Friday, February 26, 2010

Is it Still Correct to Say the Lerners Are Cheap?

In their first two years running the Nationals, the Lerners and Stan Kasten operated on the shortest of short shoestring budgets. They've taken relentless flak, and they deserve it.

But it's hard to deny that after losing 100 games in 2008, Stan Kasten and the Lerners changed their approach to spending on players, at least a little bit. The question now: have they done enough that it's no longer accurate to say they're cheap?

Let's look closer at the spending. Starting in the winter of 2008-2009, they signed Adam Dunn, offered $180 million or so to Mark Teixeira, traded for Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen in a trade that was 100% about taking on salary. Then, they re-signed Ryan Zimmerman long-term, ponied up the record bonus needed to sign Stephen Strasburg, and didn't even try to dump Adam Dunn's salary at the trade deadline. Those may or may not have been all good decisions, but they were all more expensive decisions. Bottom line,
that's a pretty healthy year of spending for most any team.

And this last off-season they didn't make any blockbuster deals (though if it's to believed they were right there for Aroldis Chapman), but they coughed up almost $30 million for Jason Marquis, Chien-Ming Wang, Ivan Rodriguez, and Matt Capps. That's not really a shopping spree, but it's surely not what skinflints do.

I would have liked to see another starter from the Jon Garland/Jarrod Washburn tier, and a lot of people seemed to have their hearts set on Orlando Hudson, but it seems to me that Rizzo had the money to get the guys he wanted--for better or worse.

Now, Boz says it's still the payroll, stupid. He points to the Nationals' $60m payroll, which exceeds only Florida's, Pittsburgh's and San Diego's. If the team had a bigger payroll, he says, they'd be better. And there's no excuse for that.

The problem is that it just doesn't quite work that way. Free agents are (all together now) by definition older, declining players. Teams lock up their best players long-term before they ever hit the market.

And it really is possible to make your team worse by spending. The top two contracts in the 2006 off-season went to Alfonso Soriano and Barry Zito. Only a few rungs cheaper were Gary Matthews, Jason Schmidt, and Juan Pierre. In 2007, five of the top eight contracts (not counting the not really available Mariano Rivera, A-Rod and Jorge Posada) went to Carlos Silva, Andruw Jones, Jose Guillen, Luis Castillo and Aaron Rowand. In 2008, the Yankees bought up Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. Those have worked out so far. But after that the top ten contracts includes major disappointments like Derek Lowe, Oliver Perez, Milton Bradley, Manny Ramirez, and Ryan Dempster.

We'll see how this past off-season's big contracts work out, but there are a lot of big contracts over the last few years that Boz publicly called on the team to hand out (and admittedly I wanted Derek Lowe), and the team would clearly be worse off if they had done it. Just look at Soriano. The Cubs are married to him at $20 million a year till he's 38. At age 33 he was already one of the worst LFs in the league.

Now, I have nits to pick on the team's spending. My biggest gripe is still the signability picks in the draft, like Trevor Holder. But I think Nationals fans actually have seen enough at this point to start to feel a little better about their team's willingness to spend.

Don't get me wrong--fans have every right to complain about whatever they like until they have a winner, and the Lerners deserve our wrath for what they've put us through. And I think Ted, Mark, and Stan would really really prefer to go back to the skinflint days and may do so anytime.

But, for now, on this one thing, I'm choosing to see the glass as half-full. (Take THAT Mr. Anonymous commenter who says I'm never positive about anything!)


Todd Boss said...

The problem with making the "we didn't spend enough in free agency" argument (if you're like many who can't stop calling the Nats ownership cheap), is that the Nats pretty much addressed every need they had this past off season. They got the middle infielder, catching depth, starting pitchers, closer and bullpen depth they really needed.

