Ownership, GM are finally on same page

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ted Lerner's youngest grandchild has made him a gift for the holidays. It's a Baseball Owner's Meter that measures how well granddad is doing so far. There's an arrow on it to indicate his progress. At one side of the meter is the word "Cheap." On the other side is the word "Dumb." That's the whole range of choices.

All available Lerners, three generations worth, showed up at Nationals Park on Wednesday to celebrate the arrival of their $126-million free agent, Jayson Werth. The slugging right fielder has quickly improved their patriarch's reputation among Nationals fans while simultaneously lowering it among annoyed rival owners.

The price of players jumped after his seven-year offer-you-can't-refuse to Werth. In the wake of that $18-million-a-year deal, Boston signed Carl Crawford for more than $20 million a year, and Cliff Lee took $24 million a year from the Phillies even though he could have taken $30 million more in total compensation from the Yankees.

"The other day, Ted said, 'Honey, I've gone from cheap to dumb to not quite dumb,' " said Lerner's wife, Annette.

The Nationals' losing seasons, five in a row of them, have embarrassed and at times hurt the Lerners. You won't hear them say it. But others, close to them, will. But with Werth and the probability that General Manager Mike Rizzo will add a free agent first baseman and a pitcher or two this winter, they can finally smile a little. Any more deals coming?

"Look under the Christmas tree," said Mark Lerner, a principal owner.

Hopes have been raised. That's good marketing. But false advertising backfires. The Nats vow that's not the case.

Trust, but verify.

If the Nats stick to their word to field a competitive team soon - a promise that they've now given to their fans, their general manager and Werth - then in a couple of years, maybe there'll be another holiday-gift-meter for Ted with "Smart" as one alternative.

"In a couple of years?" asks Annette Lerner.

Sometimes, you have to read between the lines. Maybe the Werth contract is a one-shot deal. But that's doubtful. Billionaire builders understand: "In for a dime, in for a dollar." Werth cost a lot of dimes. You don't spend a fortune digging a huge hole for the foundation and then fail to put the building on top. Werth is just such a Lerner sunk cost. It's wasted if you don't continue the job.

"The Lerners are on board for winning, I was assured [by them] they would do everything to go get the players we need," said Werth in a news conference that quickly put him in a tie with Ryan Zimmerman as most polished Nat. "And not just anybody. But the right people to make the clubhouse a complete place."

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