Strasburg and Zimmerman are getting closer to full strength
VIERA, Fla. -- The Nationals have sold nearly 20,000 season tickets for the upcoming season, a significant increase from one year ago, principal owner Mark Lerner said today.
Making his first appearance of the spring in Viera, Lerner said the team is "very close" to reaching its self-imposed cap of 20,000 season ticket equivalents, which is roughly comparable to the ticket base in 2008 (the club's first season at Nationals Park).
"It's pretty exciting that we'll have a chance to get there," he said. "It's been a terrific offseason. I think NatsFest helped fuel that, and obviously the great year we had last year. But we're really pleased how things are going. ... All I can do is compare it to last year, really, and it's a significant increase over last year."
The Nationals never revealed exact season-ticket numbers last season, but the base was believed to be about 14,000. It was about 20,000 in the first season at the new ballpark, still below the club's highest level (22,000 during the inaugural 2005 campaign at RFK Stadium).
Lerner was impressed with the number of fans in attendance at this morning's workout outside Space Coast Stadium, with perhaps 250 on hand, further evidence of the team's increased popularity.
"It's a lot different, the whole atmosphere," he said. "Used to come over here, watch these [workouts], and there'd be about six people watching. Now it's packed every day, and it's a great bunch. It may be the most exciting team in baseball. We've come a long ways in four years."
Though the organization remains determined to relocate to a new spring training facility, Lerner said it's becoming unlikely such a move could take place in time for the 2014 season.
"I would doubt it," he said. "Just with the timing, it would just too tight. I would think next year we'll still be in Viera. You just never know what's going to happen, though."
Frustrated with long commutes for road games -- no other team trains within 55 miles of Viera -- the Nationals have been in discussions with officials from Fort Myers and Kissimmee but so far have been unable to convince those communities to devote the funds necessary to either renovate or construct a new facility.
"The timing was a little bad with the economy and everything else," Lerner said. "Florida has their economic troubles. But it's something we have to fix. We can't continue to drive 100-plus miles [round trip] to our closest game, and we will get it fixed. ... It'll happen."
Lerner sounded less inclined to work out a new deal with Brevard County that would keep the Nationals in Viera long-term. Their current lease expires in 2017, though the financial penalty for breaking the lease becomes nominal after this season.
"We have an obligation here," Lerner said. "We're honoring it. But there's nothing I can do and nothing they can do about fixing the geography problem, unfortunately. 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."
Ownership has invested significantly more money into the club's payroll, with this year's figure projected to approach $110 million (nearly a $20 million increase from 2012). That includes the high-priced signings of free agents Dan Haren (one year, $13 million) and closer Rafael Soriano (two years, $28 million).
Lerner said the organization doesn't have a hard cap on payroll and felt like the investment was worthwhile for a season in which the Nationals have World Series aspirations.
"I think it's something that will always be fluid, but one thing is for sure: We're never going to be stupid about how we do it," he said. "We try to control it and create our own kind of cap, but this is a special year. We have obviously incredible talent, and there was a couple parts that [GM Mike Rizzo] wanted and we said, 'Do what you need to do,' and that's basically how it happened."
Lerner said that ownership has tried to project payroll commitments over several years and hopes to be in a position to attempt to retain stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper once they become eligible for free agency later in the decade, though that's not foremost in anyone's mind at the moment.
"To be smart about it, you always have to look out a number of years," he said. "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. I think we're focused on this year and next year and '15. Those decisions will take care of themselves as time goes on. But we do our projections out a few years. You have to if you're being smart about it."