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Will Washington Nationals’ offseason plans and spending be affected by MASN dispute?

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GM Mike Rizzo talked about the Nationals’ offseason plans, roster versatility and how much the ongoing MASN dispute might affect Washington’s spending this winter.

MLB: General Managers Meetings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

[ed. note - "If you are somehow, at this point, not familiar with the details of the ongoing, years-long dispute between the Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles and Major League Baseball over the TV rights fees related to MASN, you can catch up quickly through the tireless efforts of FBB's Garrett Hooe here, here and here and here and here before moving on to what follows since the dispute came up again in Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo’s comments from the GM Meetings yesterday. And here's a short-as-possible recap of the whole affair, as the Hollywood Reporter's Eriq Gardner summed it up in an article last winter."]

In a court filing last January, the Washington Nationals claimed the ongoing dispute with the Baltimore Orioles over TV rights fees related to the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), their shared television home, was affecting their ability to improve the team.

"While the Nationals have a strong business, with access to revolving credit lines, and maintain adequate cash reserves,” they claimed in the filing, which was published in full in the Washington Post, “the Nationals nevertheless have various cash flow needs necessitated by payroll and other ongoing expenses.”:

“MASN’s underpayment of rights fees has already required the Nationals to fund payroll and other expenses from its own reserves, and further delay could require the Nationals to seek new financing. This is not only burdensome in its own right, but it places the Nationals at a competitive disadvantage to other baseball clubs, which typically receive fair market value from their regional sports networks for their telecast rights. Without this added income, the Nationals are handicapped in their ability to invest in efforts to improve the team.

“For instance, without this added and steady income, the Nationals cannot bring full economic confidence to investments in multi-year player contracts to keep up with the fierce competition for top players – especially when such control over finances is in the hands of a neighboring club.

"Delay also hamstrings the Nationals’ ability to invest in stadium and related improvements which would generate additional income and help keep the Nationals competitive. In other words, MASN’s refusal to pay the fair market value fees required under the contract forces the Nationals either to have to borrow more money to fund cash flow needs (which comes with its own costs) or to limit or to forego the sorts of investments the Nationals should be making to build the club’s business for the future."

Peter Gammons, in an article on Washington’s rumored pursuit of a number of highly sought-after players last winter, did his best at the time to detail exactly how what the Nationals saw as the “underpayment of rights fees” affected their ability to compete with other teams, writing that their inability to sign them could, “... be traced back to the MASN deal Major League Baseball brokered with Baltimore owner Peter Angelos when the [Montreal] Expos were moved to Washington."

The Nationals, Gammons wrote, “... complain they’ve barely been paid over the last three years, which is why every deal they offer has to be heavily backloaded with deferrals."

Using the Nationals’ pursuit of Cespedes as an example, Gammons explained how much Washington’s rumored $110M offer to the outfielder was really worth:

“Cespedes got three years for $75M for three years from the Mets. Straight deal. Opt out. The paper five year, $110M deal Washington reportedly offered was spread out over 15 years, so, in present day value, it was five years, $77M. Cespedes and his agents are not dumb. Three years and $75M or five years and $77M? Nope."

It wasn’t just Cespedes, of course, Gammons continued:

"The Nats wouldn’t go to four years on Darren O’Day. Ben Zobrist’s deferral-laden offer didn’t come close to that of the [Chicago] Cubs, and because the Jason Heyward offer was spread out over more than a decade, his present day value wasn’t close to that of the offers of the Cubs and Cardinals."

MLB Commisioner Rob Manfred was asked during the NLDS if there were any updates on the MASN dispute, and he said he hoped their would be a resolution in the near future.

“Look, the MASN dispute, I think, demonstrates why baseball has a rule about litigation,” Manfred said.

“I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that that situation is going to play out in the courts, and there’s not a lot that I can do to move that process along.

“I think it’s unfortunate. I think it leaves both clubs with a degree of uncertainty that is not helpful. I look forward to the conclusion of that litigation so that, you know, everybody can go back to their business with knowledge as to what their economic circumstances are.”

GM Mike Rizzo addressed the situation the Nationals find themselves in this winter when he spoke to reporters, including Washington Post writer Chelsea Janes, at the General Managers’ Meetings yesterday in Arizona.

Rizzo was asked if he had the necessary resources to pursue big ticket free agents this winter.

“I think we would probably have to make some maneuvers to get us in a payroll position where it’s more feasible for us,” Rizzo said.

“But we’ve always been given the resources here by ownership to field the best team we can put on the field.”

“[The MASN money] affects us,” Rizzo added, “… it’s something we’ve had to manage now for four offseasons. It’s something that needs to get rectified quickly.”

Asked specifically if the Nationals would pursue Cespedes again this winter, after the outfielder opted out of his deal with the New York Mets and became a free agent, Rizzo said the following, as quoted by New York Post writer Joel Sherman:

“When [Cespedes] played for the Mets, the guy scared me. He’s a really good offensive player. He’s a really good two-way player. He is a middle-of-the-lineup bat. He improves any team he plays for.”

If the Nats were to sign a corner outfielder, Sherman wrote, “Rizzo said [Trea] Turner could move back to his natural shortstop, returning Danny Espinosa to a utility role. Then Harper could play center most games, with Werth possibly moving to right and Cespedes in left.”

“Harper is very capable of playing center field,” Rizzo said. “He is all about winning and if it helps us win, I know he will be all-in.”

Rizzo, in a conversation with reporters last month, said he thought Harper played Gold Glove-caliber right field, but his ability to play center, if necessary, gave the Nationals options.

“He’s one of those guys that does gives us versatility in what kind of acquisitions we’re trying to make,” Rizzo explained, as quoted in the WaPost, “… I like him in right, but he’s very capable of playing a good, solid defensive center field.”

Will Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office find creative ways to align their players and finance their offers if they do decide to go after big-name free agents this winter?