Certainly a new era in Nats baseball

In at least one corner of our nation’s capital, there is no talk of spending cuts.

Quite the opposite phenomenon is taking place at Nationals Park: The surprising Washington Nationals have the best record in the National League, and their roster may get more expensive before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Mark Lerner, one of the franchise’s principal owners, told FOXSports.com in an interview Thursday that general manager Mike Rizzo will have the freedom to add payroll through trades this month. The Nationals’ ownership group is prepared to make a big investment in the club as it attempts to reach the postseason — and finish better than .500 — for the first time since relocating from Montreal before the 2005 season.

“We’ve never let dollars get in the way of us making decisions that will help this organization,” Lerner told FOXSports.com before his team completed a three-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants. “That will always be our philosophy. We don’t look at it like a $100 million benchmark, or $90 million, or $120 million. We try to do smart things.

“There’s never been a question of this organization spending money. It was when to spend it. You don’t spend it when you have 59 wins. We had to get bad — really bad — before we got better. And luckily when we got really bad, that was (when we drafted Stephen) Strasburg and (Bryce) Harper. We got a tremendous amount of luck there.

“We all knew it. We had to go through the bad years to get to the good years.”

The Nationals already are spending roughly $90 million on major league players this year, a club record. But it won’t be a surprise if that figure jumps by several million dollars before the season is over. Thanks to Lerner’s largesse, the Nationals could have a distinct advantage on the trade market when negotiating against teams with more rigid budgetary guidelines. (“Selling” clubs sometimes accept lesser prospect packages as long as the acquiring clubs assume much of the player’s remaining salary.)

The Nationals could be in the market for a starting pitcher if they go through with their plan to cap Strasburg’s workload in his first full season after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery. Rizzo has indicated that Strasburg won’t pitch after he reaches a predetermined threshold, likely around 160 innings. It doesn’t appear that the team’s success has changed Rizzo’s thinking.

Despite the potentially awkward scenario of Strasburg sitting in the dugout for the season’s most important games, Lerner said he supports the GM.

“That’s Mike’s call, what he does with Stephen,” Lerner said. “He’s protecting Stephen for the long term. We’re not looking at the short term. We’re thinking about his career, not just one season. If Mike feels he’s run out of innings, and he wants to sit him down for the rest of the year, that’s going to be his call.

“Mike’s been very clear and very consistent. That’s what his plan is for the young man.”

The Nationals’ home attendance has increased dramatically since last season, making any payroll increases more manageable. But Lerner stressed on multiple occasions that affordability isn’t a major concern.

Theodore N. Lerner — Mark Lerner’s father and the franchise’s managing principal owner — has a net worth of $3.3 billion, according to Forbes. The Lerners have been called the richest owners in the sport.

“I don’t believe it’s a monetary question,” Mark Lerner said, in reference to the trade deadline. “It’s a question of whether Mike feels comfortable that there’s a person out there who can really help us in some place where we’re weak. It’s his call. It’s not going to be a monetary decision, I don’t believe.

“Saying that, we don’t want to get somebody who’s a rental player. If there’s someone out there who can help us for more than one year, and (Mike) says he really wants to go after the guy, I’m sure we’ll say, ‘Fine, go for him.’ But we’re not going to go crazy and rent players for two months.”

Even as the Nationals outscored the Giants 24-12 during the three games, Lerner paid his opponents a great compliment, referring to them as “a model for what we want to do.”

“They built a brand,” Lerner said of the Giants. “When they got to the World Series (in 2010), everything went up, the attendance went up. Their fans travel. Our fans are starting to travel.

“We’re slowly working our way up. This is a great model. They’re a great organization. That’s what we want to be.”