Money talks and bullshit walks. This fact of life was famously articulated by U.S. Rep. Michael Myers in 1979 as he accepted a bribe. Unfortunately for him, the quote was caught on tape for posterity as the people bribing him were actually undercover FBI agents. Oops!
Orioles fans are familiar with the team being on the "walk" part of the quote. They have not been a financial powerhouse, especially through the dark days, like when then-GM Syd Thrift proclaimed it was like the team was spending Confederate money. This offseason, though, the O's have committed the fifth-most dollars to free agents of all teams.
Instead, it's their neighbors the Nationals standing around as free agents pass them by. It wasn't for lack of trying. Though the Nats were reportedly engaged with many big-name free agents this winter, few of the players with a choice ultimately chose to play there.
To hear the Nationals tell it, the ongoing dispute over MASN rights fees is a direct cause of that team's problem landing free agents. When last we left that case, the judge ruled that a baseball panel "objectively demonstrate(d) an utter lack of concern for fairness" as he tossed the result of a proceeding that awarded the Nationals higher rights fees than MASN had offered.
Trying to force a quicker resolution to the process, which is presently in limbo as both sides appeal the ruling, Nationals ownership representative Ed Cohen, the principal owner's son-in-law, took to an affidavit to blame the ongoing MASN situation for his team's apparent financial crunch. In many ways, Cohen is the man who set this process on a collision course four years ago by responding to the initial MASN rights fee proposal by ripping up the paper and abruptly ending the meeting, rather than entering into a negotiation in good faith.
The purported Nationals cash flow problem
In his affidavit, Cohen stated that as a result of the MASN situation dragging out, "the Nationals cannot bring full economic confidence to investments in multi-year player contracts to keep up with the fierce competition for top players."
This offseason, the Nationals behaved like a team that was hamstrung by its present cash flow, according to the Post's Barry Svrluga, who wrote that the Nats failure to land big free agents like Jason Heyward could have been because their offers were heavily deferred, making them less attractive than offers that had the salary over the length of the contract.
All along, each side has felt entitled to a certain amount of MASN money. They have been far enough apart that they have been unable or unwilling to try to meet somewhere in the middle, which isn't much of a surprise when millions of dollars are at stake, and perhaps even more significantly, pride for a couple of old, wealthy businessmen.
So far, four years into this process, the only independent ruling that has been made was the judge throwing out the baseball panel's judgement. Whatever the Nationals do or don't deserve, either by some objective idea of fairness or by the language of the contract, they don't deserve any more of it right now.
If Cohen and the Nationals have committed their financial resources irresponsibly based on assumptions of MASN money that's just not theirs yet (or ever), why should the court give any weight to their pleas that they've spent money they don't yet have?
It's akin - very roughly - to a person in the real world deciding unilaterally that they deserve a raise, then splurging on a big vacation and a huge TV because they assume they'll surely get a raise the next year. Then when the next year rolls around, having never gotten the raise, they total their car and they get mad because they have had to start paying off the vacation and the TV so they can't buy a brand new Ferrari. Sorry, buddy, you have to drive a used sedan around for a while.
By committing salary using assumptions that they would have money to which they felt entitled but were not yet certain of receiving, the Nationals are this person. Perhaps they were certain in their minds of receiving it, as MASN and the Orioles have contended all along, because the Nats and MLB had a predetermined outcome long before the hearing and ruling that led MASN to take the whole case to court to begin with. That MLB loaned the Nationals $25 million during this whole process is part of the record. So is the fact that the Nats won't have to repay that money themselves.
The Nats and MLB being in cahoots all along is consistent with the facts of the whole situation, though it's true that a court has not yet accepted that argument as proven by the record. It seems the only way the Nats could be certain to expect a specific amount of money was if it was a rigged game all along and remains that way, justifying MASN's dogged resolution for an independent hearing.
Absent that certainty, they spent irresponsibly. You wouldn't have much sympathy for a friend who did something like this. The Nationals shouldn't expect any from a court or anyone else.
The Nationals choices on how to spend money have led them here
The big Nats expenditure was Jayson Werth, to whom the Nationals gave a seven year, $126 million contract prior to the 2011 season. It's not a very good idea to give out backloaded seven year contracts to 32-year-old players, as Werth turned in 2011. Now, Werth is about to be 37, has two years and $42 million still to be paid, and in the most recent season played in only 88 games while batting .221/.302/.385. One could as well blame the Nats lack of financial flexibility right now on that signing.
Not to be forgotten, either, was the trade deadline acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon, a trade which the Post's Svrluga thoroughly laid out in late September was a disruptive action responsible for a lot of the Nats late season collapse. We all remember the incident with Papelbon choking Bryce Harper. The Nationals went out of their way to acquire that guy, knowing his attitude history, and that's what they got. They'll owe him $11 million to pitch in the upcoming season.
Put it together and you're talking about $53 million committed to these two players over the next two years. Surely the Nats would rather have had that money and the ability to spend it on Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Yoenis Cespedes, or even Darren O'Day, who re-signed with the O's after the Nationals wouldn't offer him a fourth year and the Orioles would. They would have had that money if not for their own decisions that have not worked out.
Werth paid off for them early on, at least, with good performance in about two seasons worth of games over the 2012-14 seasons. The Nats made the postseason in two of those years and Werth helped. They got what they wanted out of signing him, but they made a devil's bargain in doing so, and now they're paying the price. No one will feel bad for the O's if the Chris Davis contract similarly busts in its later years. It's the nature of the deal they made.
It is neither MASN's nor the Orioles' fault if the Nationals 2016 product is harmed in any way by their current financial situation. Money does talk, but this offseason, all the Nationals have done is a whole lot of walking. They can only blame themselves.