Ownership, GM are finally on same page

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; D01

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."

The identity of those players will be vital. That's Rizzo's job. But without taking the first step - deciding to compete now - the Nats can't go anywhere. The Lerners may finally be marching.

"With the talent that's here and the talent that's coming next year . . . there's enough here to make our move to the next level," said Mark Lerner.

The talent that's coming by '12 is, hopefully, a healthy Stephen Strasburg and '10 No. 1 overall draft pick Bryce Harper. The futures of Werth, 31, and Harper, 18, are actually intertwined, and the faster Harper arrives, the better the Werth deal may look. The day Harper takes over right field, expect Werth to move to center field. He's played there before. His lean build and speed both lend themselves to the position until he's perhaps 35.

The Nats hope that Nyjer Morgan can nail down the center field job this season, playing as he did in '09. But if he can't, it's possible that an outfield of Werth, Harper and a left-field platoon that includes Roger Bernadina, would be an even stronger unit. "In left, Bernadina plays almost Barry Bonds defense," said Rizzo.

The Nats' decision to make a major free agent splash this winter, rather than next, is probably connected to Harper's strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. Only the rare Mickey Mantle or Ken Griffey Jr., has proved to be big league ready at age 19. But the Nats have opened the door for the possibility.

"When we introduced Harper here a few months ago, he was only 17. Now, he's 18," said Ted Lerner. "I saw [Hall of Famer] Harmon Killebrew play his first game for the Senators in Griffith Stadium [in '54]. He made his debut when he was 17 years old."

The key man in the Nats' future was probably on display on Wednesday. But it wasn't Werth, even though Rizzo praised him as a combination of "skill-set and an attitude - he has superstar talent and a dirt-bag mentality."

That man is probably Rizzo himself. Ever since the Nationals came to Washington, authority has always been divided at the top. No one person has ever spoken to the team's board (the Lerners) with the full weight of the front office's baseball expertise.

As recently as this July, Rizzo had a deal done to send Adam Dunn to the Chicago White Sox at the trade deadline for pitcher Edwin Jackson, 27, who has only a 48-51 career record but catches Rizzo's scouting eye with his 96 mph heat. Former team president Stan Kasten preferred to keep Dunn and try to sign him - immediately - to the kind of $37.5 million, three-year deal that Paul Konerko just took to stay in Chicago with the White Sox.

Either solution would have constituted sensible baseball judgment. Tell Dunn: Sign by July 31 or we trade you for Jackson. Happens all the time. But the Nats did neither. The board followed Kasten's advice not to trade Dunn but didn't make an ultimatum and settle the issue.

Instead, they dawdled, lost Jackson, lost Dunn at the end of the year and now have two compensatory draft picks in June of '11 that might - with luck - turn into real players in five years.

Now, Rizzo and the Lerners, especially Ted, deal straight up. "I'm not a car salesman," said Rizzo. "I don't BS him. I told him [on Werth], 'My neck is on the line here, too.' I've said 'No' in the past. I've spent [your] money like it was my own. I hope I've built up some credibility. Now I'm saying, 'This is The Guy.' "

So, from now on, you know whom to blame. Or praise. Rizzo has presented long-term budgets to the board. After the Werth contract, it's hard to imagine that payrolls, if properly used, will fail to produce entertaining teams during the '12-'16 Strasburg-Harper period. And the Lerners clearly expect more than that.

Rizzo is now under enormous pressure to produce. But that's the job he has wanted all his life. He's born and bred for this. For example, will he sign free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, formerly of the Diamondbacks? His first piece of homework was to call his father, the lifelong scout. "Dad sat on Arizona all year," says Rizzo.

If Rizzo seems down to earth, almost humble to the point of homespun, he's also the kind of uncomplicated straight shooter and dogged worker who seems to have connected with Ted Lerner.

This was Jayson Werth's day to become a rich man. It was Lerner money, but it was Rizzo's call - his first huge one.

The rest of this winter will be Rizzo's first solo chance, with the Nats firmly in his hands, and his owners now apparently behind him, to prove he's one of the game's rising general managers.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company