAN DIEGO -- On the stage Monday at the Winter Meetings, two key components of Anthony Rendon’s future chatted before the television’s red camera light popped on.

Mike Rizzo and agent Scott Boras passed a final 30 seconds before showtime with small talk, then addressed the first bombastic signing of the Winter Meetings: Stephen Strasburg is returning to the Washington Nationals on a seven-year, $245 million deal. This, for all intents and purposes, ends Rendon’s time with the organization. 

The math creates a crunch. Rizzo tried to maneuver around the reality when on the dais next to Boras, but the reality is Washington does not want to surpass the competitive balance tax, it does not want to blow out payroll, and it has little wiggle room. Rendon moving on is the now an anchor in the offseason.

Washington operates with a big payroll and pocket-lining approach. A seeming dichotomy. It spends just to the edge. Then, it stops. Not too far to go over the tax. Not too far to appear reckless. But always far enough to say, correctly, the organization is a willing spender, a point Rizzo leaned on when asked about Rendon’s future Monday.

“You look at the history of the Nationals and the way we've positioned ourselves and the details of the contract and the way that it's structured, this ownership group has never shied away from putting the resources together to field a championship-caliber club,” Rizzo said. “I don't see them in any way hindering us from going after the elite players in the game.

“I think that Anthony Rendon is, again, one of the players that is most near and dear to my heart, a guy we've drafted, signed, developed, watched turn into a superstar, playoff success, and a huge part of the world championship run that we went on. So he's a guy that we love.

“The ownership has always given us the resources to field a great team, and we're always trying to win, and we're going to continue to do so.”

That is a 141-word non-answer. 

Washington’s managing principal owner Mark Lerner did not help Rizzo’s position before the Winter Meetings by stating the team could bring back only Rendon or Strasburg -- not both. 

“He did?” Rizzo joked. 

He did. Which, naturally, makes reporters curious about the correlation between a statement from ownership and Rizzo’s operating capacity.

“Well, when you look at those comments, and then you look at the structure of this particular deal and the structure of deals we've had getting up to where we are right now, I think Mark realizes that there's ways to fit players in, there's ways that you can field a championship-caliber roster -- and, again, the resources have always been there, so I don't expect that to change,” Rizzo said.

Here, he hopped into the idea Strasburg’s deferred money -- reportedly $80 million to be paid out within three years of the contract’s expiration -- suggesting the manipulation of those numbers keeps Rendon in play for the organization. It’s not enough. Not based on how the Nationals allocate and spend.

Which means they chose. Strasburg or Rendon. They could only have one, and they signed the homegrown pitcher and thanked Rendon for his time.

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