The future of the Nats management under new ownership

Mark Lerner spoke to fans between innings; Photo by Steve Mears for TalkNats

One of the things that regular posters like to speculate about frequently on this site is when changes in management might be made once the sale of the Nationals to Michael Kim, or Josh Harris, or David Rubenstein and Ted Leonsis or whomever. There are of course two components to any potential management change – vice president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo (along with, quite possibly, key members of his staff) and manager Dave Martinez (along with members of his coaching staff).

The various schools of thought break down into the following camps, with varying levels of support from the commenters (I did not go back and read thousands of comments to try and assign a percentage value to each):

  1. New ownership should hold serve for a year with both Rizzo and Martinez and let them finish their contracts while the new ownership gets acquainted with the business of baseball and then hire their own people after the 2023 season (this appears to be the majoritarian opinion);
  2. New ownership should keep Rizzo for the reasons listed above but find a new manager because Davey’s flaws are amplified with this roster;
  3. New ownership should keep Rizzo as VP of baseball operations but hire a new general manager;
  4. New ownership should clean house entirely this winter and start fresh, probably including a lot of the minor league managers/coaches as well and secondary/tertiary people in baseball operations & development;
  5. And finally, new ownership should hold onto both, because Rizzo has shown once already that he can build a winner from rubble (and should get a chance to see this one through) and Martinez has a 185-154 record (counting playoffs) plus a World Series ring in the two full seasons in which he had a competent roster.

For myself, I have vacillated between all of these positions over the past twelve months, and no doubt many of you have as well. However, in recent weeks I find myself more and more firmly in the “clean house immediately” camp. Given that, it’s only fair to dive into some detail on why a new owner should go in a different direction as soon as they have the keys to the offices on South Capitol Street. There are fairly recent precedents in baseball for all four of the positions above, so every option is valid, but it’s a good discussion to have. Let’s start with on-field management.

Davey Martinez has not proven to be an elite manager in baseball, but nor is he awful. He has proven that he knows how to win in the postseason. But he has only proven during the one magical season of 2019 that he figured out how to get into the postseason. There is probably less variance in terms of ability among baseball managers than in any other sport, because even the best managers are only adding perhaps four or five wins over a whole season as opposed to hiring someone random from AA or wherever.

Football, basketball, and soccer coaches/managers (I don’t know enough about hockey to offer an opinion there) all have more opportunities to put their imprint on their teams stylistically and on their games tactically than happens in baseball. That said, there are ways that managers can positively and negatively impact teams, and there are types of teams that any particular manager might be better with than another.

Davey’s single best skill is his ability to develop strong relationships with the athletes and other people that he works with, and there is real value in that. Not only do players speak well of him both during and after their tenures in Washington, but he also keeps the clubhouse very cohesive. It is difficult (some might say practically impossible) to put together a rotating group of forty to fifty hyper-competitive young men from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds, have them spend the better part of seven months in near-constant contact with each other, and not have there be some pretty significant blowups. Yet we never hear of this, not even in a completely lost season where the closest approximation of a veteran leader showed up last week in a trade that he originally wasn’t supposed to be a part of.

Granted, things may happen behind closed doors that don’t leak to the public, but we would never see the Papelbon/Harper incident happen on a Martinez-led team, or anything remotely close to it. Speaking as someone who has spent the majority of my twenty-one-year coaching career working with girls and women, who are much less direct in general when it comes to conflict than men, I feel fairly qualified to speak to Davey’s skills on that front. There are few if any better than him in this regard.

While he is not a tactical genius, Davey deserves credit for masterfully handling a seriously flawed bullpen down the stretch and through the playoffs in 2019, giving non-Doolittle/Hudson relievers a mere nine innings out of a possible ninety before the World Series (and all but two-thirds of an inning in Game 5 against the Dodgers – pitched by Rainey – came in blowout situations). Crucially, there were no gripes from anyone on the team about those declared intentions (see previous paragraph). Still, it is apparent to close observers that Davey is not an analytics-forward manager on the level of Craig Counsell or Kevin Cash and that he will not infrequently stick with a pitcher too long, or try a questionable hit-and-run, or place his fielders in sub-optimal alignments. Overall, though, he’s perfectly cromulent as a tactical game manager.

Davey’s two biggest flaws, however, have been amplified with these 2022 Nationals, and are perhaps the two most important qualities that a manager of a rebuilding team needs. He and his various staff members over the past four-plus seasons have been remarkably ineffective at improving the skill sets and baseball acumen of every young player who has come under their care save Juan Soto (who is just built different), and he also fails to hold players accountable for making the same mistakes over and over and over again. Of no single player is this more true (in both cases) than Victor Robles, who could still turn into Mike Cameron (46.7-WAR career that lasted until he was almost 40), or who might wash out of baseball entirely in three years. But Victor is hardly alone.

