Go back three years, bypass a few last-place finishes and the whole global pandemic, and there is Dave Martinez in the best month of his managerial career. He is calling in Stephen Strasburg from the bullpen, then Max Scherzer from the bullpen, then signaling for Daniel Hudson to intentionally walk Max Muncy, putting the tying run on base in a pivotal spot, before Hudson walks the next batter on four pitches and recovers for a game-ending strikeout.
Soon Martinez is lifting trophies, talking about bumpy roads, telling everyone to go 1-0 that day. During a championship parade down Constitution Avenue, he is falling into fans’ arms as if he is landing on a cloud. He is, in those moments, on top of the baseball world. You may have been, too.
You may also feel like that was an eternity ago.
This month, the Nationals finished with a 55-107 record, the team’s worst since it moved to Washington. Since the Nationals took the World Series, they have a winning percentage of .380 (146-238), a historically sharp drop-off. But after Washington exercised his club option in July, Martinez will return for 2023, giving him at least one more year with a rebuilding team that could be sold this offseason. The natural question, then, is why?
“I think he’s doing a good job,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said in the last week of the regular season. “I think I’ve seen what they’ve done with some of the younger players. I think that I see progress in some of our young guys, like [Luis] García and [CJ] Abrams and Keibert [Ruiz] before he was hurt. I think they’ve seen a lot of progress in some of our pitchers, especially our bullpen has done a remarkable job, taking some unproven guys, some guys that were cast aside by other organizations, and really made them into big league talent that we can depend on.
“I think you see a team out there that plays hard, 27 outs. Sometimes it’s not pretty, but the effort is there, and I think that’s all [on account] of the coaching staff and Davey.”
Beyond Rizzo’s public assessment, the answers are layered, according to multiple people familiar with the reasons for keeping Martinez and his whole staff in place. A major factor is that, when it comes to high-ranking positions, the organization is in a holding pattern while the Lerner family continues to explore a sale. When the Lerners picked up options for Martinez and Rizzo over the summer, no suitors were far along enough in the process to have a say in those decisions or push for their own leaders. The Lerners also believed it was important to project stability to potential buyers, according to two people with knowledge of their thinking.
Another factor, of course, is money. Martinez said the coaches all have another year left on their contracts — and the Lerners, had they chosen to let Martinez go after the season, would have had to pay two managers in 2023 or saddle new owners with that commitment, whether that would have included the manager’s full salary or a buyout. And while Martinez has overseen poor on-field results, his leash was extended when the front office first stripped the roster in July 2021, leading to an understanding that Martinez wouldn’t be solely judged on wins and losses at the beginning of a complete reset.
Has the rebuild changed how Rizzo assesses Martinez, hired before the 2018 season, and his coaches?
“To me, you evaluate the manager on how he handles the team and the organization,” Rizzo said. “I think he’s been the same guy from when we won a world championship to this year when we’re going to lose 100-plus games.”
In the past month, three managers — Tony La Russa (Chicago White Sox), Don Mattingly (Miami Marlins) and Mike Matheny (Kansas City Royals) — have been fired or have stepped down. During the season, Joe Girardi (Philadelphia Phillies), Joe Maddon (Los Angeles Angels), Charlie Montoyo (Toronto Blue Jays) and Chris Woodward (Texas Rangers) were let go. After Girardi and Montoyo were canned, the Phillies and Blue Jays both reached the playoffs, showing they had contending rosters that maybe needed a new voice in charge. Mattingly, Matheny and Woodward, by contrast, departed amid stalled rebuilds. Maddon, Martinez’s mentor, was fired in June and has since spoken out about how overbearing the Angels’ front office was.
For that reason, the role of the modern manager is regularly parsed. Hours after the Marlins announced that Mattingly wouldn’t return for 2023, Kim Ng, Miami’s general manager, explained how she deciphers what influence managers have on results.
“I do think that there is an effect,” Ng said in late September. “I know that there’s a lot of debate within the industry on how much effect a manager has. But, look, he is the one that is leading the team. And for that reason alone, it’s something you have to think has some strong correlation.”
As Rizzo alluded to, development is more important than the standings at the moment. That was true this past season and will be again come spring. And while the general manager pointed to García, Abrams and Ruiz as examples of solid work by Martinez’s staff, a more telling measure will be how they fare alongside Josiah Gray, Cade Cavalli, Victor Robles, Carter Kieboom and Lane Thomas, among others, next year.
A surprisingly solid year from the bullpen was a mark in favor of Martinez, pitching coach Jim Hickey and bullpen coach Ricky Bones. Robles, Patrick Corbin and Erick Fedde, however, continue to sputter, raising questions about whether the current staff is equipped to fix struggling players or maximize the output from marginal contributors.
In all likelihood, the roster will look similar to how it did after Juan Soto and Josh Bell were traded to the San Diego Padres, filled with inexperienced players and retread veterans. But the grace periods from a title or a rebuild can’t last forever. Eventually, the results will help gauge what Martinez’s future holds.
“It bothers me that we lost 100 games, for sure,” Martinez said Oct. 4 when asked whether he worried about the losses reflecting poorly upon him. “But I also know that, hey, look, I’ve been here. I’ve been through the grind with these guys day in and day out. I stay positive with these guys; I understand the process when it comes to trying to get younger players and develop them up here. … I showed up every day and did everything I can to get these guys better.”