In a fantasy world they would have bought an Ace starter and a better right fielder. However all the RF power hitters on the market had severe warts (Abreu, Guerrero, Nady and Ankiel). Of the front-line starters available: Lackey was always going to a playoff contender, Garland was always going to stay on the West Coast, guys like Sheets/Webb/Bedard are expensive gambles. Harden is a headcase who is either totally on or totally off. I really wanted to see them get Wolf or Pineiro both both those guys went to (surprise) playoff-ready teams (Milwaukee and the Angels).

And that's that; we could waste FA dollars by overpaying an aging vet who might catch lightning in a bottle (Smoltz? Pedro?) but those guys are only gonna want to pitch for one last shot at a title too, not a team that's lost 100+ games two years running.

Its a process. We win 70-75 games this coming year and we'll look more attractive to next year's crop of FAs.

As for signability picks; remember everyone whining about how Storen was a signability pick too?? Now he's a top 100 prospect on everyone's board and probably features in the majors faster than any one else in last year's draft not named Strasburg. So lets just see how Holder progresses. Keep in mind the guy they drafted AFTER Holder, AJ Morris, was a stud college pitcher (he was 14-1 in the toughest conference and went 9-0 versus CWS teams last year) and could be a 4th round steal.

Craig said...

I'm with you Steven. I like what the front office has done. They haven't shied away from big players with big salaries while they continue to build the much-depleted-by-MLB Farm System.

I like what they did to bring in Pudge. Flores hasn't been a net positive and shows no signs of being what we all hoped. Nieves has been a better-than-serviceable back-up, but it's good to have a legit signal-caller, who isn't a presumed out at the plate.

The pitching is better this year.

The infield is ready.

And the outfield is the best it's been since the team returned to Washington.

We're moving on up.

Rob B said...

I like the approach we've taken this off-season. I feel like it's been measured and addressed the right needs. There are definitely a couple of gambles but they aren't high dollar gambles in MLB terms.
Can't give them much credit for last year though. They had to sign one big name to generate buzz for a team that lost 100+ and Dunn was the consolation prize.

bdrube said...

Steven - I completely agree with your assertion that the Lerner's would LIKE to go back to being skinflints. They just cannot afford to do so without completely destroying what remains of their fanbase.

I'm in a season ticket group in the 200 club section, which was sold out for the year well before the 2008 season began. This year the team is giving us a coupon for an equivilent ticket for every pair of tickets we already have (we can also upgrade for multiple coupons). That means instead of the 20 pairs of tickets I normally have, I now essentially have 30 pairs for the same price. In a section that was sold out two years ago.

Tells you all you need to know about how much the season ticket base has shrunk.

Harper said...

To me it seems like they are always spending less than they should for where they are at. When they were going to redo the farm system and be bad, they gutted payroll rather than just be frugal. Now they are going to be better and they make a few judicious signings, but not as many as they probably should have.

They're no longer at the point where it seems like they are allergic to spending money, but it's still kind of obvious that they want to "get a deal" . That's not so much a big deal now, but if they really want to contend you almost have to overspend a little. As always - it's a let's see what they do next year situation.

Positively Half St. said...

Do keep in mind that the team has been accused of overpaying, as well as being cheap. Ivan Rodriguez's and Jason Marquis' contracts are evaluated by many as not good because of the money spent.

My complaint was that the team was only getting back to the amount they had spent the year before, after shedding Kearns and Dmitri, etc. I wanted to see more money thrown at the international players. Signing Martin mollifies me some, since they are thinking about it, as well as the story today about rebuilding the Dominican complex.

Will said...

Yes, they're spending money now, but money is still getting in the way of fielding a the best team they can (within reason, of course). A million more would have gotten Hudson. By all accounts, $5mil more would have gotten Chapman (for 4 years).

They took a signable guy at #10 in Storen. And don't act like this was the best pick. Storen may turn out to be a very good player, but numerous guys like Matzek (#22), Crow (#40), Green (#52), Alex White (#65) are all much more highly regarded and were picked after Storen. On top of that, why would you ever draft a reliever with a top ten pick. Best case scenario, he's worth as much as an average starter. Then they went on to make a few more signability picks.

