As Monday night bled into Tuesday morning, Nationals Principal Owner Mark Lerner rehashed the whirlwind work he had overseen. The Nationals had signed their top five draft picks, the final four in a rapid-fire, $16 million binge about 10 minutes before midnight. He asked himself a question. “Do I hate this night,” he said, “or do I love this night?”
On Tuesday, Lerner clearly loved the results, at least. With General Manager Mike Rizzo leading the negotiations, the Nationals had wrapped up a draft class – headed by Monday signers Anthony Rendon, Alex Meyer, Brian Goodwin, Matt Purke and Kylin Turnbull – that team evaluators believed to rank the best they had seen and that Lerner believed vaulted the Nationals’ farm system into the game’s elite.
“It was a pretty incredible evening,” Lerner said. “Mike did a fantastic job. It’s never easy. There’s a lot of pressure. Getting all of them was pretty amazing. I didn’t think that would happen. I thought we’d maybe get four of the five, you never know. But it was terrific. You just never know what’s going to happen those last minutes.”
The Nationals’ owner did not think the team would sign all their picks until, “the last one said yes, quite frankly,” Lerner said. A day later, after the frantic final minutes, Lerner could not remember which player agreed to their deal last.
“That’s a good question,” Lerner said. “I don’t recall. I don’t know if it’s Rendon or not. It’s like a blur. The last hour goes by in a blink of an eye. It was fast and furious, like it always is. It was great for the franchise. The way we look at it is, we got four first-round picks.”
Lerner described how the process worked in regard to making a quick decision on a large financial commitment. The Nationals ended up spending about $16.5 million Monday night alone, an amount Lerner believed was surpassed only the Pirates, who signed No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole.
Nationals ownership entered the night with a rough figure of how much they were will to spend, but they did not have a hard-and-fast limit, instead considering each negotiation and player and as it happened.
“We have a budget in our head,” Lerner said. “But at the end of the day, the way I look at it, we take it one by one, see how it’s going, and kind of – I wouldn’t say make the decision on the fly, but see how everything unfolds. I think it’s a little bit unfair to put a flat number on it, because it could be a little bit under, it could be a little bit over.
“We were sitting in there. [Rizzo] throws things by us – ‘What do you think?’ He gets on the phone and does his thing. It seems like every one is a different scenario. It’s a little different, each one, depending on what agent you’re doing it with. [Rizzo] has his routine. He certainly comes to us for advice. It’s always an interesting evening. Let me say that.”
The Nationals may have been able to spend so much Monday because of the unique circumstances this year presented. This was regarded as one of the best drafts of all time, and it included a player like Purke who, for reasons pertaining to health and signability, slid from a possible top-five all the way to third round.
The Nationals had an unusual opportunity that would take an unusually large financial commitment to make good on. They could feel comfortable doing that in part because they probably won’t have to next season. The Nationals, after picking sixth this season, will not draft as high next year – if the season ended today, they would get the 13th overall pick. The Nationals will also not be losing any Type A free agents, as they did last year with Adam Dunn, so they will not have to sign two high compensatory picks.
“Hopefully, we really don’t know to go through this anymore,” Lerner said. “We’ve reached now a level that, you’re moving up where you’re not going to have the opportunity to get guys like this as much. We start moving into 10th, 12th, 15th, 18th, 20th. As we get better, the process will be a little bit easier.”
Lerner believed Monday’s night haul represented ownership’s goals to build the team since they took over. He believes the Nationals now have one of the best farm systems in the game. The night may have been tough for him, but he loved the results.
“I think we’re sticking to the game plan since we’ve got the team,” Lerner said. “We’re going to build the team with the farm system. I think last night, we took it to a whole different level. In my opinion now, we’re probably one of the top five farm systems in baseball. I think that four years ago, we were No. 30. That’s really saying something. To be able to always count on your farm system to help your franchise is what we want, and it’s the only thing we’ll be satisfied with.”