Mark Lerner Loses His Appetite For Sentiment, Pulls The Plug On Stephen Strasburg’s Retirement Send-Off
8:59 AM EDT on September 8, 2023
It was the Washington Nationals organization that reportedly initiated conversations with disabled former pitcher Stephen Strasburg over the summer about finally formally announcing the end of his baseball career at a team press conference, scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 9. The plan, as sketched out by the Nationals, agreed to by Strasburg, and then leaked to the press in late August, was for Strasburg to eventually have his jersey number retired in a 2024 ceremony, and, crucially, for Strasburg to be paid the remainder of what is due in the seven-year contract extension he signed with the Nationals soon after winning the 2019 World Series. That detail, of who got the ball rolling in this deal, winds up being an important one: Thursday afternoon the Nationals suddenly postponed the retirement press conference and it was reported by multiple outlets that the team has had second thoughts about just how much of that contract extension they are willing to pay out.
This appears to be part of a general and severe tightening of organizational purse strings by the Nationals. The Lerner family, led by Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner, is actively hunting around for an elusive buyer. Without anything like a long-term commitment from ownership, the Nationals have shifted from one of the top handful of biggest spenders during their years of contention to the sixth-cheapest roster in baseball this season. Just less than half of their total payroll commitment for the 2023 season's active roster goes to washed-up pitcher Patrick Corbin, whose $140 million deal from 2018 was one of the final big free agency moves of the team's brief era of paying market price for good players. Expensive home-grown veterans, after receiving lowball offers with salary payments deferred off into the distant future, have either walked in free agency or been actively cast off in exchange for cheap prospects. The team today is a shell. An intriguing shell with some interesting youths, but one that is designed principally to cost as little as possible.
The Nationals have never been a revenue juggernaut, but they were consistently up in the top half of the league by average attendance when they were any good. Last season's miserable outfit, which sucked powerfully even before trading away Juan Soto, finished 17th. This season, when the Nationals have all but formally announced that they prefer losing to winning, they've fallen into the league's bottom third. Business isn't great. Britt Ghiroli of The Athletic told a local sports radio program Thursday that the Lerners are "writing personal checks" from their own vast stores of private wealth in order to fund the team's operations, a favorite boo-hoo story from ownership that somehow misses the point that the use of private resources to support a professional sports team is the entire point of having an investor owner in the first place. The Lerners bought the Nationals from Major League Baseball in 2006 for $450 million, and in 2022 reportedly turned down an offer of at least $2 billion from a would-be purchaser, so their investment has worked out just fine. Nevertheless, Mark Lerner has reached the limits of his family's interest in using Lerner Enterprises cash to pay for baseball, and that now becomes everyone else's problem.
The Nationals reached a contract extension with lame-duck World Series-winning manager Davey Martinez in August, but team president and longtime chief personnel honcho Mike Rizzo has been in tortured negotiations with Lerner all summer, with no end in sight. That situation is getting dicey: The Washington Post and The Athletic reported that the Nationals this week suddenly gutted the team's scouting department, cutting loose more than a dozen pro and international scouts and a handful of special assistants, most of whom were hired by Rizzo in 2022 when he made a specific priority of rebuilding the team's hollowed-out scouting operation following a downsizing during the acute phases of the pandemic. These latest cuts come about a week after Washington's respected international scouting director, Johnny DiPuglia, suddenly resigned; although no reason has been formally announced, Bob Nightengale reported Thursday that DiPuglia resigned after the Nationals approached him about reducing his salary.
So the Nationals in general do not seem like an outfit that would suddenly be super cool with the idea of paying some large portion of a $245 million commitment, much less to someone who is no longer employable as a professional baseball player. Strasburg's playing contract runs through 2026, but salary deferments—a favorite maneuver of the cheapskate Lerners designed to lower their near-term salary commitments and shift to their employees any consideration of the time value of money—run through 2029. The Nationals owe another approximately $97 million in deferred money to a handful of players—Jon Lester and Rafael Soriano continue to haunt Washington's payroll like the spirits of the damned—and this is all debt that will be passed onto the team's next eventual owner, possibly dampening enthusiasm among prospective buyers. We haven't even gotten to the part where the Nationals are knotted with the Baltimore Orioles in a lengthy lawsuit over revenue from MASN, the teams' insanely shitty shared regional sports network.
The first hint that the Nationals might not be prepared to give Strasburg the big make-whole send-off that was earlier reported came Wednesday, when Rizzo told a local radio show that Strasburg would "get paid for [the remainder of his existing] deal until he makes a decision on what his future’s going to be." This would seem to be an odd thing to say approximately 72 hours before a scheduled press conference to announce a decision that was made and then shared with the press weeks earlier. If the Nationals were still waiting on Strasburg to make some decision about his future, what precisely would be the substance of the presser? Evidently that same question occurred to someone with the Nationals, and the following day the press conference was canceled. Nightengale reported that someone with the Nationals reached out to Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, with the news that the team had abruptly changed its mind about Strasburg's money.
For now, Strasburg is officially an active player, though he will almost certainly never pitch again. For now, the Nationals are officially owned by the Lerners, though they will almost certainly never again accept the responsibilities entailed by that arrangement. Everything else is in limbo.