Nationals owner claims team can't afford to keep championship core intact

Mark TownsendYahoo Sports Contributor
Yahoo Sports

The Washington Nationals are destined to lose another top tier free agent this winter.

That's the word directly from managing principal owner Mark Lerner, who in an interview with NBC Sports Washington's Donald Dell claimed the Nationals would not be able to afford to keep both Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg.

“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” Lerner says in the interview set to air on Dec. 17. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with.”

The Nationals are coming off the ultimate high, having just won the franchise's first-ever World Series championship in October. The declaration from Lerner might not be enough to dampen that excitement to a large degree, but it could be taken as an admission that ownership won’t be willing to pay up to keep its championship core in place.

Why can’t the Nationals afford Rendon and Strasburg?

Losing either player would be a damaging blow to the Nationals.

Strasburg, 31, really hit his stride in 2019, stepping up as the team’s main man when Max Scherzer was limited by injuries. He was the best pitcher during the postseason, posting a 5-0 record and a 1.98 ERA in six appearances. He was named World Series MVP after leading Washington to wins in Games 2 and 6.

Rendon, 29, was the heart-and-soul of Washington’s lineup all season and is among the game’s elite defensive players at third base. He finished third in National League MVP voting and was arguably the premier hitter in October.

Both players have been linked to teams that will undoubtedly be willing to spend big money this winter. That is what hurts Washington’s chances to re-sign both the most. But some are still scratching their heads as to why ownership is already proclaiming that both couldn’t potentially fit.

Spending money should not be a huge issue for Washington. The Lerner family is worth an estimated $5.4 billion, not to mention they are coming off a highly successful season in the financial department. They have also shown a willingness to spend in the recent past. The Nationals have had a top seven payroll in four of the last five seasons. They’ve been players for many of the top available free agents during that time period as well.

Nationals owner Mark Lerner claims team can't afford to keep both Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Nationals owner Mark Lerner claims team can't afford to keep both Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

The timing here is what might be most interesting. It was almost one year ago to the day that team owner Ted Lerner stated he didn’t believe the Nationals could afford Bryce Harper. Washington had just signed another free agent, Patrick Corbinto a six-year, $140 million deal, and sure enough, Harper went on to greener pastures in Philadelphia.

Does this all mean the Corbin deal, coupled with the $70 million still owed to Max Scherzer and a desire to keep future core players like Trea Turner and Juan Soto locked in, has truly left the team handcuffed?

Does it mean the team is trying to put another one over on agent Scott Boras, who happens to represent Harper, Rendon and Strasburg? As the NBC Sports Washington story notes, Boras was not happy when the Lerners spoke out on Harper last winter. Boras felt they were attempting to deflate the market by reducing prospective market competition.

Or does it mean the team simply doesn’t want to pony up to keep a championship team together?

Only time will tell.

‘It’s not up to us, it’s up to them’

When pressed on the true odds of keeping both players, Lerner put the onus on the players, not the organization.

From NBC Sports Washington:

“We’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decided to go elsewhere,” Lerner says. “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.”

In other words, both players would have to lower their price tags to make it work for Washington.

As Todd Dybas of NBC Sports Washington points out, that’s not going to happen.

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. 

As indicated before, these could simply be posturing tactics by Washington to potentially better position themselves to re-sign one or both players. But one has to wonder how effective they can be if they’re consistently angering the agent who controls everything.

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