Q&A with principal owner Lerner
Nats executive looks back on 2009 and towards the future
Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner will be the first to tell you the Lerner Group was not happy that the team finished with the worst record in baseball for the second consecutive season. But he will also point out there was real progress made during the second half. Under interim manager Jim Riggleman, the Nationals played better baseball, going 33-42 and winning their last seven games of the 2009 season.
MLB.com reporter Bill Ladson recently caught up with Lerner, who answered questions by email about the Nationals and other topics surrounding the team.
MLB.com: As difficult as the first half of the season was, the second half showed some promise despite the team losing 103 games. The Nats signed some top draft choices, and the team had a winning streak at the end. How do you characterize the season and what makes 2009 memorable or important to the future?
Lerner: While the overall season was very disappointing for us, we are pleased and optimistic that some of our important pieces for the long term really fell into place. Five things happened in '09 that Nats fans will look back to as critical to the success we'll have in the future:
1. The offseason signing of Adam Dunn. His signing made the whole middle of our lineup better. In 2008, we had no one in our lineup with more than 14 home runs. This season, with Dunn in the lineup, he not only hit nearly 40 himself, he set up two more batters in our lineup to hit more than 20 home runs, too -- Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham.
2. The extension of Zimmerman's contract. Ryan had what I think will be the first in a long string of All-Star, Gold Glove seasons. He will be a special player -- on and off the field -- that will define the national pastime in the nation's capital.
3. The midseason trade for Nyjer Morgan. Morgan brought a whole new attitude and set of tools to the Nationals that we'd never had before. He consistently hit or got on base. He stole bases and distracted opposing pitchers. He set the table for our second and fifth hitters in the lineup. He gave us a solid defender in center field. Morgan is a big personality and clubhouse leader that we think will hit around .300 next year and could lead the league in stolen bases.
4. The 2009 First-Year Player Draft. Signing two phenomenal pitching prospects from the Top 10 would be big enough, but Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen are huge prospects for any year. They will join John Lannan, Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann, Garrett Mock and Tyler Clippard and a half-dozen other young pitchers from our current Major and Minor League rosters than can make the Nationals a solid staff in baseball over the next 10 years.
5. The signing of Mike Rizzo as general manager. Rizzo was key to making the Top 4 things happen. He's smart, savvy and a guy who is committed to making the Nationals a contender for many years to come. We are very pleased with our decision to give Rizzo the permanent GM job. He earned it.
He knows the game and he certainly showed everyone in baseball this summer that he could negotiate with the best of them. His report card for trades and signings has been A+. He is also, by the way, just a great guy, and a real pleasure to work with.
All that being said, I would certainly like to have won more games and put a more consistent winner on the field. I promise you, nobody hurts with every single loss like my family and I do. We know the future will be much brighter, but we are more impatient than anyone for the team to become a contender. As I have said many times before, owning the Nationals is a public trust that our family takes very seriously. We will continue to try to make the best moves we can to bring D.C. a long-term, consistent and first-class winning organization.
MLB.com: With the way things finished up this year, are you looking forward to 2010?
Lerner: I cannot wait for Spring Training. We will have strong or emerging players competing for [almost] every position, and we're in better shape to make key trades or acquisitions than ever before.
We've signed and grown talent without breaking the bank on frivolous short-term signings. Last year, we would have loved to have signed Mark Teixeira, but he wanted to go to an established winner. I think we are positioning to be the same kind of consistent winner, and will be a place where free agents will be eager to call home. Let me tell you: We are building this thing right.
MLB.com: When do you expect to make a decision on a permanent manager? Is Jim Riggleman in the mix? How do you rate his performance during the second half?
Lerner: I also have to compliment Riggleman for the job he did the second half of the season. During that period of time, he had a full complement of healthy players at nearly every position. The Nationals won eight straight games and were the talk of baseball. He brought a tough, smart, direct approach to the clubhouse and, I think, got the respect of everyone on the team. The record does not reflect all that he brought to the club.
That being said, we have to make sure we make the kind of baseball decision for next season that can give the Nationals the best chance to win. Riggleman is certainly being considered for the permanent position of manager. And, I expect we will make a decision after the World Series is completed.
MLB.com: In addition to the manager position opening, I know there were some vacancies in baseball operations that were recently filled. Can you tell me about those hires and what significance they may have for Nationals fans?
Lerner: Yes. Both team president Stan Kasten and Rizzo were insistent that some key positions in our baseball operations not be filled until we got just the right leadership. There is no secret that we had some holes to fill, and there is no secret that we had some troubled areas.
Roy Clark was named vice president of player personnel for the Nationals after spending the past 11 years as director of scouting for the Atlanta Braves. Three times, Clark helped the Braves to win Baseball America's Organization of the Year Award and is absolutely one of the best evaluators of baseball talent anywhere. Getting him to join us is a major coup. He will make us smarter and deeper immediately.
