The Nationals had weighed their options at Tuesday’s nonwaiver trade deadline following a disappointing start to the season. They considered selling more expensive veterans such as Kelley, and had multiple trades involving multiple players, including Bryce Harper, in place Monday night before ownership backed out, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Rizzo said he and the front office decided they had to give this roster a chance to turn things around. Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner wrote a public letter Wednesday acknowledging the team’s struggles while solidifying ownership’s position.
“In spite of a player payroll that exceeds $200 million — the second highest in baseball — and exceeding the luxury tax threshold, so far this season has not lived up to everyone’s expectations,” Lerner wrote. “The trade deadline forced us to take a hard look at the roster and contemplate whether to keep the team we have for the remainder of the season or make significant changes.
“At the end of the day, my family and Mike Rizzo decided that we just couldn’t give up on this team. We couldn’t look ourselves in the mirror knowing that we had simply thrown in the towel on a team full of talent and heart.”
Going forward — and changing the clubhouse culture — came down to the two decisions the Nationals did make this week.
Kelley threw his glove and glared into the dugout after allowing a home run to Austin Jackson in what had been a 25-1 game Tuesday night. He said afterward that he was frustrated with umpires missing calls and prodding him on his pace. Manager Dave Martinez, protecting his player, said he believed that’s all it was. Rizzo said he saw what many who noticed Kelley’s glare inferred. Kelley was frustrated to be pitching in a game such as that one in the first place, and he showed up his manager. His agent, Mike McCann, later told ESPN Kelley was hoping Martinez would argue on his behalf. Rizzo thought differently.
“I [interpreted as Kelley being frustrated to be in the game]. It may not have been, but that’s the way I looked at it,” Rizzo said before the Nationals’ 5-3 win Wednesday over the Mets. “After what happened before the game [Tuesday], getting ready for post-deadline season, I thought it was truly a day we should have been happy and celebrating — we had a big win against a division rival and felt good about ourselves — and such a selfish act is not what we’re here for.”
The Nationals signed Kelley to a three-year, $15 million dollar deal before the 2016 season. In his 2 1/2 years with them, he grew into a beloved clubhouse presence, a jovial guy who made newcomers feel comfortable. After Kelley’s outburst Tuesday night, Max Scherzer and Ryan Madson spoke with Kelley in hushed tones, the kind of conversation they do not usually have with veteran teammates after bad performances. Obviously they noticed his reaction. Everyone did, and Rizzo believed he had to move.
In the wake of the renewed commitment to this season, from the top down, Rizzo said he could not allow anyone to undermine the state of his clubhouse.
“It’s pretty cut-and-dried. You guys all saw it. The act that he portrayed on the field last night was disrespectful to the name on the front of the jersey, the organization, specifically Davey Martinez,” Rizzo said. “And you’re either in or you’re in the way. And I thought he was in the way.”
Kelley had bounced back from a brutal 2017 season and was pitching to a 3.34 ERA in 35 appearances. A person familiar with the Nationals’ plans said they listened to offers for the free agent-to-be before Tuesday’s deadline and they could still get something for him now that he has been designated for assignment. He is the second well-liked veteran to go in the last 24 hours, as Rizzo dealt Kintzler to the Chicago Cubs just before the deadline. People familiar with the situation said Rizzo confronted Kintzler about being the anonymous source for various reports that painted an unflattering picture of the Nationals’ clubhouse culture. Kintzler denied being that source in an interview on 106.7 the Fan on Wednesday.
“I’ve never talked to that [author] Jeff Passan guy in my life, so that’s an interesting accusation,” Kintzler said on the show “Grant & Danny.” “I know for a fact that someone got him to admit his source was not a player, so it wasn’t me. I’ve never talked to that guy in my life.”
Rizzo didn’t explicitly acknowledge that clubhouse culture was the reasoning behind the Kintzler deal but did not reject the premise when asked whether his decisions on Kintzler and Kelley represented a shift in mentality about players who undermine their manager.
“We’ve always had that stance. We’ve always had a stance that if you’re not with us, you’re against us, and you’re in the way,” Rizzo said. “The culture here has been so good for so long. We’ve had so much success over the last seven years that we’re not going to let anybody interfere with that success . . . We’re not going to let any one person derail what we’re going to do.”
Martinez seemed to struggle with the move, eyes welling for the second time in two days when he spoke about having to designate Kelley, whom he said he “respected” and “is not a bad person.”
The Nationals will have to absorb the remaining portion of Kelley’s salary, unless another team picks him up on waivers, which seems unlikely. That, in itself, should demonstrate the frustration the front office felt at his outburst and the optics it created for a team already answering questions about its clubhouse culture.
Without him, the Nationals have lost two of their most outspoken veterans in the bullpen, leaving Madson, injured Sean Doolittle and newcomer Kelvin Herrera as the longest-tenured members of that corps.
“Those are two guys within our bullpen, two of our more vocal guys. They were vocal leaders, and they led that way,” Doolittle said. “Now it’s going to fall on somebody to kind of step up and assume that role.”
The Nationals recalled right-hander Jimmy Cordero to replace Kelley on the roster. The 26-year-old is pitching to a 1.88 ERA in 38 games for Syracuse this season and has struck out more than a batter per inning. In Cordero and Wander Suero, the Nationals get two durable, versatile relievers who can provide them multiple innings. Kintzler and Kelley, as more veteran players with injury histories, limited Martinez’s options more.
But jettisoning Kelley was not about on-field performance. Rizzo left no doubt about that.
Scott Allen contributed to this report.