Rosenthal: Nationals’ potential sale, Rizzo’s lack of extension causing tension in D.C.

In a city known for political machinations, Washington Nationals ownership sure looks like it is pulling a power play on president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo.

Want a contract extension, Mike? OK, but we’ll take care of manager Davey Martinez first. Want to keep your job, Mike? Fine, but it will be on our terms, and we’re slashing your front-office staff and hitting you where it hurts most, at your scouting roots.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to draw logical conclusions about an ownership group that often appears to operate illogically. But the Nationals, who remain for sale at a time of diminished revenue, are in a volatile place. And considering Rizzo remains without an extension more than two weeks after Martinez agreed to a new deal, it’s reasonable to assume ownership’s relationship with its longtime head of baseball operations is not exactly copacetic.

Under normal circumstances, the head of the front office would get his deal first, then the manager. Or perhaps the agreements would be reached at the same time. But the Nationals ownership group, headed by Mark Lerner, seems content to let Rizzo twist, knowing he has nowhere else to go. Rizzo was not quoted in the news release announcing Martinez’s extension. Only Lerner was.

Why not just be done with Rizzo rather than continue with this painful public charade, which so far includes the resignation of Rizzo’s longtime international scouting director, John Dipuglia, and the decisions not to renew the contracts of at least 14 scouts?

Because with the team for sale, ownership seemingly does not want to create a perception of chaos. Well, that perception already exists, further reinforced Thursday by the Nationals abruptly pulling out of the planned retirement news conference for pitcher Stephen Strasburg. According to The Athletic’s Britt Ghiroli, the Nationals want to change the injured Strasburg’s original contract terms and work out a settlement. Lots of luck. Strasburg’s seven-year, $245 million deal, extending through 2026, is guaranteed.

Rizzo, 62, can point to his record in 18 years with the Nationals, 16 as the top baseball executive — four NL East championships, five postseason berths and the 2019 World Series title. He currently is presiding over a second major rebuild, and no doubt is confident he can succeed with a smaller staff, having done it in the past.

The Nationals, last in the NL East, were on a 27-15 roll before their current 2-8 slide. Baseball America ranked their farm system ninth in its midseason organization rankings, saying, “This system is so top-heavy it risks falling over in a stiff breeze, but having (Dylan) Crews and (James) Wood as a 1-2 punch with a now healthy (Brady) House right behind them gives Washington an excellent starting point.” Crews and Woods, both outfielders, are two of the top seven prospects in the game, according to the publication. House, a shortstop, is ranked No. 61.

So, what is the problem?

Rizzo can be mercurial, according to Nationals sources who spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for their candor. The team was slow to embrace analytics and has struggled to develop pitching. And Rizzo’s current staff, without question, is a tad bloated. The Nationals’ directory currently lists 12 special assistants to the GM, a number rival execs find astonishing. Half of them are not getting renewed.

One issue with Rizzo, Ghiroli reported, is length of contract. Martinez received a two-year deal with a club option for a third. Ownership might prefer to keep Rizzo to one year, leaving his fate to the next owner. Of course, ownership could have applied the same rationale to Martinez. But the available evidence suggests its relationship with Martinez is stronger.

As for the staff cuts, when evaluating the actions of any ownership group, it’s always wise to follow the money. The Lerner family, before the death of Ted Lerner in Feb. 2023, ranked No. 143 on the Forbes 400, with an estimated net worth of $6.4 billion. But most baseball owners, no matter how wealthy, operate according to their team’s revenues. In that sense, the Nationals do not appear as flush as they once were, or could be.

Through Wednesday, the average major-league attendance had increased from 26,566 in 2022 to 29,004 to ‘23. The Nationals, however, were 23rd in the league at 22,142 — down from 25,017 last season and 32,746 ten years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a 60-game season with no fans in 2020, robbed the team of the attendance boost clubs normally get after winning a World Series title.

The Nationals are due a payment of around $100 million from the settlement of their dispute with the Orioles over television rights fees from 2012 to ‘16. The teams, however, have yet to settle on the period from 2017 to ‘21, complicating the Nats’ attempts to sell the franchise. The Nats also have not struck deals for naming rights to Nationals Park or jersey patches on their uniforms.

The salaries of even veteran scouts amount to a pittance for a franchise valued at an estimated $2 billion. The Lerners, however, long have been known for their frugality in certain areas. Most teams set a budget for baseball operations without mandating a specific head count. The lead executive can meet budget simply by reducing major-league payroll. But the Nats, according to one source with knowledge of their operation, separate major-league payroll from their front-office budget.

So, while ownership might have been comfortable carrying a $101 million Opening Day payroll, more than half of which was devoted to Strasburg and fellow pitcher Patrick Corbin, it still could be hellbent on cutting costs in other areas. Such is Lerner Logic, and don’t try to understand it. The Nats always have spent a bit erratically. Hitting on Max Scherzer as a free agent but whiffing on Strasburg. Losing Bryce Harper and (fortunately for them) Anthony Rendon. Trading Trea Turner and Juan Soto, the latter after he turned down an offer — 15 years, $440 million — that his agent, Scott Boras, was certain to refuse.

So now here is ownership, seemingly viewing Rizzo’s contract status as an opportunity to force him into making certain changes, some of which might be entirely justified. Rizzo’s deal expires Oct. 31. He has signed six previous extensions, and a seventh still appears likely. Recent events, however, demonstrate just how badly the Nationals need a new owner. And maybe a fresh start all around.

(Photo of Mike Rizzo: Mitchell Layton / Getty Images)

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