What’s wrong with the Nationals – Part #2: The manager

Where is the media for the Post-game media session?

The Washington Nationals have been the beasts of the east in the NL since 2012. Tragic playoff losses notwithstanding. In the decade where the Phillies’ short reign came to an end, the Braves and Mets have had a couple of good seasons while the Washington Nationals have been the standard of excellence and have carried a combined best record in the majors for the total of 6 years. Despite the fact that Mike Rizzo has built a sustainable contender which shows no sign of decline, he has not managed to bring that consistency to the manager’s position.

A case can be made that the trials and tribulations in finding the proper skipper have really been an unmitigated disaster. Davey Johnson was a great choice as long as he was engaged and energized, and when Johnson lost interest (while clearly not on the same page as the GM), Rizzo had his 1st chance to hire his own man and he botched it. The biggest problem then was that the entire interview process was a sham. Rizzo wanted Matt Williams and that was it. Other candidates that were rumored like Ausmus, Dave Martinez and others were just window dressing. Williams was such a disaster that when the Nats were looking for his replacement in 2016, ownership stepped in to make sure the chosen candidate was an established winner.

The Dusty Baker hiring of course was messy as well coupled with the Bud Black fiasco but Dusty did what he did everywhere he managed, he unified the clubhouse and won many games. When the Nats managed to lose 2 excruciating game 5’s in consecutive years Rizzo was given another opportunity to bring in his own man, and the marriage with Dusty was never one that Rizzo looked comfortable with.

At the end of 2017, the process to find a manager started again and unfortunately it was eerily like what happened at the end of 2013. Rizzo knew who he wanted. Dave Martinez whom he interviewed before he hired Matt Williams was always his man. At the time of the hire, there were few objections from fans because Martinez was the right-hand man to managing guru Joe Maddon for many years, and it was expected that he be innovative, analytical as well as a strong communicator.

I have always liked Dave Martinez as a player and he genuinely looks like a nice guy. I will also say that I don’t consider myself to be smart enough to declare that DM is an ‘idiot’ or a ‘moron’ like some people do. But from my long-term fan’s perspective, I don’t like what I’m seeing, and I will go as far as to say that Martinez is a step down from Dusty.

It started out with a bizarre spring training where base running became slap stick comedy, and the Ryan Zimmerman fiasco was a communication nightmare any way you look at it where his one limited appearance in Spring Training was as a Designated Hitter early in camp. If there are valid reasons for a veteran team leader to be excused from all spring training games in the field, the manager needed to explain it better. As the season started a series of unsettling decisions began such as the Ryan Madson fiasco in New York, several strange uses of the bench and bullpen, and a consistent inability to manufacture runs.

As I said before, this is all just my opinions and it is based on daily observation and results. Under the new staff, most players have under-performed their career numbers, base running is still slap stick comedy, the team is unable to manufacture runs in tight games and the worst part is that there is a total breakdown in fundamentals. The team is unable to move runners by simple sacrifice bunts or productive outs, they don’t produce professional at-bats in game situations, and there is an overall sense of floundering. I watched Jim Riggleman’s Cincinnati Reds last night, and at least on this occasion they did everything crisply and correctly including hitting the ball to rightfield where the runner tagged-up and went to 3rd base. They poured hits to the opposite field, they took the extra base on hustle, they moved runners with productive outs. They looked like a managed team with basic fundamentals.

In the 4th inning yesterday, the Nationals had a golden opportunity. Eaton on 2nd base and Harper on 1st base with no outs.  Rendon hits it deep enough to rightfield for a productive out — but Eaton did not tag-up and run on Mallex Smith who has at best a 50 arm. When manager Dave Martinez wanted Eaton to get to 3rd base, he then had to put in play the riskier double-steal — only this time Eaton did not get a good jump and jab stepped and was thrown out in a rundown as Harper took 2nd base. If Eaton tags up on Rendon’s fly, none of that happens. It is this type of poor base running that has killed this team. It’s the simple things — fundamentals.

Finally, I feel that at the Nats current position, with their payroll close to the top of the industry and with a star-studded roster, they should have made the obvious hire and not roll the dice. When Joe Girardi became available, the Nats should have pounced, yes he would have been expensive, but he doesn’t count against the luxury tax and he is a proven winner including in the playoffs.

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