VIERA, Fla. — Max Scherzer’s sudden arrival is about Ted Lerner’s gradual departure. Few here at the Nationals’ spring training complex mention it. Everybody knows it and respects it.
“My father wants to win for the town. Nobody says it, but we all want to do it for Dad. He’ll be 90 in October,” team President Mark Lerner said Friday.
“Mike Rizzo’s dad is a lifelong baseball man. He and I talk about how sons do things for their fathers, want to see things happen with their fathers watching. Dad’s in great health. But he doesn’t think anybody lives forever.”
No one specifies what “it” is that Lerner — and Scherzer — want to win. But when Las Vegas makes you the preseason World Series favorite, there’s no need to ask.
By the time the Nats finish paying Scherzer $210 million spread over 14 years, Ted Lerner would be 103. He is so fit for his age that he’s as good a bet to sign that final check personally as any 89-year-old. But he understands calendars, too. That was a driver behind this deal, perhaps his signature moment as Nats owner.
“On paper we look great,” Scherzer said on his first day here. “That doesn’t mean anything.”
Why would the Nats sign a contract that may be an albatross through the 2020s? Why would they risk a deal that an ESPN poll of MLB general managers just rated as the worst free agent signing of this offseason?
Because Ted isn’t fretting the ’20s. Scherzer is here to maximize the ’10s.
The senior Lerner has always planned long term in his businesses. Long before Scherzer’s deal runs out, the Nats’ stalemate with MASN over local TV revenue will be resolved (somehow), and they will have a revenue stream like Arizona got this week. “If the Diamondbacks just got a billion dollars, what is the fifth-largest market in the country worth?” a Nats executive said.
The Nats have taken this risk so they can pry their window of title opportunity wider now and for the next several years. In 2018, Scherzer can look at a long list of players who were already part of last year’s 96-win team: Anthony Rendon (fifth in MVP voting), Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, Aaron Barrett, Blake Treinen and likely center fielder of the future Michael A. Taylor. None will be older than Scherzer’s 33.
This week, Baseball America ranked its top 100 minor league prospects. Six were Nationals: Lucas Giolito, the highest-rated pitcher in the entire minors, plus likely shortstop of the future Trea Turner and four other hot-shot hurlers. The Steven Souza Jr. trade that netted both Turner and Joe Ross (No. 96) was cited in the same ESPN poll as the best trade of the offseason.
“So we had both the ‘worst contract’ and the ‘best trade’ of the winter?” Mark Lerner said, laughing.
That 2018 talent projection is the Nats’ worst case, if they never extend the deals of any current player. But they probably will. Or they will use the money that’s freed up — in theory, as much as $59 million could fall off the payroll after this season — for other players.
“Our payroll could be down to $100 million by next year,” said Rizzo, who hopes it isn’t because the Nats’ most recent extension offers to Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann almost certainly are both more than $100 million. However, if those players leave, the Nats view the 2016 free agent class as very strong.
Because Ted Lerner is so quiet, seldom seen and almost shy, except when actually being an aggressive billionaire businessman, it’s easy to forget he not only owns the team but still truly runs it. He has been a Washington sports fanatic since his days as a teenage usher at old Griffith Stadium.
Rizzo is the brains, the organizational operator, the scout among scouts and the energizer. But Lerner is the trigger. He exercises final say on every important decision (and plenty of others).
The only reason powerful agent Scott Boras didn’t try to sell Scherzer to 31 teams during the offseason is because there are only 30. Despite the strong Boras-Lerner link in contracts for Stephen Strasburg, Rendon and Harper, the Nats weren’t mentioned as a Scherzer destination. But when he still didn’t have a home by New Year’s, “my father got into it,” Mark Lerner said.
According to Mark, it was Ted who proposed to negotiate a contract with the most deferred money in baseball history — half of the total $210 million. According to Major League Baseball and the union, that deferral brought the true net value down to $191 million, only slightly more than Lerner offered Mark Teixeira seven years ago. “Depends who’s doing the calculating,” said one Nats executive, who pegs the number in the $180 millions.
Lerner and Rizzo have been here before. Sometimes you have to change the narrative of a franchise, and it costs money to alter that future. Four years ago, the same ESPN poll of GMs said Jayson Werth’s $126 million deal was the worst free agent signing and worst contract of the winter. The Nats countered by saying they knew they had overpaid — narrowly defined. But they had a larger reason: to change a losing culture. Since then, Werth has been the unquestioned internal team leader. And the Nats lead baseball in wins over the last three years.
Now, the Nats need to get over their next hump — playing deep into the postseason. Maybe an October rotation of Zimmermann, Scherzer, Strasburg and Doug Fister can’t get that job done. But how much would you bet against it?
“We’re going to have a big target on our backs,” Scherzer said.
A $210 million target. Ted Lerner put it there. And not by accident.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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