Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Washington Nationals: Large Market Spenders?

No team in baseball spent more on the draft in 2009 ($11.5 mil) and 2010 ($11.9 mil) than the Washington Nationals. This year's draft makes those look cheap by comparison

Remember, in those two drafts the Nationals had the #1 overall pick, and with generational talents Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper available, the Nationals were guaranteed to be the top spenders in the draft if they got their top picks signed.

This year, the Nationals blew away their own records without the benefit of the #1 overall pick, though with the #6 pick in a deep draft they got a #1 type talent in Anthony Rendon.

The big news from last night is that the Nationals not only spent $6 million on Rendon--they spent a total of nearly $12 million on their top four picks combined, including $2.75 million on fourth round pick Matt Purke, a #1 overall talent who slid because of medical and signability issues.

Turn back the clock three years, and this kind of spending is nearly unthinkable. This is a team that walked away from the #9 pick the draft in 2008 over a difference of a couple hundred thousand dollars. They took Ross Detwiler, not a huge reach, but a guy with low bonus demands, with the #6 pick in 2007. They let their second round pick in 2006 walk.

The Nationals of that era never would have drafted Purke, much less signed him. They probably would have walked away from Brian Goodwin and/or Alex Meyer before spending what they did last night.

This year, the Nationals drafted and spent like a large market team looking to leverage their financial clout to maximum advantage. (Of course, one of the curious things about MLB is that in fact it's the small market teams like the Pirates, Rays, and Royals that have been most aggressive in their draft spending, while teams like the Astros and Mets have played it cheap. But that's a whole other post.)

Even more exciting, the team isn't just spending big--they're spending smart. As OMG points out, even teams that spend "big" in the draft don't spend much in the context of MLB economics. That's because the amateurs are screwed by the CBA, and will probably be screwed even worse in the next agreement.

And this draft is one of the deepest, strongest drafts in recent memory, while next year's draft is expected to be one of the weakest. If there was ever a year to draft and spend aggressively, this was it.

That's why, combined with their aggressive moves in free agency over the last two years (Werth, Teixeira, and various other smaller deals) and their willingness to pick up contracts in trades (Willingham, Gomes), I have to wonder--have the Nationals, over the last 2-3 years, evolved into a large market spender?

Other than Yuniesky Maya, they still haven't done a lot internationally, and their MLB payroll is still pretty low. But let's face it there's only so much you can spend on.

The question on my mind is what exactly changed? How did the Lerners go from one of the league's biggest skinflints to one a team that's regularly getting blasted by other teams for "irresponsible" spending?

More and more, the Aaron Crow meltdown feels like the turning point. The front office was split there, with Kasten and Bowden defending the team's decision to walk away, and Mike Rizzo openly disagreeing. Since then, Kasten and Bowden are gone, and it's now Rizzo's team.

But what changed in the owners' box? The conspiracy part of my brain thinks that maybe part of Bud Selig's deal to award the franchise to the Lerners was a gentleman's agreement to hold down spending, with Stan Kasten as the babysitter to make sure that happened.

That would be illegal collusion (which we know the owners aren't above), so no one's going to come out and say it, but I would love it if Mark Lerner would make himself available for an honest in-depth interview in which he admitted his change in thinking and discuss why.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't overlook the effect that the 2005 season had on the course of events. That was a great experience for us all of course, and it may have cemented the Nats in DC, but it also may have persuaded the Lerners (who of course did not yet have the team but were very interested onlookers)that 1) a contender could be built on the cheap, and 2) Jim Bowden was the man to do it. Which of course led to the worst decision the Lerners ever made--to keep Bowden as GM at the end of the 2006 season rather than letting him go along with Frank Robinson. That decision led directly to three lost years--where would this team be now if Mike Rizzo and become permanent GM in fall 2006 instead of fall 2009?

Well, we'll never know from Mark Lerner. I don't think his style will change as long as his father is looking over his shoulder. Maybe when the old man passes on...(and, hopefully for Mark's sake and that of the Nats, doesn't give his son the shaft in his will the way Jack Kent Cooke did in his).

Steven said...

If they looked at a last place team that significantly outperformed it's pythag and had one of the worst farm teams in baseball and concluded that "hey, this is easy!" then I question their basic intelligence. Like, seriously.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Ted could give Mark the Jack Kent Cooke treatment. Mark is a wealthy man in his own right, already owns part of the team, and knows enough connected people in DC that he could throw together an ownership group fairly easily.

Anonymous said...

@Steven--As we all k now, intelligence and accomplishment in other fields does not carry over into baseball ownership, and there is a long sad history of owners who though otherwise running their teams into the ground. Some owners learn slowly. Some never learn. We can consider ourselves fortunate that the Lerners accepted Mike Rizzo's tutelage before too many lost years elapsed (and from that perspective, the Smiley Gonzalez affair may have been one of the best things to happen to the Nats. Who knows how long Jimbo might have hung around if Carlos Alvarez hadn't lied about his age and identity?)