The prime question as soon as Stephen Strasburg opted out of his contract was this: Could the Nationals afford to bring back Strasburg and Anthony Rendon? According to managing principal owner Mark Lerner, the answer is no.
“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” Lerner told Donald Dell in an exclusive interview. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with.”
Lerner’s public stance suggesting Strasburg and Rendon is an either-or proposition for the defending World Series champions is new. Is it surprising? Not necessarily. Lerner could flatly state the organization is going to find a way to pay both. However, that’s poor negotiating. Being in between serves multiple needs: It keeps the door open on each player; it stirs the market without roiling it; it prepares fans for an outcome they don’t prefer.
Lerner has not hesitated to comment on pending and enormous free agent situations since becoming the more outward face of the team’s ownership group. His father, founding principal owner Ted Lerner, has stepped back, though remains the patriarchal voice on large expenditures. Here, like last year, Mark Lerner has answered early December questions about free agency with eyebrow-raising candor. His declaration about Strasburg and Rendon comes almost a year-to-the-day after he said about Bryce Harper, “I don’t really expect him to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on.”
An owner talking with a blend of tactfulness and openness -- when asked a direct question by an interviewer -- drew irritation from Harper’s agent, Scott Boras. Boras also represents Rendon and Strasburg. Hearing an owner speak in a way which counters possible price increases by reducing prospective market competition won’t make any agent happy. It happened here.
So, is there a path for the Nationals to pay both players? Of course. But, it’s a matter of how. In Lerner’s view, whether both players return is up to them, not the organization.
“We’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decided to go elsewhere,” Lerner said in the interview with Dell. “Again, it’s not up to us. We can give them a great offer -- which we’ve done to both of those players. They’re great people. We’d be delighted if they stay. But it’s not up to us, it’s up to them. That’s why they call it free agency.”
Important to note: Lerner said the organization cannot afford both, then said it’s up to the players -- not ownership -- whether the players return. The suggestion is if they take lower deals, which both sides know they won’t, they could come back, which in fact would make the players solely responsible for deciding the process. That’s now how free agency works, which everyone involved here understands.
Lerner could process the offseason in Steinbrennerian fashion. Pay, pay, pay. He won’t. It’s not how the family runs the team. They operate more as well-heeled pragmatists.
Payroll is consistently high. Washington has been in the top seven four of the last five seasons. Twice, it has reached the No. 5 spot in team payroll. The Nationals gave Max Scherzer the years and total other teams would not. The same happened for Patrick Corbin last offseason.
However, the team also took extensive measures to dip back under the competitive balance tax threshold in 2019 in order to avoid financial and draft pick penalties. It is also already driving down next season’s payroll by renegotiating with Yan Gomes (declined $9 million option; re-signed for two years and $10 million) and reworking Ryan Zimmerman’s contract (declined $18 million option; likely re-signing for around a third of that).
Costs outside of the two big-ticket items of third base and an upper-tier starter should be moderate. The bullpen needs help. Relievers are not bank-breakers. Second base could well consist of a veteran and rookie Carter Kieboom. Those spots influence the immediate math and save money.
Looming are the contracts of Trea Turner (free agent in 2023; also receiving a raise this season), Juan Soto and Victor Robles (free agents in 2025). Though that trio is egregiously outperforming their contracts while wading through MLB’s oppressive early career salary scale, which means opportunity exists now to spend because of emphatic savings via those three players.
Lerner also suggested the free agency process is generally misunderstood outside of baseball circles.
“They think you’re really back there printing money and it’s whoever goes to the highest bidder,” Lerner said. “It’s not that way at all. You give these fellas -- there’s a negotiation that goes on, but...We’ve been pretty successful in free agency over time. You’re not going to get everybody. Certain players may want to go home, closer to where their home is. You never know the reason why people move on. But, we’ve been very successful. Probably one of the most successful teams in free agency the last 10 years. We’re very proud of our record. But, again, I think people have to realize, it’s not all up to us.”
It nearly can be. The money can be level or more. A public emphasis could be put on the organization’s desperation to bring back two homegrown, upper-tier players at distinct positions of need. No, teams can’t control everything with just cash (as Zack Wheeler recently demonstrated by taking less money to sign with Philadelphia). However, if the organization contends it owns the environmental tiebreakers -- which is a stance the Nationals hold with both players -- then it does become a matter of money and whether it’s found. In this case, the owner says it won’t be.
See more of the interview on the next episode of The Donald Dell Interview, which debuts December 17 at 7 PM on NBC Sports Washington.
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