Jeimer Candelario is gone, traded to the Chicago Cubs. By comparison to Juan Soto and Trea Turner and Max Scherzer, we hardly knew ye, and the return — two minor leaguers — may never impact the major league club. Candelario’s departure affects the Nats’ lineup and the Nats’ infield on a nightly basis for two months. It does little, if anything, for 2025 and beyond, when competing might be realistic again. It was necessary, not transformational.
What would be truly altering? An ownership change. (Ask the Commanders.) That possibility — which has toggled between probable and unlikely, depending on the day and the direction of the breeze — has hung over the entire operation for coming up on two seasons. Asked through a spokeswoman Tuesday for an update on the sale exploration, Mark Lerner, the club’s managing general partner, issued me a statement that addressed nothing about the potential sale and much about the in-process rebuild.
“Since we began this process a little more than a year ago, we’ve been incredibly pleased with the progress we’ve seen on the field and in our Minor League system,” the statement read, and Lerner was clearly addressing the roster overhaul precipitated by the Soto trade, not the sale process. “The plan that we put in place last year is progressing better than even we expected, and we’re thrilled with the talent level we have throughout the organization. Our goal is always to win games, but we’re committed to building it the right way. We’ve done that before, and we’ll do it again.”
With the lack of direct answers — are you selling or are you holding? — what are we left to do? If we’re guessing, the above does not sound like a man who wants to move on from owning a team mid-resurrection. It sounds like a man who wants to see it through.
That’s no more than a dart at a board. Looking for more? Here’s General Manager Mike Rizzo’s assessment of Lerner’s current disposition.
“Mark Lerner’s tired of losing,” Rizzo said Tuesday, just after the trade deadline passed. “He wants to keep a competitive team on the field.”
Does that mean Mark Lerner — who couldn’t stomach trading Bryce Harper at the deadline in 2018 and had to swallow hard to approve the deals of Turner and Scherzer in 2021 and Soto last summer — was interested in the much lower-impact deals and non-deals over the past week?
“Constant communication,” Rizzo said. “Mark and I talk 10 times a day. During the deadline the last couple days, we’ve talked 20 times a day.”
Fine. But if holding on to the team is the intention, then emphatically saying so would be helpful. It’s no overstatement that employees in all areas of the operation are somewhere between paralyzed and angsty about what will happen when and who will sign their checks in the future. The mantra has to be, “Just do your job,” but 15 months of not knowing who you’re doing it for or whether that will change soon can wear on an individual worker and an entire workforce.
That includes the people most directly responsible for the direction of the franchise. Rizzo, the man entrusted with planning for a future he can’t be certain he will be part of, has a contract that expires at the end of this year’s postseason. Manager Dave Martinez, the man entrusted with developing players at the big league level so the team can get back to where it once was, has the same.
Rizzo has overseen every trade deadline for the Nats since 2009, whether the club was buying or selling. Who’s to say whether he will run next year’s? Or pursue free agents and trades this offseason? I asked Lerner, through the spokeswoman, about the futures of both the general manager and manager. Lerner did not answer those questions.
Rizzo can say, as he did Tuesday evening, that his lack of a contract does not impact his decision-making “one bit.” But why would fans buy into any sort of long-term vision provided by the current front office and coaching staff when no one has assured anyone that they’ll be implementing any of it?
“We do our job every day,” Rizzo said. “It’s not the first time that I’ve been on an expiring contract. It won’t be the last.”
Spoken as someone who has been through this before.
“I love it here,” Martinez said. “I love the fans here. We did some incredible things in the past here. I want to be here, but that decision is not mine.
“But I show up every day, and I’m going to do my job, and that’s to try to get these guys better and try to win as many games as possible. So that’s all I can do. It’s been good. Look, I love the Lerner family. I’ve always said that; they’ve treated me really well. So we’ll see what happens in the next month or two.”
And beyond. We know that Ted Leonsis, the head of the group that owns Washington’s NHL, NBA and WNBA teams, bid more than $2 billion for the Nats and the Lerners turned it down. Would Leonsis find a reason to bump that bid? Would the Lerners — who lost patriarch Ted in February — decide Leonsis’s bid was enough? So many questions.
What was answered this week: after the purges the past two summers, the Nats didn’t have much left to deal that could improve their system and their future. Candelario was signed to a no-risk, one-year, $5 million contract that was designed to be dealt if he performed. The Chicago Cubs, the club with which Candelario began his career, parted with those two prospects — and that was it for Washington. I would have hoped they could have landed higher-end prospects for the years of control offered both by outfielder Lane Thomas and reliever Kyle Finnegan — who won’t be free agents until 2026 — but if the offers were underwhelming, as Rizzo indicated, well, then, fine.
Could Thomas and Finnegan be around when the Nats are good enough to contend again? Rizzo said so. But back to Mark Lerner’s statement.
“Our fans are really going to like what they see in the next couple of years as they’re introduced to our bright young talent that will serve as the core of our next championship-caliber ballclub,” Lerner said.
That’s enthusiastic. If that enthusiasm is going to translate into a reinvestment into the club’s future — in roster payroll, sure, but in personnel and fan experience and every corner of the organization — then that’s great. But unless and until that direction is expressed, we don’t know. And not knowing is hard on everyone, from the stands to the field, from top to bottom.