Nats Proceed With Caution

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sitting earlier this week at a forum at his alma mater, Washington Nationals owner Theodore Lerner likened his family's first year at the helm of the District's Major League Baseball franchise to freshman year at college, full of unexpected experiences and adjustments. But he made clear one thing: Under his stewardship, the Nationals will not adjust to what he considers to be outlandish spending by his fellow owners in the free agent market.

"What concerns us most is the free agency signings which have occurred in the last 90 days," Lerner said Tuesday afternoon at George Washington University. "It could take baseball out of control."

Lerner, 81, prefers to keep his public comments to a minimum, allowing team president Stan Kasten to serve as the face of the franchise. Kasten, in turn, has spent his tenure touting the Nationals' long-term vision for sustained success, one that has left the Nationals on the sidelines in acquiring premier major leaguers as the team waits for a new ballpark, scheduled to open in 2008. Rather, the club has spent time and money developing its scouting and player development systems, arguing that a patient approach will prove more productive than spending merely to improve the 2007 roster.

Lerner echoed Kasten's often-expressed sentiments Tuesday, saying he wanted to "create a good team, a consistent team, and have a good farm system." And in speaking during a panel discussion with two other GW alumni -- Baltimore Orioles Manager Sam Perlozzo and New York Yankees President Randy Levine -- Lerner fell right in line with the thinking of Commissioner Bud Selig, who constantly emphasizes that, even in a time of tremendous economic prosperity for the sport, baseball's owners must be careful about inflating the market for players.

Lerner said that last week at the owners' quarterly meetings, Selig "lectured us" for 90 minutes about the dangers of spending too much in free agency. Lerner said he shared that concern following an offseason that paid off both for stars -- such as former National Alfonso Soriano, who received $136 million over eight years from the Chicago Cubs -- and mid-level performers such as new Kansas City pitcher Gil Meche, who will make $55 million over the next five years. Such deals, Lerner said, have been a surprising introduction to baseball.

"In the real estate business and in some of our other businesses, there seems to be some sanity to it," Lerner said. "People continue asking me the question, 'Are you having fun?' The answer is, 'On occasion.' "

Since they were announced as the Nationals' owners last May, the Lerners have been consistent in their message that they want to build the club through their own player development department, one that was largely left in shambles by Major League Baseball, which bought the team in 2002. In the short term, that means the 2007 Nationals likely will have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and, many forecasters are predicting, one of the worst records. But team officials added that they don't intend to take "a dime out of the team for at least 10 years," Kasten said, that they are committed to providing a positive fan experience both at RFK Stadium this season and in the new park beyond that, and that maintaining a low payroll now will prove wise in the future, when the new ballpark will generate more revenue.

"We have been resolute about maintaining those principles," Kasten said.

Still, team officials acknowledge that they must persuade fans to share their view.

"People will get tired of hearing about 'The Plan,' but it's the truth," Mark Lerner, Ted's son and one of the club's principal owners, said in an interview. "We know we'll get little hits from people who are a little impatient. But we're very enthusiastic. . . . We're not going in [to this season] with a negative attitude. It's quite the opposite."

Mark Lerner said that while he didn't believe it made sense for the Nationals to invest heavily in a free agent market that he called "shocking," the club plans on raising payroll beginning with the 2008 season.

"There's no question in our mind that it's going to happen," Mark Lerner said. "I can't tell you the exact amounts, but that's always the plan. So hopefully everything works out with the new stadium, and we're going to back up what we've been saying all along.

"But you have to remember with free agency, you have to use it selectively. You can't go crazy. And if we get to the point where one or two quality free agents takes us to the next level, that's when you dip into it. I think that's always been Stan's plan with the Braves [for whom he served as president for 17 seasons], and that's going to be our plan."

Both Mark and Theodore Lerner conceded that the learning curve has been steep and the work load heavier than expected. "I finally found out what 24-7 means," Theodore Lerner said. Yet they said they are undaunted and completely invested in the process of building the club. Though both Theodore and Mark Lerner and the team's two other principal owners -- Ed Cohen and Robert Tanenbaum, Ted Lerner's sons-in-law -- leave the baseball side of the Nationals' operation to Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden, Kasten said he meets formally with the Lerner family "every 10 days to two weeks," and he is in touch by phone or e-mail with them nearly every day. Mark Lerner said his father is so involved in club business that he "checks every expense sheet, because that's how you find out where mistakes are being made."

"We have a very, very engaged ownership," Kasten said.

Late in the hour-long discussion, Theodore Lerner was quick to respond to a comment from Levine, who said that given the pressures in New York, the Yankees' goal each and every year is to win the World Series.

"I might add," Lerner deadpanned, "we're really not concerned with the World Series this year."

Nationals Notes: Outfielder Alex Escobar yesterday became the latest National to avoid arbitration, agreeing to terms on a one-year, $530,000 deal. Escobar had asked for $590,000, and the club submitted a figure of $500,000. . . . Pitchers Chad Cordero and John Patterson and outfielder Austin Kearns are the arbitration-eligible Nationals who haven't agreed to terms.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company