Posts Tagged ‘Mark Lerner’

The Nats, Harper — and the Lerners

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

After all of this time, and despite their uneven press, you have to give this to the owners of the Washington Nationals: they’ve apparently realized that they’re going to have to pay for talent. This wasn’t always so obvious: in the early days after the franchise moved from Montreal to D.C., the Lerners were castigated for their penny-rubbing paperclip-counting ways, as it became gut-wrenchingly clear that the moguls that owned the Nats were as concerned with the bottom line as they were with the team’s place in the standings. Or more so. Articles slamming the Penny Pinchers reached a crescendo in mid-2009, corresponding to both the team’s status as baseball’s worst team and the franchise’s continued woeful performance at the gate.

But things have turned around for the real estate developing dynasty over the last twelve months, the result of two events that took place on exactly the same day — and nearly at the same moment — exactly twelve months apart. Just minutes before the signing deadline for the MLB first year player draft in 2009, and just minutes before the closing of the same signing period in 2010, the Lerners shelled out uber millions of dollars to the most-talked-about young players in major league history: first-round-first-pick Stephen Strasburg and first-round-first-pick outfielder Bryce Harper. We’ll start with Strasburg, who was signed for four years and $15.1 million, the largest contract ever given a player out of the draft. And yesterday, just before midnight, the Nats signed Bryce Harper to a five year deal worth $9.9 million. That’s a lot of money for two players who, prior to their signing, had never played a major league game. But the Lerners signed the checks — for an exact total of $25 million.

It’s hard to argue that the Lerners have learned that (as they would be the first to testify) good investments yield good returns. The investment in Strasburg, for instance, has started to pay for itself — with an estimated additional $5 million increase in revenue in 2010 ticket sales alone. Then too, the sale of Strasburg jerseys has ensured additional revenue; it has been the bestselling baseball jersey this summer and outpaced the sale of any Nats jersey from any player — ever. It’s not much of a guess to speculate that Strasburg will now have some competition, as Harper jerseys (when they arrive), will rival anything “the kid” has sold. So it’s no secret: putting fans in the seats and eyeballs in front of a MASN broadcast will make the Lerner family financially healthy (or, rather, more financially healthy) than they were when the bought the franchise from baseball five years ago.

But let’s not kid ourselves: despite all the talk among baseball owners about how the game is really “a public trust,” it’s much more of a business — with success measured not simply by a team’s place in the standings, but by a franchise’s financial health. Players win games, but profits (big profits) make signing good players possible. Finding the right balance between the two, between investments and returns, is the key to all of this, though it’s only sometimes mastered. It’s hard to wrestle this equation into submission for small and medium market  baseball owners, though much less difficult in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. But it’s possible. The relationship between investments and returns has been mastered in Minnesota (as an example), but not in Pittsburgh, in San Diego, but not in Kansas City. And in Washington?

The D.C. market is the ninth largest in the country (that’s twice the size of Pittsburgh), with a potentially large television audience and a fan base that would be the envy of Minnesota, Pittsburgh or K.C. But in the first years of their tenure as owners, the Lerners acted as if the team was playing in Boise — they cut the payroll and trimmed away what they viewed as marginal baseball operations. If there was a plan here, it didn’t work: after the two year honeymoon with the team wore off, team attendance plummeted nearly at the same rate as team wins. In 2007, the Nats were paying out a mere $37 million in player salaries, an embarrassing amount of cash for what is essentially a large market team. But the Lerners must have gotten the message, which was hard to miss: Nats fans started voting with their feet. They stayed home. The result is that the team’s payroll level has increased in each of the last three years, to nearly $55 million in 2008, $60 million in 2009 and $66 million in 2010. The Harper signing is yet another indication that Mark Lerner is going to keep his promise: that “spending money is not gonna be our issue.” Great. Good. Now then, we need only one more piece of evidence . . .

