Now, in the slow run-up to 2020 and the afterglow of a World Series title, the Nationals are striving to keep that continuity as best they can. They fired Lilliquist in May, after the bullpen’s historically bad start, and replaced him with Paul Menhart. Washington initially didn’t commit to keeping Menhart beyond the season, but it recently extended a full-time offer that he accepted. That kept the staff intact until this past week, when Dillon was hired by the Philadelphia Phillies to be their hitting coach.
Assistant hitting coach is a role that comes and goes, one Dillon earned by standing out in the Nationals’ minor league system. There is a chance the Nationals don’t replace him, meaning there would be no new coaches between Game 7 of the World Series and Opening Day in March: Hale, Menhart, Long, Bogar, Henley and Blanco would all return.
“It’s important for us to have those consistent voices, as long as those voices were effective the first few times around,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said at the general managers’ meetings this month. “That’s something we really focus on when the situation works out for everyone.”
Menhart was the biggest staffing question heading into the offseason, and the Nationals answered it right away. When he was promoted in Lilliquist’s place, Menhart had been with the Nationals’ organization for 14 years, including the previous five as their minor league pitching coordinator. Lilliquist was fired when Washington was 13-17 and had a league-worst bullpen ERA of 6.02. A rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez was underachieving, though to a much lighter degree, and all of that triggered the change.
It’s hard to say how much of an effect Menhart had from there. A coach’s influence is nearly impossible to quantify. The pitching staff really took to him, often citing his advice and use of analytics, and maybe that was enough. A star-studded rotation pitched as such under him. The bullpen improved marginally but was still relying on just two relievers for most of the title run. Menhart had a history with Washington’s back-of-the-rotation starters — namely Erick Fedde, Joe Ross and Austin Voth — and they turned in a handful of big starts in July and August, when Scherzer was dealing with injuries. And he took on a mythical quality among fans for a supposed magic touch during mound visits.
And now, because of a combination of those factors, Menhart is coming back.
“He’s got a very good knowledge of the system. He’s got a very good knowledge of pitching in general,” Rizzo said of what went into the decision. “He’s got vast experience in mechanical fixes, and he knows the mind-set of pitchers, especially the pitchers on our roster. And he’s got a good demeanor, he’s a good communicator, and he and Davey get along very well.”
The Nationals encourage their coaches to seek out promotions elsewhere. That means they are doing something right — such as winning a World Series, to start — and makes it easier to attract talented coaches in the future. Long had regularly lobbied for a team to hire Dillon as its lead hitting coach. The Nationals allowed Bogar to interview for the New York Mets’ managerial opening this fall and let Henley do the same with the San Diego Padres.
But they also don’t mind how this winter is shaking out. Dillon was loved by players and often mentioned by Juan Soto when the young outfielder discussed tweaks to his swing. That the Nationals are bringing back everyone else, and will have stability at pitching coach, is a marginal offseason win. They began it with 11 free agents and the prospect of major roster overhaul. How much overhaul will depend, in part, on how Rizzo wants to handle veterans such as Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick, Yan Gomes, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Daniel Hudson, who are all on the open market.
“What they did, from Davey on down, was fantastic during the season and the march to the championship,” Rizzo said at the GM meetings. “So why wouldn’t we want to replicate that as much as possible?”