Lerner likes view from Nationals' present position
Owner focused on next few seasons; spring home one issue that needs addressing
VIERA, Fla. -- Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner arrived at the Nationals' workout Thursday. He plans on spending three weeks in town to watch the defending National League East champions prepare for the 2013 season.
While Lerner spoke briefly about last year's success, he spent a lot more time looking ahead to the future of the franchise.
"I think it was so unexpected for so many of us that we got that far, it was a special moment," Lerner said. "I think these guys have grown from it, I think they've put it behind them -- and that's the most important, people, it's behind and in the rearview mirror -- but it was a great experience and we couldn't be in a better position than we are right now."
That success is already translating in 2013, as evidenced by the nearly 20,000 season tickets that have already been sold.
"We put a cap of 20,000 season tickets earlier in the fall, and we're very close to it, so it's pretty exciting that we'll have a chance to get there," Lerner said. "Prices go up April 1, so if people want to take advantage of it, the next 30 days is really their time to act, but it's been a terrific offseason."
As for the present and the future, the Lerner family has a few items -- none entirely pressing -- it wants to address, including the club's Spring Training home in Viera, as well as the contracts of young centerpiece players Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper and general manager Mike Rizzo.
Strasburg and Harper, the No. 1 overall picks of the 2009 and '10 MLB Drafts, respectively, have quickly become icons in Washington, though neither has played a full season. Arbitration, and potentially free agency, is years on the horizon, but something ownership considers when dealing with current issues.
"To be smart about it, you always have to look out a number of years, and we'd certainly love to be able to keep them for the long-term, but I don't think that's where we are right now," Lerner said. "I think we're focused on this year and next year and '15. Those decisions will take care of themselves as time goes on."
The same goes for Rizzo, Lerner said, whom the Nationals would love to retain but are in no particular hurry to work anything out.
"I'm sure we'll all sit down and talk when the time is right," Lerner said. "He's under control for a couple more years, and I think this is the place where he wants to make his home and we certainly want him to be here, so I'm sure we'll come to some understanding at some point in time."
The club has also been exploring new opportunities for Spring Training locations because of the geographic inconvenience of playing in the Grapefruit League while being located in Viera. The closest opponent for Spring Training road games is approximately an hour away, and they can travel as much as three hours for a game.
"It's something we have to fix," Lerner said. "We can't continue to drive 100-plus miles to our closest game, and we will get it fixed. It's just dedication to get the right kind of situation for us. It'll happen."
Still, the Brevard County Commission has remained optimistic that the Nationals will remain at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., beyond the 2013 season. The Nationals have a contract to play at Space Coast through 2017, according to Florida Today, but because the $7.1 million in construction bonds on the stadium will be paid off in April, the Nats would not face a major financial penalty if they choose to move before that lease ends.
"We have an obligation here, we're honoring it, but there's nothing I can do and nothing they can do about fixing the geography problem, unfortunately," Lerner said. "We've said many times they've been great hosts to us, and we love the people in the area, but it's just something that we can't fix, most likely, without moving. But we'll continue to look at all the options and we'll see what shakes out for us."
Back at Nationals Park in Washington, Lerner said development in the surrounding area is starting to flourish. The economy has slowed nearby progress -- there aren't many bars or restaurants for fans to stop into before or after games -- and it could be the difference in landing an All-Star Game-type event, Lerner said.
"It's not a pretty sight when you walk out the door and see holes in the ground," Lerner said. "I think baseball wants to see it at least start, some things starting to happen, a few of the buildings get done, but we're going to get a game at some point. I don't know how much of a factor it is in their decision-making, but I've got to believe that it is. It may not be one on the list, but it could be three or four on the list -- 'Let's see what happens around the park over the next few years' -- but I think things are going to start moving."