Lerner says Nationals can only afford one of club’s two key free agents, not both

Mark Lerner, Washington Nationals managing principal owner

Mark Lerner, managing principal owner of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals, said in a local interview that the World Series-winning club can only afford one of its two marquee free agents.

Lerner, speaking with NBC Sports Washington, said the team will only be able to retain either starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg or third baseman Anthony Rendon, but not both. Both are among the most prominent free agent players available this MLB offseason, and each is expected to sign a multiyear contract near or above $200m in value.

“We can really only afford to have one of those two guys,” Lerner said. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with.”

Strasburg won the World Series MVP in October, earning two of the Nationals’ four victories in their seven-game triumph over the Houston Astros. Rendon, meanwhile, placed third this season in National League Most Valuable Player voting.

The Nationals in 2019 carried an Opening Day payroll of $204m, good for third-highest in MLB, but below last year’s $206m luxury tax threshold, which in turn allowed the club to reset its status as a threshold violator and avoid paying increased penalties. The club currently has $115m in salary obligations for 2020, but that total still will increase somewhat to due to contracts for pre-arbitration-eligible players that have not yet been finalized for next season, regardless of what also happens with free agent signings.

Strasburg had four years and $100m and left on his prior contract with the Nationals, but used an opt-out clause to become a free agent after the World Series. The club also reportedly made a seven-year contract offer earlier this year to Rendon worth about $210m. As a result, the Nationals were previously contemplating paying about $55m combined to the two players for 2020.

Lerner’s new comments would appear to signal a desire to again stay MLB’s luxury tax threshold, set at $208m for next year.

The club, however, is likely due to see a large revenue boost in 2020 through increased attendance and sponsorship sales as a result of the franchise’s first-ever World Series title. The Nationals are also due to receive nearly $100m in additional TV rights fees from its long-running Mid-Atlantic Sports Network dispute, though that money is currently in escrow pending appeal.

Lerner has a history of being somewhat candid regarding free agent spending. Soon after the conclusion of the 2018 season, he said he didn’t expect for Nationals star Bryce Harper to return upon hitting free agency. And he indeed did not, instead signing a $330m contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.

“We’re pursuing them,” Lerner said of Strasburg and Rendon. “We’re pursuing other free agents in case they decide to go elsewhere. Again, it’s not up to us. We can give them a great offer, which we’ve done to both of those players. They’re great people. We’d be delighted if they stay. But it’s not up to us. It’s up to them. That’s why they call it free agency.”