Buying And Selling

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

While Nats bloggers have been going back-and forth about whether the team needs another bat or another arm, Mike Rizzo seems to have made up his mind. They need both. Yeah, okay — that’s the right answer. But if Rizzo was pressed (and trade bait was short), what do you think he’d really want? Given John Lannan’s continued troubles and the uncertainty surrounding the return of any number of potential starters, the answer should be obvious: not only can you can always play Roger Bernadina in right field, but you absolutely need to; we’re never going to find out whether this kid can hit unless we put him in the line-up every day. Which means that the Nats should be looking for a pitcher to supplement their front (and only) two hurlers — Stephen Strasburg and Livan Hernandez. Let’s be honest. You never know what you’re going to get with Atilano and Martin, Olsen is just too tweaky too often to be counted as a stalwart, pitching messiah Jordan Zimmermann is a ways away from rehabbing and Ross Detwiler is still an unknown. That leaves Chien-Ming Wang (who won’t be here until July) and Jason Marquis — who has yet to show the team anything. So . . .

So who’s out there?

There’s Cliff Lee, who will be available once the cratering Navigators figure out that doling out $91 million in salaries for a last place team isn’t going to cut it. Lee is in the last months of a four year deal, and the Nats would have to look to sign him longer term, but our guess is that the Mariners will happily take good prospects for him — including Triple-A pitchers and Double-A position players that have a future. The Nats have either, and both. In exchange, the Nats would get a veteran fastball pitcher who could mentor Strasburg and an absolutely lights out number two starter (number one anywhere else), who can rack up some badly needed wins. The folks in Seattle say they won’t part with Lee without getting a big time power hitter in return, but that sounds like wishful thinking. Lee isn’t going to stay in Seattle after this year, especially to anchor what promises to be a development team of young prospects and remaining big contracts. It’s an ugly but pertinent truth: the Mariners will take prospects — or they can keep Lee and try to catch the fast disappearing Belinskys, White Elephants and Whatchamacallits. They’ll make the trade — maybe Mike will too.

Then there’s Roy Oswalt, but his contract is a nightmare: just over $9 million over the rest of this season, $16 million in 2011, and $16 million in 2012 with a club option buyout of $2 million. The Nats say they have money to up their salary ceiling, but Oswalt’s price might be a little high — particularly if (as expected), the Nats would have to pick up most if not all of the salary and throw in prospects. Bottom line: he won’t be cheap. But then, there’s always Jake Peavy. Don’t laugh: the former Friar has struggled with the Pale Hose and it appears he’s losing patience with wheeling-and-dealing Kenny Williams and the perpetually enraged Ozzie the G. He recently told a reporter that he would rather be traded than go through a rebuilding process in Chicago. Translation? “Get me the hell out of here.”

It’s hard to blame him: Peavy was a part of a rebuilding process in San Diego — and the team only started to rebuild when he left. Then too, the ChiSox probably look at the Peavy trade with some remorse; they dealt prospects to San Diego, one of whom (Clayton Richard) has turned into a front line pitcher — 4-3, 2.71 ERA. That’s a damn sight better than Peavy (5-5, 5.62 ERA). Ugh. The White Sox might try the same magic, trading Peavy for pitching prospects in the hopes of striking gold. The Nats could help. Of course, Peavy sports a huge contract ($52 million, three years), a teensy bit bigger than Oswalt’s which (for paperclip counter Mark Lerner) is always a problem. But in the end (and if you carefully weigh this out), the Nats could find a rental (like Lee) for some front line prospects or they could take the longer view (which is probably what Rizzo wants) and pony up some prospects and some cash. In either case, while none of these pitchers are going to come cheap, bringing any one of them aboard right now (or in the very near future) will probably mean the difference between a club that will continue its slow-but-certain downward spiral and one that might be able to contend — and fill the seats.

Doormats Win NL . . . Mattingly To Nats?

