– Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner was candid and forthcoming in our interview and, in case there were fans who were under a different impression, I think it’s pretty clear that he and the rest of his ownership group badly want to see a winning brand of baseball in Washington.
One thing I think fans would be most interested in are Lerner’s responses to questions about the future — about how to keep all the talent they’ve accumulated in the organization. He didn’t dodge questions about payroll: “Let’s put it this way: We’ve never been shy about the money that we’ve spent on scouting, we’ve never been shy about the money we’ve spent on player development and draft choices, etc,” Lerner said. “Obviously with the (Jayson) Werth signing and the dollars that we spent on (Stephen) Strasburg and (Bryce) Harper, I don’t think there’s a question people know we’ll spend the money, whatever it takes, within reason, to build it. But we’re business men, too. We’re going to be smart about how we spend our money, and we’re going to continue to do it the right way. I think we’ve proven that. You can see this winter what we’ve done. We’re going to continue to be aggressive in our approach to free agency, aggressive in our approach to the Dominican and aggressive in our approach to the MLB draft. We’re going to be smart about it. We’re taking the advice of our GM (Mike Rizzo) — who we consider the best in baseball — and we’re going to try to do the things the right way and that’s, I can’t explain it any better than that.”
As a point of fact, the Nationals will likely open the 2012 season with a payroll somewhere in the $84 million range and even without adding a big-ticket free agent in future seasons they’re going to be over $100 million in short order. Their payroll is as low as it is at this point simply because some of their best talent is still in the 0-3 year range when it comes to service time and they cost relatively little in relation to the salary of other players. Just by going through arbitration years with several of those players, the Nationals payroll will increase significantly and that doesn’t include a possible long-term extension of Ryan Zimmerman which would be a large monetary outlay as well. Lerner didn’t seem fazed by the idea.
“We’re pretty much through our development phase that we felt was going to take a good five years and has taken almost exactly five years, and we’re moving into the winning phase,” Lerner said. “That’s where we are in the world right now. We’re going to continue to do the things that we think are right to build for the long-term. We’re not going to do things on the short-term because if you do that you’re going to be in trouble very quickly. Our philosophy, like the extension of Gio (Gonzalez) and other players we would consider extending so that we’re not one and out, is that this team, if it continues to build the way it is, they’ll be together for quite a while — and that’s the right way to do it. The Indians did it in the early 90s, other teams have done it, it’s a great model for us and for the future.
“You want to have that great blend of free agency with youth where there’s always somebody coming up from below if somebody decides to move on or whatever, so there’s always depth in the system and there’s always quality prospects ready to come up. … We’ve never been shy about free agency and when we have a need that we think there’s a player out there, we’re going to be aggressive in trying to get that player. You don’t get ‘em all, but if Mike (Rizzo) says, ‘This is somebody I want to make a run at,’ we’ve never said no to him. Sometimes you get him, sometimes you don’t, but you move on and you look for other ways to take care of your needs. We’re going to always take that approach, we’re going to always want that fine blend between the minor leagues and free agency and try to be smart about it. Certainly our number one choice is trying to continue to build from within to get more of the (Danny) Espinosas of the world and (Steve) Lombardozzis and (Ian) Desmonds and some of these fine young players who are going to all be stars one day, maybe sooner rather than later.”
– Danny Espinosa was a name that came up constantly during these interviews as a perfect example of the Nationals’ success in the draft. Espinosa was a third-round pick out of the shortstop factory over at Long Beach State University (Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria are other products) and signed just before the deadline in 2008 for $525,000. As you all know, he’s now the team’s every day second baseman coming off a solid rookie season — especially defensively — and with big expectations for his sophomore year. Considering he spent just two seasons in the minor leagues before assuming that role, that $525,000 is a bargain for an everyday major leaguer to traverse the system in that short amount of time.
Espinosa was projected to be a third-to-fifth round pick in 2008 by Baseball America, so there was no guarantee that he’d have gone right away in the third round. It was scouting director Kris Kline’s dedication to making sure the Nationals drafted him that brought the southern California kid to Washington. The scouting report from Baseball America at the time seems to ring true even today:
Espinosa is one of the most distinctive players in college baseball with his strong, mature build and slightly bowlegged “egg beater” running style. Long praised by scouts for his work ethic and hustling style of play, Espinosa gets maximum results out of average tools. One scout compared him to former Cal State Fullerton infielder Justin Turner, though with a bit more athleticism. Defensively, his range is fair and his glove work is unorthodox, but he does possess a strong arm. While he handled shortstop well for Team USA last summer, Espinosa is not a pure shortstop and may be better suited to second base or as a utility player. His intelligent and aggressive baserunning masks raw speed that is only average. A switch-hitter, Espinosa has always been stronger from his natural right side, but improved from the left this year. He takes a wicked cut at anything close, and when he squares a pitch up he can produce screaming drives to all fields. Most scouts want to see more plate discipline and patience from Espinosa, who’s considered a streak hitter. His lack of overwhelming tools will keep him out of the first two rounds, but he has a lot of attributes scouts love, including the knack to make those around him better.