If the team isn't going to take the free agent route, then they must be committed to drafting the best team possible, where money doesn't dictate who you draft. The Nationals should be spending more money on the draft than anyone (Strasburg aside, we haven't), if they're going to have a shoe-string MLB payroll. And it is. Just because they gave Marquis $15mil doesn't mean the Nats are free spending.

So while we've increased our draft budget in the past two years, we're still spending less money on international signings and MLB payroll than before the Lerners bought the team.

Here's how I see it. The Lerners have been unarguably cheap over the first two years of ownership. They were comprehensively petty with how they allocated their money, from using cheaper materials in building the stadium, not paying the city for rent, micromanaging the daily operating expenses, drafting based on signability rather than talent, and fielding a major league roster that cost $37mil. This is all well documented.
Recently, they've begun to not be so petty. They're spending more money here and there, but just because they're throwing a few more dollars around doesn't mean they're no longer cheap. They went from being Jeffrey Loria-esque to now being on par with the Rays or A's ownership. Hopefully this upward spending trend will continue, but they haven't earned the benefit of the doubt.

Deacon Drake said...

I think that the front office has done a much better job putting together a roster. I think the label "cheap" has more to do with just the number on the contract, though.

The Lerners have found so many ways to cut corners with their operating expenses that it will take quite a while for guys like Roy Clark and Kris Kline to coax enough money to recover from the past five years. Sure, handing over 15M to Strasburg and 15M to Marquis look like big investments, but they are low risk that will likely provide immediate returns. Placing a similar investment to upgrade the training staff, international scouting, etc, things that will not immediately show up on the field but are required for building organizational strength.

The Lerners will spend money to change the perception that they are cheap, but that will not change the fact that they are going find new ways to be cheap.

TBC said...

The Lerners are not and never have been cheap owners. Except for owners who basically are their own GMs (Dan Snyder) no owner ever gives his GM carte blanche to spend money as he sees fit. At some point the GM has to get approval from ownership to spend. Typically this would be for big salary offers to FAs, taking on large salary via trade, or bumping up against the budget ceiling for draft signings - which is nothing more than a target anyway, due to the lack of any MLB enforcement of what constitutes "slot". Cheap owners are those who consistently deny their GM's request to spend money based solely on the money issue. In the entire Lerner ownership there is only one instance where such a denial might have taken place - the Crow debacle. And even that one is suspect, due to the incompetence of both Bowden and Crow's agents in handling that negotiation. People always point to Bowden's quote about there not being enough in the budget to cover signing both Crow and the other guy, but there's no evidence that he couldn't have gotten permission from the Lerners to go over budget had he not waited until literally the last minute to even consider the possibility. So if you toss the Crow incident out as a bad data point, there is absolutely nothing else that points to the Lerners being cheap. Not spending money only because you and your professional staff can't come up with something you can justify spending it on does not equate to being cheap. And as others have said, there is lots of evidence of the Lerners justifying to themselves that it was okay to spend money, and having it turn out badly. That also doesn't equate to being cheap.

alnatsfan said...

I agree with Will. They were very cheap and are now a little less so.

Another example is the fact that the salaries of their security officers, and other hourly employees, have been FROZEN since the stadium opened. They are also short staffed.

They talked the talk when they bought the team but don't know how to deliver on being a class organization that their fans, and employees can be proud of.

peric said...

Trevor Holder, like JD Martin is a lot better in the intangibles department ... he also has tools and a pitching repertoire to be a starter. I do wonder about his arm given that he was his college's work horse for the last 2 years and finished with over 240 innings. But he's a gamer. Unlike 1st round high school prospect Colin Willems he ended in Potomac not still in the GCL.

Give Rizzo some credit, this guy looks at intangibles, at character, and isn't all "toolsy" like Bowden.

traderkirk said...

It is absolutely correct to call the Lerner's cheap.

Offering $180m to Tex (if that offer ever happened) was just as useful as ME offering Tex $181 million. He wasn't going to take it so it means nothing.

