WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Baseball is snickering at the Washington Nationals. Rival teams might hide it because the Nats win a ton of games and have as good a 10-man core of stars as anybody, including the Chicago Cubs. They’re too big and talented to mock.
But nobody can figure out what the Nats are doing or why they are doing it. All winter, the club has had a split personality. One day the Nats offer free agent closer Kenley Jansen an $85 million deal. It was a dead-serious mega-contract for more dollars than the Dodgers offered, even if some of it was deferred.
So the Nats are rich, right? There has been only one bigger offer made to a reliever (the one the Yankees used to reacquire Aroldis Chapman). The Nats wanted Jansen badly as a key to a World Series run. But Jansen loved Los Angeles and stayed there. According to industry sources, the Nats moved to Plan C — Mark Melancon already had turned down a $54 million offer — and teed up a possible signing of free agent Brad Ziegler for two years and about $14 million.
In a winter when a half-dozen famous relievers were in play, Ziegler, with his goofy sidearm delivery, might seem like a humiliating consolation prize to a casual fan. But inside MLB, he’s a groundball pitcher with a stunning career ERA of 2.44 in 604 games with a 2.05 ERA and 52 saves in 135 games the past two seasons. He’s no Chapman, but mixed with the current Nats relievers, you have a fine bullpen.
The Nats decided Ziegler was too expensive, just as they have, at other times, nixed deals at the trade deadline that might have helped their chances.
This is when baseball shakes its head. This pattern of odd decision-making — sometimes depending on the club’s baseball people, other times veering into owners-as-fans — has gone on for 10 years. The Lerner family, full of passionate baseball fans who sometimes call execs many times in a game, usually keep their hands out of the pie. Except when they don’t.
And nobody has figured out yet when the Lerners will step into the fray for a big decision, including some good ones, such as dealing directly with agent Scott Boras to sign free agents Jayson Werth, Rafael Soriano and Max Scherzer.
This pattern — or rather the lack of one since the Nats seem to have no fixed-in-stone player payroll but often go case-by-case — would drive some proud senior executives batty, eventually prompt them to quit and put together an ownership group to buy the Dodgers, then beat the Nats in the playoffs. Stop grinning, Stan.
Luckily for the Nats, General Manager Mike Rizzo has a splendid temper, which he displays infrequently but colorfully. Then he immediately forgets every word he said or that was said to him. This has facilitated a fascinating relationship with owner Ted Lerner. As long as Rizzo cusses respectfully, Lerner loves his general manager for his candor. Even though, as the only self-made billionaire in the room, he reserves the right to spend his own money as he sees fit.
At least twice, Rizzo has told Lerner he would quit if deals that he had ready for ownership sign-off were not completed (Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister). Lerner usually sees these Mount Rizzo eruptions as a “buy” signal. As long as these noises don’t happen every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he stays employed.
While Lerner sometimes spends his own money in huge $126 million to $210 million chunks for stars, his employees don’t get to write many checks; they have been hired just to make the decisions.
The result can be a team with wonderful centerpieces but too many guys acquired at the remainder table. Here’s where their lack of a firm, fixed payroll comes into play — it’s tough to decide what to buy in a store if you don’t know what’s in your bank account.
This year’s starting catcher, Derek Norris, was available for $4 million because hitting .183 will turn you into cheap goods every time. Faced with the aging of left fielder Werth and an awful 2016 from Ryan Zimmerman, many thought the Nats would pursue slugger Brandon Moss. The Royals signed him this month for $12 million for two years, plus a mutual option year. This week, the Nats got Adam Lind to do the same job for $1.5 million. This time, Rizzo may have gotten more for less. But it’s hard to pull that rabbit out of the same hat repeatedly.
The Nats’ bifurcated decision-making methods lead to odd and worrisome scenes. At the first workout of spring training here Thursday, the team brain trust huddled behind once-great closer Joe Nathan, who has missed most of the past two seasons with arm injuries. Nathan, who has a sense of humor, wore No. 74 — for the year he was born.
Afterward, Manager Dusty Baker said, “Joe doesn’t look like a 40-year-old. Ball was coming out pretty good today.” Added assistant GM Bob Boone, “Very good. I was surprised and pleased.”
Joe Nathan, really? Best story of the 2017 season: Nathan saves 35. Odds: 1,000 to 1.
So if your head hurts, join the club. Are the Nats the rich franchise, bought in 2006 for $450 million and now, at least on paper, estimated to be worth roughly three times that? Isn’t that a good enough return on investment?
Or are the Lerners as frustrated and fretful as they act about their many-year impasse with MASN over their TV rights payments? Whether from MASN or from MLB’s hip pocket trying to keep the peace, the Nats still probably end up with more than $60 million annually for their TV rights. Are the Nats tightening their belt because they’re worried about the $8 million cost overruns they may have to pay for their new spring park here? They certainly shouldn’t; that’s a pinprick.
In the organization’s decision-making hall of mirrors, the most likely view is that when the Lerners like a deal and perhaps love the player, they find the money, whether it’s Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg. But for a “Who’s he?” like Ziegler, they think they smell baseball’s legendary spendthrift habits with money. Employees: Show restraint, think long term, be inventive and make due. (With Nathan?)
Nats world is nuts by traditional baseball thinking — one day you’re uber-rich, making huge offers, then the next you’re moaning that the boat is leaking cash.
Yet if the Nats had won a couple of more mid-October games, the way this team is run would look like an accidentally brilliant meshing of opposite methods.
“You win the division in the offseason. For that, we like the team we’ve put together. We’ll keep trying to make it better,” Rizzo said Thursday.
“You win the World Series at the trade deadline.”
That’s what you say if, the day spring training opens, you can’t name your closer. Last year, Rizzo made those words come true, getting Melancon.
This year, he may have to try again — if he’s allowed to complete the deal.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.