News broke last week that the Lerner family is exploring the possibility of either selling the team or adding new investors to the current ownership group. First things first — it’s important to understand how we got here.
The Lerner family made their riches through commercial real estate. Shortly after the Nats won the World Series, COVID hit. COVID ended up being a double whammy for Nats ownership. They were unable to capitalize on what’s typically a very lucrative season after winning the World Series and on top of that, they’ve been taking a bath in the commercial real estate market since the beginning of 2020.
Couple those issues with the fact that the Nationals have an upwards of $200 million in deferrals that will come due in the next 8 years and you have an ownership group that’s desperate to either significantly reduce payroll, bring in new investors to add capital or sell the team. The most likely outcome at this point appears to be that the Lerners sell the team. Those deferrals will obviously be taken into account when the franchise is valued, but at this point, it’s probably an easier pill for the Lerners to swallow to have to take that money out of the sale rather than pay that money out of pocket.
Thankfully for Nats fans, the Lerners do appear to be doing the right thing. Whether that’s for their own personal reasons, for the sake of Nats fans or a combination of both is unknown. However, they could have decided to keep control of the team and just significantly reduced payroll down to an Orioles level. That doesn’t seem to be the case here.
But how does this affect Nats payroll this year and potentially next year? How about a possible Juan Soto extension? Every dollar the Lerners spend (or don’t spend) is going to be accounted for in a potential sale of the team. That’s very important to remember. The Nats are in a rebuild and that’s one reason that they haven’t signed a free agent to a multi-year contract since the 2020 offseason. But, another reason they haven’t done so is most likely because the budget hasn’t allowed for it mainly because ownership has been reluctant to add any long-term commitments to the payroll.
It fully explains the reason why the Nats weren’t even really mentioned in the shortstop market this offseason, despite a glaring need at the position and one of the more stacked shortstop free-agent markets in recent memory. The Nationals ended up reducing payroll by around $35 million this offseason. They were very willing to add players on 1-year deals, which explains how Nelson Cruz ended up here. If all things break right, Cruz should end up being a nice trade chip for the Nats at the deadline.
With that being said, it would still be detrimental to the future of the franchise to have to continue to shop the “1-year market” and sit out on higher end free agents. It would also have an impact on whether or not Juan Soto decides he wants to stay. It’s why a sale of the team needs to happen sooner rather than later. The sooner a potential sale happens, the sooner the team can get to competing again and working towards locking their superstar right fielder up.
Soto has been very clear that he wants to win. The Nationals have been transparent with him in their desire to build around him. Frankly, the Cruz signing was made in part knowing that he would bring in a nice trade chip, but also knowing that Soto had a strong desire to play with Cruz. I think that Soto (and obviously Scott Boras) has a fine relationship with the Lerner family. But with news breaking that they’re looking to sell the team, even a $500 million offer at this point might make Soto think twice. He’s going to want to feel comfortable with any new ownership group that takes over and he’s going to want to know that they’re willing to spend to compete.
The clock is ticking and these sales can take years in some cases. The Nationals don’t have years if they want to have an honest opportunity at negotiating with Soto over these next couple of offseasons. Nationals fans should be appreciative of all that the Lerners have done over the past 17 years in DC. With that being said, it’s imperative that if their desire is to sell the team that they do it as quickly as possible so they don’t jeopardize the future of the franchise.