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Thursday, January 12, 2023

OPINION:

Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was fortunate enough to find some change in the cushions of the couch in his office — perhaps leftover from the last time owner Mark Lerner was in the building — and used the found money to drive by 7-Eleven to pick up another player.

Well-traveled outfielder Corey Dickerson signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with Washington. Dickerson, 33, has played with five different major league teams in 10 seasons. The back of his baseball card shows Dickerson has a .281 career average, with 230 doubles, 36 triples, 134 home runs, 452 RBI and 471 runs scored in 1,034 games. He’s had his moments — he was an American League All-Star with Tampa Bay in 2017 and won a Gold Glove with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2018.


As far as off-season signings for Washington, this was Babe Ruth. Rizzo has spent the winter trying to assemble a major league roster after last season’s 55-107 franchise-low record at the bottom of the National League East. He’s tried to do so while the people who give him money to pay for these rosters — the real estate-rich Lerner family — seem to have chosen to treat their franchise like a tenement slum.

Last year’s bottom-feeding operating payroll finished at about $120 million — pretty low, but what you might expect from a team in the initial stages of a rebuild. But you would think if you were honest with your fans about a “rebuild”, the Lerners would pump a little more money into the roster.

But after Washington shed about $40 million from that number through the departure of designated hitter Nelson Cruz, relief pitcher Will Harris and others — dropping the number to about $80 million — they’ve added maybe $15 million to that payroll total.

That’s not rebuilding. That’s rot. In case you haven’t noticed, Rizzo has been trying to build a roster like an Atlantic League general manager — taking a chance on failed prospects from other teams, like outfielder/first baseman Dominic Smith, once a New York Mets first-round selection, signed to a one-year, $2 million deal; infielder Michael Chavis, a former Boston Red Sox first-round pick, to a minor league contract, and claiming former Cincinnati Reds first-round selection shortstop Jeter Downs off waivers from the Red Sox, among other.

Meanwhile, in the NL East, the New York Mets have built a $300 million contender under owner Steve Cohen that includes former Nationals ace Max Scherzer, the Philadelphia Phillies added former Nationals star Trea Turner to go along with former Nat Bryce Harper, and the Atlanta Braves are building an anti-Scott Boras roster — young stars signed to long-term contracts.

What hangs over all of this is the Lerners’ proposed sale of the franchise. I wrote this in June: “You want to buy a box of paper clips from the Lerners? Good luck with that. You want to buy a baseball team from the Lerners? That would be sort of like buying the box of paper clips — only many times worse.”

Negotiating with the notoriously hard-nosed Lerners would be tough if this were a normal franchise sale. But this proposed sale is remarkably difficult all on its own, complicated by the team’s long list of deferred contracts any new owner will inherit, but, more importantly, the battle between Orioles owner Peter Angelos and the Lerners over their doomed MASN television partnership.

That legal dispute looms over the franchise sales talks, with so many moving parts it’s hard to keep track of them. The Lerners believe they are owed at least $200 million from MASN. The Orioles — the Angelos family — would rather pay lawyers than the Lerners, so the fight has been stuck in the courts for several years now.

It’s a thorn in the side of any prospective bidder — particularly Ted Leonsis and his group. 

Leonsis didn’t acquire full control of the NBC Sports Washington regional sports network to just air Washington Capitals and Wizards games. He wants those 162 Nationals games for his network. Even if whoever is the successful bidder for the Nationals writes a check to cover the Lerners’ alleged losses, they’ll still be stuck with MASN owning their television rights — or face having to buy their way out of that deal as well.

Those inside the process are frustrated by baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred’s reluctance to step in with the “best interests of baseball” clause to untangle the mess. Then there is the complication of the uncertainty of the future of the Orioles club, where the Angelos family — Georgia and son John — are in a legal fight for control of the club with her son and his brother Louis. Peter Angelos has been incapacitated for several years, and sources said that if Angelos were to pass away, the team would be put up for sale.

It is nearly impossible to separate the future of the two clubs.

The frustration has boiled over into the negotiations between the Lerners and the Leonsis group — even though Leonsis and Mark Lerner are partners in Monumental Sports, the owners of the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics. “There are a lot of strong personalities on both sides,” said one source familiar with the process.

Meanwhile, the Lerners have chosen to let their franchise — a World Series champion in 2019 — fall apart, a dangerous path for the future of the team. 

Baseball has only been back in Washington since 2005, and the team barely had a chance to build a generation of fans before the Lerners put the franchise on ice. There isn’t a strong enough foundation among the fan base to tell fans to shut up and be patient. They barely drew two million fans last season.

I haven’t driven by Nationals Park lately, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is boarded up like an abandoned inner-city row house. If this was The Wire, Marlo would probably be hiding bodies there.

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.


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