- - Thursday, June 13, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In the eyes of Nationals fans, the Lerner family is about to go on trial.

The owners of the Washington Nationals managed to avoid judgment last year when they faced a hung jury — a fan base divided on whether the franchise should spend a record amount of money to keep Bryce Harper in a Nationals uniform.

Some fans had been preparing for Harper to leave since the day the Nationals drafted him in 2010 when they saw superagent Scott Boras on the stage with him at his first press conference. Others had tired of the slugger’s act, and didn’t think he was worth the money.

There was a significant segment of Nationals fans that wanted the Lerners to do whatever it took to sign Harper. But not enough to hand down an indictment when it didn’t happen.

The owners were fortunate they had good representation. Mike Rizzo and his baseball people had softened the blow of Harper’s departure with the development of Juan Soto and the arrival of highly-touted prospect Victor Robles. The narrative had turned to a future where the Nationals would be just fine without Harper.



This year’s trial could be different.

No one is attempting to convince anyone that the sun will come up tomorrow at Nationals Park without Anthony Rendon.

This is the summer where the Lerners will face the scrutiny of both the Harper and Rendon decisions rolled into one. While many Nationals fans had come to the conclusion that they could live without Harper, it was nearly always because they believed that the owners would do the right thing when it came to Rendon, one of the best third basemen and hitters in baseball.

The notion that the Lerners would be so tone deaf as to let two young superstar players leave two years in a row just seemed foolish. But yet here we are, with just a little over four months left until the end of Rendon’s contract with the Nationals, and there is no sign that they a close to any agreement to keep Rendon in Washington.

Now we’re going to find out a few things about the Lerners.

We are going to find out how much they value their fan base — how connected they are to their customers.

The family can seem like a strange lot. Decisions sometimes appear to be made inside the closed loop of family members, oblivious to outside noise and perceptions. The Lerners were reluctant to trade Harper last year at the deadline in a good deal Rizzo had set up with the Houston Astros.

Since they were still within reasonable striking distance at the time in the National League East (5½ games behind the first-place Philadelphia Phillies), it was the right thing to do. But they were only half right.

Once they decided to keep Harper, the Lerners needed to become buyers in the trade market and give Rizzo the green light to make moves to bring in talent to help catch both the Phillies and the Braves. Instead, they stood pat and a few days after the deadline, had Rizzo move some players, essentially waving the white flag they’d chosen not to wave earlier.

That means the Lerners held on to Harper out of fear of the fan base reaction — they just didn’t want to be the owners who traded Harper.

Then, as the season was about to close, they reportedly made a long-term offer to Harper. It wasn’t the low-ball offer the Boras media minions reported (deferred money that put the present-day value at $180 million). No, the truth was the Lerners’ 10-year offer to Harper had a present-day value at $270 million, based on the formula used by the Major League Baseball Players Association. But it was still not the kind of offer that would have given Harper pause to enter free agency. It wasn’t an offer that said we desperately wanted you to stay.

It was an offer to appease public sentiment that the Lerners were letting Harper walk without a fight.

So the Lerners do have some level of fear of public reaction.

We are going to find out soon just how much fear.

Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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