These lists can differ. Potential peril is in the eye of the beholder. But I’d challenge any Nats fan to rank his or her top three sources of trepidation about the season that begins Thursday and not find a spot for: Is Dave Martinez the right man to be manager?
Whether you’re a Martinez believer or a Martinez doubter or — the rational take — solidly in the TBD camp, here’s the evidence that can’t be disputed: Dusty Baker managed the Nationals for two seasons, two seasons that resulted in 95 and 97 wins and a pair of division titles. The team did not bring him back for 2018, and Martinez got his job.
Upon the decision to let Baker walk, General Manager Mike Rizzo famously said, “Winning a lot of regular season games and winning divisions is not enough. Our goal is to win a world championship.”
In the first season after Rizzo outlined that job description, the Nats finished with 82 wins. With a (yes, banged-up) team that strongly resembled Baker’s, Martinez managed the Nats into a position in which they got to August and sold parts rather than bought them, because the playoffs were unrealistic.
And so, Thursday begins the eighth straight year the Nats themselves — not to mention various prognostications, be they computer or human — expect to make the postseason. Martinez is at the helm. Given the stated parameters of the job and the disappointing result in Year 1, wouldn’t that bring some pressure in Year 2?
“I don’t necessarily know if it’s pressure,” Martinez said this week. “But I like winning. Bottom line. I came from organizations that — we won. And I want to win.”
So we can all agree: Win — and by “win,” we mean the toughest division in baseball and more — and all will be fine.
Here’s Martinez’s predicament: If the Nats do in fact win, we’ll all give credit to their talented roster. If they lose, we’ll look to the manager — his moves, his demeanor, his command of the room, his public face, his private machinations. It’s unfair, but it’s also ingrained.
Last year, the Nats outscored their opponents by 89 runs — which normally would translate to 90 wins, the number Atlanta won to take the National League East. Slice and dice that a thousand ways, but it leads to a natural question: Did the manager hold them back rather than push them forward?
All of this is under examination beginning Opening Day, as it was a year ago. The difference this time around: In 2018, Martinez had the benefit of the doubt. Now, that’s gone. Last year, we wondered how he would handle the bullpen. Now, we have identified it as an area on which to keep an eye. Last year, we wondered how he would deal with a difficult stretch. Now, we know: with positivity, positivity that was so relentless it sometimes seemed disconnected with the gravity of the situation.
About that: Martinez said this week that he has made a small shift in attitude, and therefore in what he wants the team’s attitude to be. You can’t snap your fingers and make an optimist a pessimist (or, I can say from personal experience, vice versa). But as the Nats navigated a 2018 that was marred by injury — Daniel Murphy and Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon and Doolittle and others — the manager, in retrospect, thought the clubhouse leaned on the idea that fortifications were coming, and it would all work out.
“There was a lot of stuff [like], ‘As soon as we get this guy back, we get this guy, everything’s going to be okay,’” Martinez said. So ship that out, and replace it with, in Martinez’s words: “No. Hey, we are who we are right now, today. So let’s win our day.”
Do that 90-95 times, in a division that has been labeled the toughest in baseball, and all will be well.
Since the days before the opener are a time to naturally be smiling about everything — the pitchers all have 0.00 ERAs, the hitters haven’t struck out once, the forecast calls for mostly sunny skies and temps in the 60s — there are reasons to believe Martinez will adjust, and properly. Even though last year didn’t meet the club’s own internal expectations, Martinez didn’t lose the clubhouse. That’s important.
“Every year is kind of individual to itself,” said ace Max Scherzer, entering his fifth year in Washington, playing for his third manager. “You can have the same manager, but you can have a completely different team, and so you have a whole different feel.”
The different feel this spring: No camels trotted into West Palm Beach to make the Nats laugh about getting over the “hump.” No golf challenges to loosen them up. Just because you worked for Joe Maddon doesn’t mean you have to be Joe Maddon.
“I don’t think it was a conscious effort,” Rizzo said.
Maybe not. But it should have been.
Anyway, if you want to wake up feeling good about your manager, well, at least he knows his team this time.
“Nothing’s changed as far as his personality and his communication skills and the way he handles players,” Rizzo said late in spring training. “I think what has changed is he’s got a really good grasp of the personnel that we have, not only on the 25, but within the system. That was a disadvantage he had last year. He didn’t know what made the players tick. I think he does now.”
Even as the Nats welcome two new catchers, two new starting pitchers, a new second baseman and three key new bullpen arms, you can hope Martinez’s familiarity with his roster matters. What’s likely to matter more: Is Martinez — at 54, with 16 years as a big league player and 10 more as a coach — someone who can learn and grow with the job?
Given he had worked for so long at Maddon’s side — first in Tampa, then with the Cubs, a tenure that resulted in seven postseason trips and a World Series title — Martinez said nothing about his experience in the big chair last year caught him off guard. Yet as his second season begins, he carries Maddon’s words with him.
“He would always tell me, ‘Hey, you’re going to have your struggles,’ ” Martinez said. “ ‘This ain’t the easiest job in the world. Just stay even-keeled, be who you are. Be true to yourself, and just be honest. People will respect that.’”
Dave Martinez has earned respect as that most amorphous of roles: baseball man. What 2019 will tell is whether he earns it as a manager. If he does, it means the Nationals will have won their division, and maybe more. And then 2020 would open with a list of questions and concerns that didn’t include the man on the top step of the dugout, running the show.