A team in this media market with this level of gate revenues can support a payroll significantly higher than what they have paid in the Lerner's tenure.

Not wasting $$$$ on mediocre FA's=good. Fantastic. Glad to see they are smart enough not to go this route making sure they finish no lower than third among owner smarts in the Washington sports scene.

But it does not exculpate them from the absolute fact they have not used the significant financial advantage they have to make this team better long term. $450,000 on a 26 year old middle reliever is NOT international spending.

$4.5m for a potential #1 starter in Inoh or $3.5m for a shortstop in Sano should have been done deals. I won't go on about Chapman anymore except to say his whole contract would fit between the actual '10 payroll and the amount they COULD pay in '10 payroll.

It's another sport but look at what the Houston Rockets just did. Essentially, they took on medium range payroll in exchange for long term assets. (Jared Jeffries '11 salary for two #1s from the Knicks.) You can't tell me there aren't owners out there who would give up assets in exchange for salary relief right now.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you can use the Teixeira offer as evidence that the Lerners are no longer cheap. They had to know that there was no chance that he was going to play for a lousy team like the Nats when he had much better teams like the Red Sox and Yankees interested in his services.

phil dunn said...

Let's be realistic, leopards don't change their spots. These guys are hopelessly cheap and they always will be. That doesn't mean that they can't field a decent team eventually. The Twins seem to do it year after year while the late Carl Polad was one of the cheapest owners in the history of baseball. The Nats just have to spend their limited resources wisely and the jury is still out on that.

Steven said...

@peric--you and Rizzo may be right about Holder, but that doesn't justify taking him in the 3rd round. He would have been there in the 10th. That was just the same as saying "pass," except you're not allowed to do that.

peric said...

- Steven I don't see it. Maybe he might have been there in the 4th or 5th but not all the way down to 10th. That appears to me to be ludicrous.

"Holder was my favorite one of them all. He'll pull his cap down, attack the zone, he's a strike-thrower, so you'll have to hit. He's got a very good changeup. He attacks the zone more than the other two starters."

"Holder was the Bulldogs’ Friday starter all spring and while he didn’t quite repeat his Cape Cod League championship game performance, **** he solidified his draft status as a third- to fifth-rounder ****. He added and subtracted to a fastball between 86 and 92 mph, with sneaky-quick velocity at the higher level. He also showed a big-league slider and changeup at times this spring. Holder’s record was 7-4, 4.48 with 54 strikeouts in 74 innings as No. 1-seeded Georgia entered the SEC tournament.—DR"

peric said...

Steven for comparison here is their other "fireballer" and 12th round pick (originally drafted in the 10th like Holder in '06) who they signed for over-slot money at $225,000. Note the difference between the two: One throws strikes consistently, the other doesn't.

SO Nathan Karns 6′3, 210, RHP
Karns was drafted in the 10th round in 06 by Houston. He pitched for NC State last year before coming to Tech. So far this year he has a 9.40 ERA in 29.2 innings with 29 K’s, 27 walks and 32 hits. He looks to be a strikeout pitcher with little control.

TAKE: Karns is a fireballer. He went 2.1 innings, giving up 8 hits, struck-out 4 and walked 2. I was late arriving to this game and Kansas had already chased him so i didnt get to see him personally but I hear he had good stuff, just no control of it.

TOP FRESHMAN: Nate Karns, rhp. Karns, one of the top prep pitching prospects in last year’s draft, originally had committed to Texas but elected to join ex-Texas pitching coach Tom Holliday, when he became an associate head coach with the Wolfpack. Karns, who has been clocked at 92-94 mph, is only one of three impressive freshman arms on the Wolfpack staff and may end up playing a secondary role this season to LHP Jimmy Gilheeney, the most impressive of the three in fall practice. RHP Sam Brown, a seventh-round draft pick of the Nationals, will also command innings.

Anonymous said...

