Mike Rizzo knew the question was coming. The Nationals’ public relations staff knew it was coming. In their business, you prepare for questions like these, the sensitive ones with complicated answers.
Will Dave Martinez be the Nationals’ manager in 2019?
“I haven’t considered any other scenario,” the general manager told reporters Wednesday, an answer he let stand for itself, elaborating only when asked to assess Martinez’s rookie season at the helm.
“I think Davey has done a great job managing this team,” Rizzo said. “He’s managed them through a lot of trials and tribulations that a lot of first-year managers haven’t had to go through. To have the team playing with the exuberance and energy level that they’re playing at this point I think is a testament to Davey and the staff and the way that they feel about him in the clubhouse.”
The Nationals signed Martinez to a three-year deal worth $2.8 million before this season, an agreement that included an option for a fourth year at $1.2 million. He is the Nationals’ third manager in the past four years and fourth in the past six. The Nationals had no history of giving managers long-term deals, which made Martinez’s an aberration — if also a necessity. Given that several other rookie managers received multiyear deals last offseason, a three-year deal seemed like the going rate. But in giving him one, the Nationals made an unprecedented commitment.
They also put him in a difficult situation, hiring him after declaring that Dusty Baker’s back-to-back division titles and playoff appearances somehow qualified as “not good enough.” If Martinez led his team to a similar season, he was meeting expectations in his first season. If disaster struck, the organization would be stuck. Applying its own logic, if two 95-win seasons were not enough for Baker to keep his job, how could a season spent fighting to stay above .500, one that ends in a sell-off, not end in questions about Martinez’s future?
That context made the question a certainty. People familiar with the front office’s thinking say Rizzo does not blame this season on Martinez and wants him to return. But Rizzo was outspoken about his desire to see Baker manage beyond the 2017 season, so much so that he reiterated that it would happen, over and over. So he was ready for the question Wednesday, since he can commit only to his plans — and not to those of ownership.
As for Martinez, whatever external reports suggest, whatever criticisms have been levied at him, he has not lost the Nationals clubhouse like Matt Williams did in 2015. This season’s trouble is far less easy to trace than pointing at one man, and several key stars — Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy (before his departure), Adam Eaton, Max Scherzer and others — have not wavered in their support for him. Despite the Nationals’ record and management’s selling off of veterans, his teams have continued to come back and win games late.
One can argue about the effect a manager has on a team’s fight. One can argue about the effect a manager has on just about anything, and when a team is losing, suddenly he seems to be responsible for everything. But those late-game pushes certainly do not hurt his case, particularly when he has established himself as a relationship-building manager, adept at managing personalities. To a man, players asked about Martinez in the clubhouse bring up that personality, the obvious value he places on his relationships with players, and the fact that his door is always open to them.
But even the optics of trying a fourth manager in five years would seem intolerable to a franchise so particular about its messaging. The Nationals held a news conference in which Rizzo read predetermined thoughts to explain the trading away of veterans Murphy and Matt Adams before fielding questions. Then again, the optics of firing Baker were not good, either. Losing complicates the problem, and the Nationals have never won quite as much as they want — a problem not unique to Martinez’s regime.
So for now, the Nationals are ready with the answer. Rizzo can’t envision 2019 without Martinez. The question, as always, is what those who write the checks see.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS (69-70)
Adam Eaton RF
Trea Turner SS
Bryce Harper CF
Anthony Rendon 3B
Juan Soto LF
Ryan Zimmerman 1B
Wilmer Difo 2B
Pedro Severino C
Tanner Roark P
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS (77-62)
Matt Carpenter 3B
Jose Martinez RF
Matt Adams 1B
Marcell Ozuna LF
Paul DeJong SS
Yadier Molina C
Harrison Bader CF
Yairo Munoz 2B
Miles Mikolas P