Here are the players who have either debuted with the Nats since 2018 or gotten their first serious playing time under Martinez: Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Pedro Severino, Andrew Stevenson, Erick Fedde, Austin Voth, Wander Suero, Tanner Rainey, Luis García, Yadiel Hernández, Carter Kieboom, Kyle Finnegan, Sam Clay, Andres Machado, Lane Thomas, Riley Adams, Keibert Ruiz, Mason Thompson, Tres Barrera, Josh Rogers, Josiah Gray, and Joan Adon (I’m leaving out some part-time relievers from last year). Whew, that’s quite a list. Ask yourselves this – how many of those players have gotten appreciably better under the tutelage of Martinez and his lieutenants? Soto, obviously, and I might grant you Finnegan as well. But I would argue that more of them have regressed than grown as players. That is a serious issue for the future of this team.

Pivoting upstairs, there are those among you who argue vociferously for keeping Rizzo because he has rebuilt this very franchise successfully before, and you are correct that he has already blazed the trail. However, there are crucially a couple of different factors. Rizzo took the reins with a shallower pool of talent than the Nationals have now after the Soto trade, but he also ascended to the big chair just in time to make the two easiest 1-1 draft selections probably since Alex Rodríguez in 1993, and the year after that the preseason 1-1 favorite fell into his lap with the sixth pick thanks to a broken ankle.

That set of circumstances is no longer possible with a draft lottery, and the odds of having the worst record in baseball in consecutive seasons when there is a 100% obvious choice at the very top of the draft the following summer were infinitesimally small to begin with (the Astros of 2012-14 are the only other franchise to ever have the first overall choice in back-to-back seasons – something that they very purposefully did – let alone have slam-dunk options like Strasburg and Harper available).

Because minor league development was a budgetary afterthought for many years (and coaching in general – because of my history of watching Nationals games, my phone now autocorrects from “too” to “TOOTBLAN”), the Nationals’ amateur scouting department made it their standard practice to roll the dice on toolsy, athletic projects with very rough edges (both in the United States and in their Dominican academy) and hope that enough of them worked out. Sometimes there was an obvious choice or signing, such as Strasburg or Harper or Soto. But some of them were very much rolls of the dice. Rendon’s talent won out over his injuries for five terrific seasons and two decent ones. Robles played a sparkling center field and was close to a league average hitter as a 22-year-old for a World Series winner.

All first-round draftees since Rendon, however, have combined to total -1.6 WAR as Nationals (don’t worry, we will acknowledge the Eaton trade). The third-best career as a National by any of their overseas signings is Yadiel Hernández at 0.5 WAR.
Rizzo does have a gift for identifying professional talent. Cristian Guzmán fell apart at the seams and had fifty plate appearances left in his career when Rizzo shipped him to Texas in 2010 for a 26th-round AA pitcher named Tanner Roark, a trade that is still paying dividends twelve years later in the form of Tanner Rainey.

Rizzo wormed his way into a trade with two other teams and somehow wound up with the best player in the deal, stealing Trea Turner (and Joe Ross) for a spare outfielder. He traded a small flotilla of medium prospects for a young lefty fresh off his first All-Star appearance for Oakland (along with leading the majors in walks) who would be a rotation mainstay for half a decade and have one of the more entertaining personalities in Nationals history. A trio of pitchers who are all still in the majors today became a versatile outfielder with a gritty edge who hit .320/.433/.560 in the 2019 World Series with two home runs, one a crucial shot off of Justin Verlander in the fifth inning of Game Six. An A+ lottery ticket of a pitcher (now a AAA reliever three years later) became the closer who struck out Michael Brantley on a pitch caught by a defensive rock of a catcher acquired for a couple of spare parts now back with the organization.

Here’s the thing. All of those trades happened because the franchise continually struggled to develop, and still struggles to develop, anyone beyond the big stars. Lucas Giolito was rushed to the majors as a two-pitch pitcher and asked to step into the rotation for a contender that had missed the previous postseason despite an historic offensive season from their 22-year-old right fielder. No pick from later than the first round since 2009 save Michael A. Taylor ever did much of anything for the Nationals. The “stars and scrubs” system left the organization with no depth should any run of bad outcomes occur. To be fair, a few went out the door in trades, most notably 2021 AL Cy Young Robbie Ray as an A-ball lump of clay for Doug Fister, lo these nine years gone.

But still the Nationals continue to run their draft room like the Oakland A’s scouts as described by Michael Lewis. Pick after pick of toolsy athletes but raw baseball players with astronomical ceilings and subterranean floors. Former players and insiders around the game speak freely of the Nationals’ thin staffing and attention to detail in development and analytics, two fields that have become an arms race thanks to their high ROI throughout the sport.

Both men have done outstanding jobs at times throughout their times as the Nationals’ longest-tenured manager and general manager. But it is time for a change. Martinez is at his best with a veteran team with towering clubhouse leaders (your Scherzers, Turners, and Zimmermans). This team does not have one of those players, let alone three, and will not for the foreseeable future. Rizzo is a brilliant dealer and evaluator of professional talent who has a weakness for outdated scouting methods and borderline contempt (through his actions, not his words) for the kind of analytic tools and methods common throughout baseball today. A failure of the current farm system to produce not just a couple of stars from their current crop of young prospects (almost all of whom are at A+ or below) but some reliable everyday players would set the franchise back another half-decade at least, and potentially, at its darkest edge, kill baseball in Washington for a third time. That is too great a roll of the dice even for Mike Rizzo.

