LOVERRO: Lerners, Nationals can’t afford to waste another year with Soto

Just a few hours after their National League East division rival, the Atlanta Braves, won the World Series, the 2019 champions, the Washington Nationals, kicked off their offseason to prepare for the 2022 season by announcing their coaching staff.

Tim Bogar is back as Dave Martinez’s bench coach. Darnell Coles is replacing Kevin Long as hitting coach, with Pat Roessler as the assistant hitting coach. Eric Young will be the first base coach, and Gary DiSarcina the third base coach. Jim Hickey comes back as pitching coach. Henry Blanco as the catching and strategy coach and Ricky Bones as the bullpen coach.

There will be other announcements, other transactions. But the one that should concern Nationals fans the most is this — the Washington metropolitan area gave up 8.5 million square feet of office space between the second quarter of 2020 and the second quarter of 2021, according to a quarterly commercial real estate report from the National Association of Realtors, second in losses in the country only to New York.

People are still working from home, and many may never return to the vacant offices in and around the Beltway.

The commercial real estate firm CBRE reported that the vacancy rate for office space in the District went over 18% for the first time ever in the third quarter of 2021.

That is not a good number for Nationals fans for the simple reason that it’s not good for the owners of the Nationals.

Commercial real estate, which includes office space, is the business the Lerner family has chosen. Their website proudly proclaims that the Lerner Company “a leader in Washington, D.C., commercial real estate … no company has done more to define the commercial landscape of metropolitan Washington than Lerner.”

The definition of the commercial landscape of metropolitan Washington now is “for lease.”

No one is suggesting that we hold a bake sale for the Lerners. But rich people don’t like to lose money, even if they could lose it for 1,000 years and still have a nice Palm Springs winter home. It tends to affect the way they do business. Even when their side business is owning a baseball team.

This is a concern within the organization — as if the Lerners needed any more reasons to tighten the purse strings.

They were denied the financial bump that goes with winning the 2019 World Series. They never got the chance to sell the benefits that typically come with a championship — greater attendance, more sponsorships, and the attention that comes when you are a defending world champion.

Nationals Park was empty in 2020. The team only played a 60-game season, and barely anyone noticed. By the time 2021 rolled around, it was a fading memory — and it faded quickly as the team folded in the second half of the season, finishing in last place in the NL East with a 65-97 record. And now they are facing a possible work stoppage.

This fan base is only 15 years old and lacks the kind of foundation that could have been built by the Lerners when they took over ownership in 2006 — the kind of foundation a team needs to withstand these kinds of setbacks.

I’m not suggesting anyone shed too many tears for the Lerners.

In the line for sad COVID-19 stories, they are around the block and down a few streets. But for your own self-interest as a Nationals fan, you should be worried about the impact all those empty offices will have on the Nationals 2022 lineup.

What might that lineup look like?

When Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made the trade deadline deals that sent Trea Turner, Max Scherzer and others packing, he told reporters that “you never put a timetable on it, but I’m a restless person and I don’t like to lose, and we’re not going to put up with losing for too long.”

There is a feeling that, with pitching prospects like Cole Henry and Cade Cavalli, and the development of young players acquired at the trade deadline like pitcher Josiah Gray and catcher Keibert Ruiz, that Rizzo’s “reboot” will start paying dividends in 2023.

Not good enough. They need to be aggressive in building a competitive team in 2022.

Here’s why: They have three years left before superstar Juan Soto leaves for possibly a $500 million free agency deal someplace else.

They need to maximize those three years. The franchise has already lost the last two years of the Soto tenure to losing. They can’t afford to give up another year.

No one should expect the Lerners to sign Soto — the most expensive free agent-to-be of them all — to a long-term deal, unless he is willing to take empty office space in trade.

Look at the back of the family baseball card — Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Max Scherzer, Trea Turner — all gone. They’ve only managed to hang on to Stephen Strasburg, who has only pitched 26 2/3 innings in the last two seasons after signing a seven-year, $245 million contract extension. He is coming off surgery for neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome and faces an uncertain future.

If there are just three years left with arguably the best player in baseball, the Lerners can’t afford to squander any of those seasons, no matter how many vacancy signs they have to put up. Baseball is also the sport the Lerner family has chosen.

You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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