If any manager is fit to welcome new players in July, on the doorstep of a pennant chase, it’s Dave Martinez.
Martinez, now leading the Washington Nationals, was once traded so often that, close to 20 years later, he can’t remember the full details. In 2000 alone, when Martinez was 35 and in the twilight of his career, he was moved three times, ping-ponging from Tampa Bay to the Chicago Cubs in May, from Chicago to Texas in June, and finally from Texas to Toronto in August. All he had to do for the last one was switch dugouts, because the Rangers were playing the Blue Jays when they sent him down the hallway for a player to be named later. Martinez then homered against them in his first at-bat.
“You look at my kids today and they thought it was the best summer ever,” Martinez recounted Saturday at Nationals Park. “They got to go everywhere. My oldest son said: ‘This is great. Look at all the cities we’ve been to.’ I said, ‘I’m glad you like it.’ ”
If the Nationals strike a deal in the next three days — with Wednesday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline quickly approaching — Martinez will relate to whoever walks into their clubhouse, bag in hand, life turned upside down by business. But as of Monday morning, with a three-game series against the Atlanta Braves looming, Washington is an empty-handed buyer in a slow-drip market. There is only one chance to deal this season, with no waiver period in August, and sellers are holding out, clubs are still choosing a direction, and the whole sport, Nationals included, is waiting for someone to blink and trigger the action.
Need a reliever? The only consequential moves have been Jake Diekman going to the Oakland Athletics, and the Minnesota Twins acquiring Sergio Romo. Need a starter? The New York Mets, who recently seemed like surefire sellers, have that market cornered after trading two prospects to the Toronto Blue Jays for Marcus Stroman on Sunday night. Need both? Good luck. Clock’s ticking.
“It’s a later-developing trade market,” said Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo two Sundays ago, which still holds true. “I don’t know if that’s because of only the one trade deadline. . . . Especially in the National League, there are a lot of teams that are bunched together. But I do see it as a later-forming market.”
Rizzo’s Nationals, atop the NL wild-card standings, 5 1/2 games behind the Braves in the division, have shown they’re worth additional investment. They really need a reliever, or two, to patch up a bullpen that is unreliable at its best and full-on unusable at its worst. They could use another starter, to pad their shaky rotation depth, with Max Scherzer still sidelined and the other options — Erick Fedde, Joe Ross, Kyle McGowin, the injured Austin Voth — not clicking.
And their bench is thinned by a mix of injuries and lagging performance, with utility man Adrián Sanchez hitting .174 in 23 plate appearances this year, Ryan Zimmerman back on the injured list and Matt Adams hobbled after being struck by a pitch on his right foot Sunday. Another dependable reserve wouldn’t hurt. That just may not fit in the short-term budget.
Washington is aiming to stay below the $206 million competitive balance tax threshold and is already up against it. The Nationals’ projected payroll is around $200 million before end-of-year performance incentives kick in for certain players. Wiggle room is limited. Rizzo had expressed confidence in some combination of Fedde, Ross and Voth as his fifth starter. The bench could instead be bolstered with a low-cost free agent signing.
With activity limited, and teams generally secretive this time of year, the Nationals have only been linked to relievers as of Monday morning. They were still in discussions with the Detroit Tigers regarding closer Shane Greene at the end of last week, according to a person with knowledge of their plans, but there wasn’t much traction. The Tigers again asked for top prospect Carter Kieboom, after they reportedly did the same earlier this month, and the Nationals weren’t budging on him. Washington has also kicked the tires on Sam Dyson, a 31-year-old righty with the San Francisco Giants, and was at least lightly interested in Diekman before he went to the Athletics. But the Giants aren’t yet sure if they’re selling, their spring back into the wild-card race further complicating everyone’s plans.
So Rizzo works, and Martinez waits, and all of baseball wonders what the race will look like come Thursday. Martinez talks with Rizzo every day but doesn’t put any focus on the deadline. He already has 25 players to worry about. His club, constructed as it is right now, has critical division games to play. Yet the reminders are never far away, that this week is critical in other ways, too, that the right reliever could turn the Nationals into a true contender.
Chip Hale, Martinez’s bench coach, keeps his phone volume up and his ESPN alerts on. Trade news, rumors, reactions, they all lead to a ding. Martinez was conditioned long ago to ignore them, to let the market play out, to not stress about rumblings until they become something real. But he still knows the next ding could mean a lot for his team.
“It’s so funny; sometimes people know more stuff that’s going on than I do,” Martinez said. “I don’t pay attention to who’s getting traded and who’s not. You hear fans say, ‘Hey, you know you’re interested in so and so?’ I go, ‘Oh, no, thanks for telling me.’ ”
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