The season is lost now, even before Memorial Day, and no veteran manager or fireballing reliever is going to alter that sorry state. The Washington Nationals arrived in New York in position to get the Mets’ manager fired. Instead, they depart Flushing with four odious performances that lead to the conclusion that their own manager is the one who should be removed — and with larger questions afoot.
Dave Martinez’s time as an effective leader of the Nats is over, if it ever existed. Nice guy, solid baseball man and all that. Did he make Adam Eaton miss first base in the first inning Thursday? No. Did he fail to score Juan Soto after a leadoff triple? No. Did he throw the ball into center field (like Yan Gomes) or fail to back it up (like Brian Dozier)? No.
But his charges did all of that, and they do similar things every single day. It’s maddening. So in watching Martinez for a season and change, you’re left with three conclusions: He hasn’t fixed those unforgivable “little things,” and they’re killing this club; strategy-wise, he’s too often chasing the game, trying to solve yesterday’s problems today; and worse, he can’t offset those deficiencies with his presence, which is far more part-of-the-wallpaper than let’s-go-to-war.
The scary part, though, at this point in this unprecedented Nats season — unprecedented because never has a Washington team with postseason expectations been so out of it so early — is that it doesn’t really matter who’s managing this bunch. Keep Davey or dump Davey. Meh. The problems here are more fundamental. The important decisions are about rosters in coming years, not the roster that’s imploding in front of us.
Near the beginning of the season, the Nats painted a quote along one of the walls on the hallway that connects the home clubhouse to the dugout at Nationals Park: “You’re either in, or you’re in the way.” Its author: Mike Rizzo, the longtime general manager.
Brash, huh? It’s easy to mock now. If it makes you feel better, go right ahead. But look at it this way, too: That’s Rizzo’s charge for the rest of this season and going forward. Who’s in? And who’s in the way?
This isn’t about seventh-inning relievers, fifth starters or utility men. This is about franchise cornerstones. This is about Anthony Rendon and Sean Doolittle. This is about — gulp — Max Scherzer.
Can you trade any? Or all?
Those questions are so different from what Rizzo and his staff — and, importantly, the ownership of the Lerner family — have faced in springs past. Even last year’s decision to sell was both late and halfhearted: It came after the Nats dropped a game below .500 with a pair of listless losses at the end of July in Miami, and it didn’t include completing a deal to send Bryce Harper to Houston because Mark Lerner, newly in control of the club, thwarted the trade Rizzo had in place.
Now the circumstances are more drastic, so the reactions should be, too. Case by case:
Rendon: He’s the Nationals’ best player. He’s due to be a free agent this offseason. He doesn’t turn 29 until next month. He should be part of the core going forward. The Nats have said they want to sign him to an extension.
Yet that could be difficult. Colorado is paying its own third baseman, Nolan Arenado, $260 million over eight years. Here’s what Rendon’s agent, Scott Boras, could say: Yes, Arenado has a .292 batting average, .347 on-base percentage and .541 slugging percentage for an .888 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. But take away Arenado’s performance at his home park of Coors Field, and those numbers drop to .264/.320/.476, a .795 OPS. Rendon’s career line: .287/.363/.478, an .841 OPS. Is Rendon better than Arenado? No. Will Boras argue that he is? Absolutely.
So if an extension’s not likely, the Nats have to be honest about it. Deal him. And if you want back in Rendon’s market this offseason, go for it. But the Harper saga should emphasize to ownership that hanging on to assets when they’re no longer helping your club ascend is pointless.
Doolittle: This case is easier, and it’s terrible to say that given his performance since his arrival midway through 2017. (I say that fully aware of the eighth inning Wednesday night.) In the past two calendar years, here are Doolittle’s ranks among relievers in some key categories: eighth in ERA, fifth in fielding independent pitching (FIP), third in walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP), sixth in walk rate. He is an elite reliever who could close or set up, and given his club option for next year — $6.5 million, a steal — he should easily be placed in an attractive setting in the display window.
Now, the hand-wringer: Scherzer.
Man, wouldn’t that hurt? For so much of his tenure here, regardless of what else was swirling around the club, he has been a reason to show up to the ballpark every fifth day. Since he first put on a Nats uniform, his ranks in all of baseball: third in ERA, fourth in FIP, second in WHIP, first in opponents’ batting average, first in innings pitched (58 1/3 innings more than his closest pursuer!) and first in strikeouts.
He is a Hall of Famer, arguably the best free agent pitcher ever signed. He has two years beyond this on his contract, each at $35 million, all of it deferred.
And yet the equation becomes: Would trading Scherzer bring more value for 2020, 2021 — and into the future — than keeping him? Adding a layer to the process this summer is the fact that at the end of this season, Scherzer will have 10-and-5 rights — 10 years of service time, the past five with the same team — and therefore would be able to veto any trade thereafter.
So start thinking. Start thinking now.
Beyond that? Gomes, the disappointing catcher, and Dozier, the disappointing second baseman, are easy choices to jettison given each would be a free agent this winter. Those trades would come with the added bonus that we wouldn’t have to watch them every night. Gomes not only threw a ball into center field Thursday — the ball Dozier didn’t back up — but he also called for a curveball from Stephen Strasburg, then promptly let it go through his legs. Both led to runs in a 6-4 loss. Bad baseball. Bad, bad baseball.
The silver lining, however slight, of all these putrid performances: They should make the hard decisions easier. Martinez, ejected in Thursday’s eighth inning, isn’t the man to manage this team, not if and when it rebuilds itself as a contender. And that rebuild should begin immediately. Trea Turner, Soto, Victor Robles, Strasburg, Patrick Corbin — there’s a core here that’s worth building around. Take this summer to solidify — and deepen — the foundation so that seasons such as this don’t happen again.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.