Johnny DiPuglia was named our director of Latin American operations after having spent time with four other big league organizations, including the past 10 seasons with the Boston Red Sox. DiPuglia will be charged with the sizeable task of rebuilding the Nationals' international scouting system. This is an area of great concern since, in particular, the fallout from the signing of Esmailyn Gonzalez a few years ago.
Our program, like those of other franchises, was deeply affected. Rizzo did a spectacular job of cleaning up the immediate damage from the scandal, but DiPuglia must now build us back to credibility and the level where we intend to be. I must tell you, he was most impressive telling us how he intends to manage this project.
Our third new hire is Doug Harris as director of player personnel. Harris has 20 years experience as a player, amateur scout and professional scout. He spent last season as a Major League scout/advance scout with the Cleveland Indians after a 12-year tenure as a scout with the Texas Rangers.
We also promoted Kris Kline to director of scouting. Kris has been a scout for 20 seasons and has served the Nationals for the past three years as assistant director/national crosschecker and western crosschecker.
I know Rizzo is thrilled with the new positions being filled and the guys who filled them. He's convinced, and we are too, that they will make the Nationals' commitment to team building and player development second to none.
MLB.com: I've heard you talk about your disappointment in the coverage of the Nationals in the local D.C.-area media. Do you care to elaborate?
Lerner: Look, when you lose 103 games it would be foolish to get upset about criticism. There is plenty to go around. I don't mind constructive criticism, particularly from informed sources or genuine fans of the game.
I'm also probably past being disappointed with some of our regular reporters or columnists. As one of Ted Leonsis' minority partners with the Washington Capitals, I learned that some sports reporters or columnists don't let the facts get in the way of passing opinions.
I think it was about 24 months ago when one area columnist was telling Caps fans to burn their season tickets in Leonsis' front yard. Now, of course, the Caps are D.C.'s most successful professional sports franchise with a great owner and a solid future. Unfortunately, however, it seems some reporters just don't even know what they don't know, and often don't even know what they think they know.
As a fan, and as an owner, no one hates to lose more than I do, but I like to base my opinions and my emotions on fact, not on cocktail party suppositions. That's the difference between a mature fan or pundit, and a childish tantrum.
I'm disappointed and angry about our won-loss record, but only because I'm impatient, not because I think somebody's always trying to hide a dime. I expect criticism and don't blame fans for wanting more faster. We'd all like that, but I also know there is a sounder way of doing business and cannot jump from one strategy to another without some basis. I have had to learn not to expect more from some of the folks covering the Nationals. My friends have been telling me that for a few years.
I have to remind myself that the job of many reporters is filling column inches more than being factual or informed. It does seem, however, that this year, whether it was stories about the Dunn signing, or the naming of Rizzo as GM, that there were more cases of unsubstantiated stories written, and even stories that appeared where reporters knew in advance that their stories were incorrect, but wrote them anyway. It's a disappointing reality of the game, I guess.
MLB.com: Anything special that fans should expect at Nationals Park next year?
Lerner: Our fans have told us how much they love Nationals Park. Visitors from all over have let us know that it's one of the most comfortable, fan-friendly baseball parks across the country. Keeping our fans happy and excited about the in-game experience is always on our mind. As developers, we can't help but think about what we can improve and freshen. The only thing we can say right now is that we expect to add even more amenities and upgrades to our PNC Diamond Club, but Nats fans should always expect something better each year through all areas of the park.
MLB.com: What's the inside scoop on Strasburg? How are you guys assessing his progress in the Arizona Fall League?
Lerner: It's early yet, but I think most everyone believes he is about where we expected. Storen signed earlier and has more professional pitches under his belt, but we know Strasburg is a player. Again, I think we are all quite pleased with a number of our prospects at a few positions.
MLB.com: Who stands out as your MVP for the 2009 season?
Lerner: Good question. It seems funny to say there were a number of players who stood out during a 103-loss season, but it's true. You can't overstate what having Dunn in the lineup meant to every other hitter on our roster. Lannan went out to the mound every fifth day and gave us a professional performance. His won-loss record reflects more on our problems at other positions than it does on him.
Morgan was, without doubt, the most exciting and valuable player we had for about six weeks to two months before he went down with an injury. He makes the entire team more dangerous. And, of course, Zimmerman just put on a clinic all season long, both offensively and defensively. I hope he wins his first and much-deserved Gold Glove.
Maybe Rizzo, with the Morgan trade and the signings of Strasburg and Storen, will prove to have been the MVP. In the final analysis, however, our MVPs were the season ticket holders and Nationals fans who came out for 81 games, even when the team was not playing well, to show that D.C. is a big league city; that they expect to be at the ballpark day-in and day-out until this team reaches it's potential. They want to take in the full experience. They are my MVPs -- hands down.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.