The Nats owner, feathers ruffled on several fronts in recent months, just spoke loudly without saying a word. Let’s see a show of hands now: Who doesn’t think the Nats will ever have another chance to go to a World Series? Speak up. Soriano certainly seems like Lerner’s rebutal.
This deal had “owner-endorsed” written all over it. At $28 million for two years, it was a fairly expensive last-puzzle-piece statement by the team’s brass. The Nats now have Soriano, who saved 42 last season and 45 in 2010; Drew Storen, who saved 43 in 2011; and all-star Tyler Clippard, who saved 32 in ’12.
When last seen, the Nats were suffering one of the worst final-game blown leads in postseason history. A good but tired bullpen leaked fuel until finally the wrong Cardinals sparks lit the blaze. What psychological damage might linger? For a team that won 98 games, many of them high-stress one- and two-run games, were Storen and Clippard enough?
Few asked the bigger question: Why not outbid everybody for the Yankees’ closer, who also led the AL in saves for the Rays in ’10 (with a 1.76 ERA)? Reverse the question: What do you do with triple closers?
Suddenly, the Nats’ “window” of World Series opportunity looks more like a double-wide door or maybe the entrance to the rotunda. Things can always go wrong, but now there are even more ways they can go right.
You really don’t want to make things personal with Lerner, the wealthiest owner in baseball. Nobody had until last year. Then people started calling his team and his general manager names for shutting down Stephen Strasburg. They didn’t know that Lerner himself was the second-strongest advocate in counseling patience, behind Mike Rizzo.
“What was amazing is how we were vilified, like we were ruining the game of baseball,” one Nats decision-maker said.
Then, after the Nats blew Game 5 of the division series, the Cardinals said the young Nats were taking deep breaths and didn’t look ready for such a big-pressure game as they wasted a 6-0 lead. As this year began, Lerner was still frustrated over a long dispute with MASN about the fair TV rights for the Nats. Without financial certainty, would the Nats compete financially?
That is answered now. The Nats’ payroll, with Soriano the highest-paid reliever in baseball at $14 million a year, is roughly $115 million to $120 million— market-appropriate but perhaps edging into the game’s top 10.
Once sports owners experience victory, they get the bug. Even if they didn’t have it before, they catch it once they stand on their field celebrating a title, with the crowd standing and cheering, chanting everyone’s name. Maybe Lerner always planned to pay the price eventually to bring a World Series to Washington. But for certain, he was all-in after his Nationals clinched the National League East title in the last week of the ’12 regular season, a couple of years ahead of expectations.