Years have passed of the same old restraint, yet after countless discussions questioning the lack of spending by the Washington Nationals’ principal owners there may finally be some hope on the horizon. Washington remains atop the National League Eastern Division and, assuming the price is right, there is reason to believe that ownership is willing to spend at the upcoming trade deadline in order to remain in first place.
Washington’s ownership group has started to loosen the purse strings in the past year or two – first with the free agent acquisition of Jayson Werth prior to last season and then with the contract extensions handed out to Gio Gonzalez and Ryan Zimmerman early this past Spring. Yet, despite these few examples, the organization has been relatively quiet on the free agent market in recent years and this past winter especially. That philosophy could finally be changing, however.
Mark Lerner, one part of the current ownership group, sat down with Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports earlier this week and discussed the past, present, and the future of the organization, with a great deal of focus spent on what the team may do in the coming weeks. Lerner is the son of Ted Lerner, the chief principal owner of the franchise and the man who, as many describe, is arguably the richest owner in the sport (he has a net worth of roughly $3.3 Billion according to Forbes).
According to Lerner, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo is going to have the financial freedom to do what he feels is best for the organization in the coming weeks, even if that means adding payroll. Washington is already looking at spending roughly $90 Million this year, a franchise record high, but Lerner says they are comfortable spending more if it means a playoff birth, and a winning season, for the first time:
"We’ve never let dollars get in the way of us making decisions that will help this organization. That will always be our philosophy. We don’t look at it like a $100 Million benchmark, or $90 Million, or $120 Million. We try to do smart things. There’s never been a question of this organization spending money. It was when to spend it. You don’t spend it when you have 59 wins. We had to get bad – really bad – before we got better. And luckily when we got really bad, that was when we drafted Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. We got a tremendous amount of luck there. We all knew it. We had to go through the bad years to get to the good years."
2012, at least so far, has been the first good year of the Washington franchise. The Nationals are comfortably in first place. Attendance is rising, further increasing a revenue stream that could help justify any extra spending. The outlook in Washington, at least from a baseball standpoint, is increasingly positive.
Perhaps for the first time, the Nationals may finally be in control of their own fate when it comes to the trade deadline. Instead of selling off veteran pieces to restock the farm system, Washington might be the ones looking for that one missing piece. With the payroll flexibility, Rizzo will be able to make a deal potentially without giving up some of the minor league talent the organization has since assembled considering many teams are often willing to accept lesser prospects if they aren’t asked to pickup a significant portion of a player’s remaining salary.
What direction the Nationals might take remains to be seen. The team could address their long term need for a center field solution. They could look to boost the bench and/or bullpen. Or they could seek a quality starting pitcher, given the likelihood that Strasburg will be shut down once he reaches his projected innings limit (a decision Lerner fully supports Rizzo on).
Washington is also fortunate, considering two vital pieces of the organization may return from injury in the coming weeks. Drew Storen is slated to return mid-July, after the All Star Break, potentially being the extra bullpen piece the team needs. Werth is on schedule to return right around August 1st. Between the two the organization might have all the deadline acquisitions they need. If not, it’s nice to know they’ve got the financial freedom to make a move if need be.