Nats staffers anxiously waiting for sale process to conclude

There are a lot of demoralized Nationals employees right now.

Demoralized, yes, because three years after winning the World Series they’re still in the early stages of a massive franchise rebuild that produced 107 losses this season and the trading away of just about every prominent veteran on the roster.

But even more demoralized by the fact they don’t feel like they can truly make strides in that rebuild until the club is sold. And that process is taking far longer than anyone ever expected, with the distinct possibility it may continue to drag on for quite a while longer.

Even Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is suggesting this process is stuck in neutral. Asked during Tuesday’s 30-minute Q&A session with members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America about the Angels’ sale, Manfred replied: “My understanding is that the club would like to have the sale resolved by Opening Day, though that depends on the bidding process and how quickly they can get it done.”

Asked a few minutes later for an update on the Nationals’ sale, Manfred wouldn’t offer anything resembling a response comparable to his words on the Angels: “I can’t even give you that much.”

Mind you, the Lerner family made their intentions to explore a sale of the Nationals public in April, while Angels owner Arte Moreno made his intentions public in August.

To be fair, most everything involving the Nationals sale has been kept private, and there are very few people truly in the know where things currently stand. It’s entirely possible there’s major movement on this front soon.

But the vibe surrounding the club this week at the Winter Meetings in San Diego was one of frustration, with front office employees feeling like they’re stuck in the mud, unable to do anything of real consequence until this matter is resolved.

Even if the Lerner family strikes a deal to sell the team this winter, it could be too late to have any tangible effect on the club’s offseason business. Free agents are already flying off the shelf, signing massive contracts with other franchises in win-now mode. The Nats weren’t even taking meetings this week with agents for players seeking long-term deals.

Now, maybe it’s not that detrimental in the big picture. Even with stable ownership, the Nationals probably weren’t going to spend big money this winter. This wasn’t the time to do that, coming off a 107-loss season, with an emphasis instead on restocking a barren farm system and plugging holes on the major league roster with short-term placeholders.

If they get improved production from their current group of young building blocks already in the big leagues and see their top prospects have success in the minors, next season could be deemed a success. And if new owners are in place by late 2023, they will be in a position to start spending on free agents who could make a real difference in 2024 and beyond.

But that doesn’t help everyone currently employed by the Nationals navigate their way through this frustrating winter. Hardly anybody is under contract beyond the 2023 season, headlined by general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez. That sets the stage for a lame-duck year, which is never good for long-term progress.

Employees want to prove they should be retained by new owners, and the best way to achieve that is by showing tangible evidence of improvement in 2023, whether on the field or off, in the majors or in the minors. It’s more difficult to show improvement when the resources aren’t there to make improvements.

That’s why the mood was so low this week. Not because the Nationals aren’t spending money this winter. But because nobody knows when they will be able to spend money. Or if they’ll still be employed by the team when the time does come.

The Lerners’ decision to explore a sale caught most people off-guard when it became public back in April. Eight months later, everyone has come to terms with that decision.

They just want this whole thing to be resolved at last so they can find out what comes next.

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