What then should the Nationals do? Many of you have argued for stability for stability’s sake in the form of keeping Rizzo at least (if not Martinez also) through the ends of their contracts next year, while a theoretical new owner gets comfortable with the business of baseball, a la Steve Cohen with the Mets quite recently, or Ted Leonsis with Erine Grunfeld and the Wizards. To you I say – do you want a lame-duck Rizzo potentially picking first overall in an absolutely loaded draft (remember, a ton of next year’s draftees were forced to college by the shortening of the 2020 draft to five rounds) and taking someone like (to use an example from the Astros’ tanking period) Brady Aiken? Do you want another year of being dead last in the majors in base-running runs, almost twice as bad as the 29th-ranked team? Do you want another year watching a pitching staff that has the worst FIP in baseball by close to half a run? Of course not.

As to the idea that the Nationals should keep Rizzo as VP of baseball operations while hiring someone new as general manager (and his probable successor), that would likely be too awkward of a situation to be good for the organization. Think about it – new ownership would be asking Rizzo to cede control of a significant chunk of baseball operation duties to someone who would not necessarily have the same philosophy when it comes to team-building and who would be expected to succeed Rizzo at the end of his contract.

Rizzo is a proud guy, and I don’t see him standing for that kind of arrangement, especially because a new GM would probably turn over several secondary positions in baseball ops who might be loyal Rizzo guys. Okay, you say, then give Rizzo the primary choice in hiring a new general manager. Well, then all he’s going to do is hire someone with the same antiquated views on development and analytics (quite possibly someone from within like Mike DeBartolo or Kris Kline), and now new ownership has to replace two people whenever it wants to make a change instead of just one. For so many reasons, this idea doesn’t make a ton of sense. On the surface, the intent appears to be an effort to smooth Rizzo’s eventual departure, but in practice would likely make it bumpier instead.

While many will point to Steve Cohen retaining the existing Mets front office for a year after purchasing the Mets, there is also the example of Jim Crane, who purchased the Astros in November 2011 and three weeks later hired Jeff Luhnow and gave him carte blanche to remake the organization. The 2011 Astros were in roughly the same position as the 2021 Nationals, a fairly old team with one or two interesting young players (Jose Altuve and J.D. Martinez in the Astros’ case) and a paper-thin farm system.

A new general manager or vice president of baseball operations would inherit a 2023 Nationals franchise and system that would look a lot more like the 2013 Astros, who while still bad at the major league level had leapt roughly fifteen spots in farm rankings to the top ten thanks to the additions of players like Carlos Correa and George Springer. Two years later they were in the playoffs, with seven of their top twelve players by WAR – including all of the top four (Dallas Keuchel, Correa, Springer, and Altuve) – entirely homegrown. The Astros have made the playoffs every year since then except 2016, with three 100-win seasons (likely a fourth this year) and three World Series appearances (of course, the sign-stealing scandal had something to do with those results). So while there is precedent for patience and letting Rizzo and/or Martinez finish out their contracts, there is also precedent for immediate change.

The first place I would look as a new Nationals owner would be Cleveland. The Guardians are currently tied for the AL Central lead and have perhaps the deepest farm system in baseball (with among the more advanced methods of teaching and developing pitchers) despite a payroll that is fourth-lowest in the game, at under $67 million dollars a little more than half of the Nationals’ ($122 million) to start the season. Notably, Cleveland also has a manager who is probably Davey’s equal in people skills but has a much better track record of improving young talent, and has two World Series trophies on his resumé as a bonus.

Some of you have argued for someone from Tampa Bay, which since the Andrew Friedman days has prioritized excellent defense (historically a weak spot for the Nationals) and quality pitching. My one issue there is that the Rays have no qualms about churning through pitchers and discarding them, and the injury rates from their arms can look alarming. Other front offices that have been mentioned include St. Louis, Minnesota, Los Angeles, and of course Atlanta, which has combined strong development with an ability to lock up important stars for below-market deals well past their original free agent dates (of course, Atlanta has an advantage over the Nationals in that they are THE team of the South, and every Southern baseball player from Richmond to Jacksonville to Biloxi to Memphis dreams of playing for the Braves).

All of those franchises are good places to look, and there may be others (I’m sure they will show up in the comments), but it is clear that although the decrepit farm system has been strengthened by the Soto trade and recent draft picks, there are still organizational and cultural flaws within the Washington Nationals that may very well serve as a drag on the rebuilding process (which Rizzo is still calling a “retool”), and a change in direction at the end of this season is best for everyone.

This entry was posted in Analysis, DaveMartinez, Feature, MikeRizzo, Roster. Bookmark the permalink.