I don't see anything about Holder that justifies the terms you are using about him. Remember that he was a college senior (first one to be drafted). He's now 23 years old. He was average in Low A and SS A, but was a complete disaster at Potomac. He's going to start the season in Hagerstown. A 23 year old pitcher with average stuff in Low A is not worth a 3rd round pick. Here were his overall numbers last seasons:

41.1 IP
6.97 ERA
1.79 WHIP
13.1 H/9
1.1 HR/9
2.36 K/BB

sjm105 said...

Would have liked to have seen them spend the extra on signing Chapman since they honestly were in there until the end. Agree that there was no way Texeria was coming but that was a start. It's getting better but I am hoping there are no steps back by the Lerners as this team improves. I think keeping Dunn for 2-4 years would be a huge sign that they are opening up the purses. One more good draft, some luck with pitchers coming off injuries and we actually might challange in a year.

peric said...

The scouts pretty much all say that Holder has first round pick "stuff". Its how he uses it. I doubt you will see him in Hagerstown. I think he'll start in Potomac because of the pitching coach.

Again, keep in mind Colton Willems. How old is he now. He was a 1st round pick for these Nats, 22nd in 2006? Only one year younger? Where is he?

After 4 seasons:

9-16, 208 innings, 44 games started. 68 walks 115 strike outs, WHIP 1.356, He has an ERA of 3.68 but he mostly pitched in the GCL. He came to Potomac and was 1 and 4 with an ERA of 7,40 in 6 games started. 7 walks and 12 strikeouts. WHIP 1.645. And this is a 1st round draft pick?

And you are giving Holder grief? The guy has just started out. He hasn't had four years like Willems.

peric said...

If they don't think they can sign Dunn perhaps they ought to be looking hard at Jose Julio Ruiz?

Boz pretty much said as much, that they wanted Chapman pretty badly. Still a very "frugal" signing at 25-30 million. Losing Crow and Chapman probably hurt them worst than just about anything else at this point. Not so much Texiera.

Steven said...

OK, Mrs. Holder. You love your son. We get it.

peric said...

And I'm sure your beloved dad, Jim Bowden, is very proud of you and that great commercial he made.

Will said...

Colten Willems poor performance has absolutely nothing to do with Trevor Holder, and it does not justify Holder's average performance in college and his very bad performance so far in the minors.

I also challenge you to find any reputable scout, much less "all" of them, that claim that Holder "has first round pick 'stuff'."

Furthermore, the quote you cited that said Holder solidified his 3rd-5th round draft status was from 2008. I question "DR"'s scouting ability, because Holder was drafted in the 10th round that year. In Holder's 2009 senior season, he showed little progress. His numbers were largely identical to his 2008 stats, indicating that his talent level had peaked. Being a year older and no better, it doesn't make much sense that he was drafted 5 rounds earlier than the previous year.

But back on topic- the Lerners are cheap.

Tegwar said...

I think that what the Lerner’s are is business men not baseball people. The Lerner’s are by best estimate clearing 40 million dollars a year with the Nationals. The Lerner’s do not want to jeopardize this positive cash flow situation. However, even though they are guaranteed money from both Angelos and the MLB TV contract baseball still generates a lot of money by attendance. If the Lerner’s see that there is a financial benefit in fielding a competitive team they most likely will increase payroll. Being part of a group of people who are season ticket holders I feel confident in saying that this year there are a lot fewer of us. Twice we have been contacted and had are seats upgraded. Again they contacted us.

I’m old school; I believe that with few exceptions it is an owner’s duty to put a competitive team on the field, something a real baseball commissioner should help oversee. This year the Nationals with Rizzo’s help are finally doing what should have been done 3 years ago he is trying to field a competitive team by plugging glaring holes. Will this method bring a top notch playoff team to Washington sooner; probably not however it may keep a fan base intact and may help the Lerner’s understand what is needed to make the next step forward. Maybe just maybe the Lerner’s will start to enjoy owning the team, trust their baseball people more and see that there is a possibility to increase earnings. That’s my hope anyways. So cheap maybe? Business men definitely!