The Nationals believe they have “the opportunity and the right” to move their spring training operations from Viera, Fla., and they are actively exploring options in both Florida and Arizona, Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner said this morning.

Team officials have been touring potential sites on the west coast of Florida and in Arizona since last season, and Lerner, along with other Nationals officials, have personally visited sites in both states this year. The Nationals believe the dearth of teams on the east coast of Florida, where Viera is located, and distance between sites has made for an untenable travel schedule.

(Jonathan Newton)

The Nationals have toured several current spring training stadiums, including City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Fla., a park the Red Sox will move out of next season in order move into a new stadium in Fort Myers. The Nationals, though, would prefer to build their own, new stadium. Lerner said the Nationals have already consulted an architect and begun making plans for their own spring stadium.

“If we build a new complex, then we can get something we absolutely want, and it’s done the right way,” Lerner said. “That would be ideal. Whether that can happen or not, I don’t know. There aren’t many complexes that are opening up that are a good enough complex already that you’re not going to put tens of millions of dollars into it to get it the right way. We are working with an architect to view the basis of a footprint and have a program scheduled for what we would want, so no matter where we go, we’ve done that homework and can accelerate the process at the right time. We still have a lot more homework to be done.”

Lerner said the Nationals will stay in Viera “at least the next couple years for sure” as they continue to gather information. The Nationals have a lease with Brevard County, which owns Space Coast Stadium, through 2017. But the Nationals are obligated to pay $765,000 per year in bond payments only through March 2013.

Lerner said “we would absolutely prefer to stay in Florida” but hinted strongly that there may be more appealing options in Arizona. Because of the state of the economies in the respective states, the Nationals would be more likely to land a favorable deal to build a new park from a local government.

The drawback to Arizona, of course, would be the travel fans from Washington would be forced to make in order to attend games. The drive from D.C. to Viera takes 12 hours, far but manageable.

“Certainly, it makes all the sense in the world to be closer to D.C.,” Lerner said. “But on the other hand, Arizona has a lot of attractive things, too. You can see every team in Arizona in a 30, 40-minute drive. The weather is a lot more favorable out there and consistent. You come down here, and you can have three days rain and not see a thing and spend thousands of dollars. But the beauty of Arizona is how close everything is. You can come with your family to see seven games of the Nationals, if we had five games on the road, you could still see us – it’s a short hop. That’s a great thing about Arizona in addition to the weather. They’ve been reaching out to us and we’ve spoken to them. I think for our fans and everybody involved, our No. 1 choice would still be Florida. If it doesn’t work out, unfortunately, we’ll have to move on.”