The Washington Nationals, in combination with the Houston Astros, the state of Florida and Palm Beach County, are funding the construction of a new spring training facility. The project is being rushed so that the facility will be ready for this year’s spring training. Endeavors of that sort are, of course, rather costly. No one involved expected otherwise.
Then came Wednesday’s tweet from former Nationals general manager-turned Sirius XM Radio and ESPN analyst Jim Bowden, who noted that the Nationals maintained interest in reliever Greg Holland and catcher Matt Wieters but “are way over budget on Spring Training Complex, making decision difficult.” The Nationals, meanwhile, denied any connection between their spring training spending and player payroll.
“One has nothing to do with the other,” a Nationals spokesperson said Wednesday. “Our spring training facility budget does not impact our ability to sign players.”
Is the Nationals’ spring training project, rushed as it is, becoming more expensive than anticipated? Well, the final cost of the project, which is not done yet, is still unclear. What is clear is this: The original stadium deal, which the Nationals’ and Astros’ joint company (HW Spring Training, LLC) made with Palm Beach County, includes an initial budget of $135 million. Any overages would be the responsibility of the teams, who had already committed to pay for about a third of the project, though they are doing so over the course of their lease, in part through use fees.
But the Nationals expected to pay some overages, too. More information on exactly how much more they spent than they anticipated will likely become available when the project is complete, but remember: The joint company, not just one team, is responsible for overages. In other words, the Nationals and Astros are both responsible.
Additionally, the notion that the Nationals would use the same budget for player payroll as for a capital project such as their spring training facility does not withstand scrutiny. Ultimately, the Nationals’ ownership group is responsible for both costs, so in some sense, the budget originates from the same place. But the Nationals bid tens of millions on closers Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen this winter. Given that, one could logically conclude that they can probably afford Holland, who would come at a much lower price.
Holland was one of two players mentioned in Bowden’s tweet as someone in whom the Nationals have interest (as has been reported here throughout the offseason), but he’s one they are wary of spending to acquire. He and Wieters are represented by Scott Boras, who is a master of message, and of using message to master the market.
Bryce Harper responded to Bowden’s report with this, suggesting he would rather have the Nationals pay up for players than spend on spring training:
— Bryce Harper (@Bharper3407) January 18, 2017
Harper, always outspoken about dream additions to the Nationals roster, has now turned to Twitter twice this offseason to comment on player moves. In the moments after the Nationals dealt their two top pitching prospects to the White Sox for Adam Eaton, Harper tweeted simply, “Wow.” Eaton, as it happened, retweeted Harper’s tweet about fellow Boras clients Wieters and Holland on Wednesday.
But the Nationals as an organization have been rather quiet this offseason. Other than committing $13.625 million to Harper in arbitration, more than many projections predicted the 24-year-old would receive, they have not spent much at all. The Eaton trade is by far their biggest splash so far, and a re-signing of Chris Heisey marks the only free agent deal certain to affect their big league roster. Could spring training spending be a reason for their relative inactivity?
The Nationals say no, and their big bids on Melancon, Jansen and others support the claim. Perhaps the spring training strain is leading to caution on the part of ownership, but no one inside or outside the organization indicated as much in the initial wake of the report Wednesday. Perhaps, in time, the story will change. For now, it seems the Nationals did not combine their spring training budgets with their payroll, willing to pay for both a team store at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and a few new additions to their roster.