The Washington Nationals are for sale. The Washington Nationals have not been sold. Pitchers and catchers report in two weeks. The equipment trucks pointed south Saturday. That’s just about all the certainty we have. What a team. What a time. What a mess.
The problem isn’t being bad, because even bad baseball teams can reveal glimmers of a promising future. And that better be what, say, CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, Cade Cavalli, Keibert Ruiz and some combination of others provide in the season ahead. The Houston Astros, the Chicago Cubs — shoot, the Nats of more than a decade ago: They all got bad to become good. It can work.
But it doesn’t work without a long-term plan. And how can there be a long-term plan when the general manager and the manager are on short-term contracts — and they don’t know who will be telling them whether to stay or go? Or what the budget will be in 2024 or 2025 or beyond? Or what the priorities should be on the field and in the community?
Here’s the reality of the Nationals’ sale process: Some people with knowledge of it are under what one termed “the operating assumption” that the Lerner family will run the team for the entirety of the 2023 season. That could change. It hasn’t yet. It might — and we’ll get to why in a minute. But the assumption, for now, is status quo.
And while that isn’t a disastrous statement on its own — this franchise did, after all, win four division titles and a World Series with the Lerners as its owners — consider the limbo that hangs over the entire operation. Employees and staff once expected closure, whatever the outcome, by the holidays. It’s now a month into 2023, and closure seems more distant than ever.
That’s concerning. When the Lerners took over in 2006, there was a carefully articulated plan to build from scratch with scouting and player development, and the spending would follow. That happened in the draft with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper and others. It happened in free agency with Jayson Werth and Max Scherzer, etc.
That not-spending-until-ready part, the Nationals are doing that right now. But how can anyone — from ownership to the front office to the field staff to the fan base — emotionally invest in a future that’s so uncertain?
There have always been three potential outcomes: The Lerners sell the entire team; they sell a minority stake; or they do nothing. It has been fascinating to listen to those familiar with the family’s thinking in the nine months since Mark Lerner announced they would pursue potential changes. The evolution of that thinking: “They’re definitely selling” to “Maybe they’ll take on a partner” to “Things are stagnant with no end in sight.”
It’s frustrating. So what has to change for ownership to change? You know the answer. Say it all together now: MASN.
The shadow that has shrouded the Nationals since they came into existence is at worst preventing and at least delaying their sale. We have written this before, but it’s worth restating now: The model for successfully running a baseball team includes making significant revenue from selling your local media and broadcast rights. But when Major League Baseball moved the Montreal Expos to Washington in 2004, it compensated the Baltimore Orioles — whose geographic territory the Nats were infringing upon — by granting the Orioles control of those rights. Not for a year or a decade, but in perpetuity.
The Nationals believe the Orioles have withheld the rightful share of their revenue dating back more than a decade. That affects the Lerners’ intake and, the Lerners have argued in court, limited the Nationals’ ability to spend on players.
This is all rehashing, but it’s in hopes of moving forward. To that end: On March 14, a New York court will take up the Orioles’ appeal of a decision that granted the Nationals about $100 million in revenue for the 2012 to 2016 seasons. (Thanks to colleagues Ben Strauss and Chelsea Janes for reporting on this.) If the court upholds the verdict in favor of the Nationals, there could be a pathway forward for determining what the Nats are owed from 2017 to 2021. Which, then, might be helpful in determining what a new owner (or partner) might expect in revenue for future seasons.
Yeah, the regional sports network landscape is changing by the minute. But we can dream, right?
That MASN still exists — and is still a story — nearly two decades after it was created boggles the mind. Talking about it is tiring. But it’s important.
The most likely buyer of the Nationals — if there’s a buyer at all — is Ted Leonsis, CEO of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Capitals, the Mystics and the Wizards. Importantly, Leonsis now owns NBC Sports Washington, effectively a MASN rival. He has an interest in the Nationals as a team and as programming inventory. There’s no moving forward without at least some certainty on what MASN could bring in — preferably with a solution in which the Orioles and Nationals find a way (read: $$$$) to grant the Nats their media rights.
Remember when the pre-spring training storylines about this franchise were about how Scherzer would fit into a stacked rotation or how Harper would perform in his walk year or how Trea Turner and Juan Soto wanted to sign together to play in Washington for years to come? It’s not that long ago. It feels like forever.
It stinks that, with the calendar about to flip to February, the most important issue regarding the Nationals isn’t who’s pitching or who’s leading off but who owns the whole operation. That’s on hold. Until it’s decided, one way or the other, progress on the field is likely to be on hold, too.