Friday, October 23rd, 2009


While the AL champion has not yet been decided, the crowning of the Phillies as N.L. champs sets up a classic I-95 tussle with the Yankees — or maybe it’s the Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed series. Despite the dominance of the Phillies in every aspect of their series with the suddenly sputtering Dodgers, the Ashburns would be decided underdogs in the match-up against the The Evil Empire, whose front line pitching of Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte would match-up well against Utley, Howard, Werth and Ibanez. And while the Phillies’ bullpen outclassed the Broxtons, they’d have a tougher time with the middle of the Yanks order. “We’re gonna get it,” Phuzzie manager Charlie Manuel says. We can forgive the over-confidence:  anything can happen in a seven game series and the Phillies are hardly pushovers. Even if they will be (and it’s still a pretty big maybe) facing the class of baseball.

It didn’t use to be this way. For over seven decades the Phillies were the pushovers of the National League — only one step ahead of our very own Washington Senators. As our pals over at Real Dirty Mets Blog point out, the Phils were once the doormats of the league: “From 1918-1948 they were above .500 once. 78-76 in 1932, finishing 4th. In an 8-team league, that was the only time in 31 years they finished above 5th place.” Before winning it all in 1980, the Phillies had appeared in the postseason twice — and lost both times. The Phillies might not have been “first in war, first in peace and last in the National League,” but they were next-to-last; the only thing they had to show for their efforts were a bunch of gamers who entered the hall: Richie Ashburn, Jim Bunning, Jimmie Foxx and Robin Roberts. Not a bad crew, but near-beer when compared to the Dodgers, Giants, and even the Cubs. Even when the Phillies were good they were bad. Baseball fans who know the game well scoff at the Mets collapse of 2007: the ’64 Phillies led the league by 6.5 and blew it in seven games. They were “the pholding Phillies.” It took them until 1980 to win their first series — a record of futility unmatched even by the North Side Drama Queens, who dominated the game in the early part of the century. It took Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt to turn it around, though it would be another twenty-eight years before the Phillies took another championship.

These are not grandpa’s Phillies. The turn in the franchise is not simply the result of lots of money (their 2009 opening day payroll was a whopping $113 million), or a strong fan base (third in all of baseball), but a reflection of one of baseball’s best front offices. Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro (Jr.) never stopped building: the 2009 version of the Phils is his handiwork. He added a key piece in the off-season (Raul Ibanez) and two starters that will be the backbone of the staff in the series: Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez. Even so, it might not be enough. While the Phillies would be favored to humble the Belinskis, it’s doubtful Lee could pitch as well in two games against the Yankees as he did against the Dodgers. And could we really expect Pedro to match his seven inning NLCS effort? Then too, there’s the Phillies bullpen. Scoured clean during the regular season (they were simply awful, and in chaos, in the late going), Brad Lidge was once again Brad Lidge in the Trolley series, keeping the ball away from their best hitters. He would have to do that again, and then some, against the Jeters. Bottom line? In any match-up against the Bombers, the Phillies would have to be Rocky Balboa to win. But it would be exciting.

It’s Not A Motorcycle Sweetie, It’s A Chopper: Mark Lerner just bubbles over about the great progress the Nats have made over the last season, identifying the hiring of Mike Rizzo as one of the five great things that has happened to the team. Agreed. But the real question here (never asked in the on line interview) is whether the owners are willing to shell out what it will take to bring ballplayers to the club. The Nats payroll for 2009 was at $60 million, a little more than half of what the Phillies paid . . . The Lerners should know better than to complain about the media. They can’t win: and it’s hard to argue with columnists who roll their eyes at the obvious penny pinching. The Lerner family says they operate the Nationals as a public trust and are committed to the city. They should be celebrated for that: but the midseason argument that the Lerners have given back never really sounded right. Is that why they bought the team? To be good citizens?

