VIERA, FLA. — Mark Lerner planned to fly home to Washington on Sunday night, his three-week stay at Washington Nationals spring training finished. He regretted leaving behind the weather and the team he owns, but he had too much to handle before opening day to stay longer. Sunday afternoon, he sat beside the Nationals dugout for one more game.
During an interview that touched on many topics, Lerner said neither he nor any of the franchise’s owners have become more involved with the team’s baseball operations since former team president Stan Kasten left last fall. The Nationals “haven’t missed a beat” without Kasten, Lerner said, and General Manager Mike Rizzo has been granted authority to make baseball decisions himself.
“There really hasn’t been a change in our procedures at all,” Lerner said, sitting in the Space Coast Stadium dugout. “Guiding the organization the right way? Sure, we’re going to continue to do that. But we’re not going to get in the middle of their baseball operations or second-guessing any part of the operation. We’re there for advice. We do have experience. We think we have a pretty good business approach to things, a smart approach.”
Lerner said Rizzo’s day-to-day role has changed little since Kasten left and the Nationals gave Rizzo a five-year contract extension and added executive vice president of baseball operations to his title. For significant moves, Rizzo and Kasten once presented their reasoning to the Nationals’ board of directors together. Now, Rizzo and COO Andy Feffer sit on the board, Rizzo dealing with baseball matters and Feffer handling business and marketing.
“The only thing I can compare it to is, Stan’s not in the middle now,” Lerner said. “On the major things, [Rizzo] comes in front of the board. Mike’s running the show in baseball ops. It’s his baby now. It’s new to him, too. Everybody has a little bit of a learning curve in this business.”
The Nationals made the largest financial commitment to a single player in franchise history this winter when they handed Jayson Werth a seven-year, $126 million contract. Lerner expressed a willingness to sign more big-ticket free agents, but not recklessly.
“You’ve got to be smart about the decisions you make,” Lerner said. “It’s not just about baseball payroll. It’s all the money you spend in every part of the business. We’re going to do what it takes as the team builds to, hopefully, a playoff contender in the next couple years. We’re going to do the things that are necessary. I think we shocked the world with what we did this year with Jayson. That’s not going to be the last thing we do.”
The Nationals, Lerner said, are gathering information for a move away from spring training in Viera, exploring options on the west coast of Florida and in Arizona. The Nationals prefer staying in Florida, Lerner said, but “will not hesitate to go to Arizona if necessary.” The Nationals have consulted an architect to draw up initial plans for a new spring training stadium, Lerner said.
“Viera has been wonderful as a town. Viera government has been wonderful. Our problem is basically logistics. Our closest game is 120-mile round trip. . . . It’s not good for the organization. We have no choice but to look at what our options are.”
Finally, Lerner addressed Manager Jim Riggleman’s contract situation by reiterating Rizzo’s control of the baseball operation. Riggleman is working on the last guaranteed year of his contract, with a team option for 2012 the Nationals have not acted on.
“It truly is Mike’s call,” Lerner said. “If he wants to keep Jim, it’s his choice. If he wants to not keep Jim, that’s his choice, too. But right now, there’s no reason to believe Jim is going any place. We think that he’s done a good job.”