The Nationals’ sale has no end in sight

The Nationals’ sale has no end in sight

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The Washington Nationals are for sale. The Washington Nationals were not sold. Pitchers and catchers report in two weeks. The equipment trucks pointed south on Saturday. That’s about all the certainty we have. What a team. What a time. What a mess.

The Nats were awful last year. They will be awful again this summer. That part of the story is, depending on your point of view, either an understandable cycle in baseball or an avoidable travesty. Debate it through Opening Day. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, as unsatisfying as it may seem.

The problem isn’t being bad, because even bad baseball teams can reveal glimpses of a promising future. And it’s better what, say, CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, Cade Cavalli, Keibert Ruiz and a 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 went bad to get 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 tell 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?

As spring training approaches, a partial sale of the Nationals seems most likely

Here’s the reality of the Nationals’ sale process: Some people with knowledge of it are under what one has called “the operating assumption” that the Lerner family will run the team through the entire 2023 season. This can 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’s not a disastrous statement on its own — after all, this franchise won 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, regardless of the outcome, by the holidays. It’s now a month into 2023, and closure seems more distant than ever.

This is worrying. When the Lerners took over in 2006, there was a carefully articulated plan to build from the ground up with scouting and player development, and the spending would follow. It 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 no-spend-until-ready part, the Nationals are doing it now. But how can anyone—from ownership to the front office to the field staff to the fan base—emotionally invest in a future 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 possible changes. The evolution of that thinking: “They’re definitely selling” to “Maybe they’re taking on a partner” to “Things are at a standstill with no end in sight.”

It’s frustrating. So what needs to change for ownership to change? You know the answer. Now say it all together: MASN.

The shadow that has shrouded the Nationals since their inception is at worst preventing and at least delaying their sale. We’ve written this before, but it’s worth repeating now: The model for successfully running a baseball team includes making significant income 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 had encroached upon — by giving the Orioles control of those rights. Not for a year or a decade, but forever.

The Nationals believe the Orioles have withheld their fair share of revenue dating back more than a decade. That affects the Lerners’ intake and, the Lerners argued in court, limits the Nationals’ ability to spend on players.

Reliever Kyle Finnegan is an organizational win for the Nationals

It’s all exciting, but it’s in the hope of moving forward. To that end: On March 14, a court in New York will take up the Orioles’ appeal of a decision that granted the Nationals about $100 million in revenue for the 2012 through 2016 seasons. (Thanks to colleagues Ben Strauss and Chelsea Janes for reporting on this.) If the court upholds the ruling in favor of the Nationals, there could be a way forward to determine what the Nats are owed from 2017 to 2021. Which then might be useful in determining what a new owner (or partner) can expect in income for future seasons.

Yes, the regional sports network landscape is changing by the minute. But we can dream, right?

That MASN is still around — and 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 is 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 competitor. He has an interest in the Nationals as a team and as programming stock. Moving forward can’t be done without at least some certainty about what MASN can bring in — preferably with a solution in which the Orioles and Nationals find a way (read: $$$$) to give the Nats their media rights know

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 rookie year or how Trea Turner and Juan Soto were going to sign together to play in Washington for years? 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 shows up or who leads off, but who owns the entire operation. It is on hold. Until a decision is made, one way or the other, progress on the field is likely to be put on hold as well.

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