The report of the day has Don Mattingly being interviewed for the Nats managerial job. “You listen to everyone,” Mattingly said about taking a job with a team that is rebuilding. “I’m flattered there’s some organizations out there that think I’m capable of it, or at least talked to me about it. You get to know them, they get to know you, and you see where it goes from there.” Mattingly knows the game and has been angling for a top dugout job since he left baseball. He was the reputed successor to Joe Torre in New York and was angered by the hiring of Joe Girardi. But the knock on Mattingly has nothing to do with his willingness to manage a last place team. The question is: does a last place team really need a guy who’s never been a manager — or wouldn’t the Nats be better off with someone with a few more years under their belt. No matter his experience, Mattingly would be an experiment: and the Nats have had enough of those.

Nats’ Draft Now A Success

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

The details of the Strasburg signing are now becoming known. The San Diego State righthander has signed a four year contract for a total $15.1 million guaranteed, with a $7.5 million bonus and $7.6 million in salary. The contract includes a number of unreported incentives. There are unconfirmed reports that the Nationals had weighed in with an offer somewhere in the range of $12.5 million, before upping the total in the waning hours of Monday, just before the trading deadline. This would contradict reports that the Nats had put an offer of between fourteen and sixteen million dollars to Strasburg agent Scott Boras this past weekend. Team officials met with Strasburg several weeks ago and were impressed with him. The Nationals front office is touting the deal — it is the lead story on both the MLB and the Washington Nationals’ team website. With the signing the Nats have completed their most successful draft: signing 13 of their first fifteen picks.

Speaking by telephone to Washington, D.C. sports radio 106.7, a Baseball America reporter said that he had talked to Strasburg, “who seemed out of breath but clearly pleased” that the signing had been completed. The reporter said that Strasburg told him that agreement with the Nationals was reached at 11:58 pm on Monday, just two minutes before the signing deadline. Nationals Journal reports: “For weeks, the pitcher and the organization had been locked into the highest-stakes contract negotiations in amateur history, and the 11th-hour deal left both sides on edge as the midnight deadline approached. Deal done, Strasburg will begin his professional career, and the Nationals will enter an era very much tied to the career of their newest, richest player.”

Despite the recent Nationals team success — a record of 21-20 since July 4 — the signing of Strasburg was seen by many baseball commentators as a litmus test for the struggling franchise, particularly after the Nats failed to sign last year’s top draft pick, pitcher Aaron Crow. As late as Saturday, Nats President Stan Kasten was expressing doubts that the deal would get done. “With 48 hours to go, I simply have no idea whether we’re going to be able to reach a deal,” Kasten said in an interview with the Associated Press. The signing of Strasburg has given the franchise and its owners reason to celebrate: the team has made a huge, but not bank-busting commitment to the team’s future. There was no question the pressure was on the Nats: NBC Washington was breathless in its use of adjectives: “By midnight tonight, Nats fans will know whether the team they follow will have squandered away a second consecutive first-round draft pick.” Squandered? Well, maybe. But maybe not. The question for the Lerners is whether the calculation they made will be worth it: should Strasburg not pan out or get injured, the Nats ownership may feel that the only thing squandered was the money they spent for no return. 

Strasburg may well be a once-in-a-generation talent — a pitcher who can immediately jump from college ball to “the show” (a Ryan Zimmerman of pitchers) — or he could be like those other pitchers drafted with the first overall picks who made their way to the big leagues in their first year: David Clyde (drafted in 1973) and Ben MacDonald, drafted in 1989. We won’t know until we see him pitch for the first time at Nationals Park, and we won’t know even then. But this we do know: owners that want their teams to compete in the majors pony up. The Lerners had to show that they knew this and were willing to spend the money to play with the big boys in New York, Boston, Philly, L.A. and Chicago. Nats fans should be overjoyed. After months of saying they were committed to putting a better team on the field, and spending the money to do it — the Lerners showed they meant it.  

Mark Lerner Congratulates Stan Kasten on Strasburg Pick

Mark Lerner Congratulates Stan Kasten on Strasburg Pick