WASHINGTON -- Hindsight can be 20-20 or used to stall. The latter is in play when being attached to the lag in Davey Martinez’s contract option being executed by the Lerner family.
The midpoint of this erratic, bizarre, ill-defined season is coming at the end of the week. September arrives quickly afterward. Which leaves two months on Martinez’s existing contract of three guaranteed years and one club option for a fourth. Had Martinez reached this calendar point in a regular, 162-game season, he would be the Nationals’ longest-tenured manager. Instead, he will remain third behind Davey Johnson and Manny Acta.
He’s already outlasted Matt Williams, who could well be the reason Martinez is still waiting for a call to say his option has been picked up. Mike Rizzo suggested in spring training this year that Martinez’s best managing job may have been in 2018, when the Nationals dealt with injuries and dysfunction en route to an 82-80 record. Martinez himself suggested as much during the year when he told me in his office that the whole thing could have gone off the rails by the end of May.
The season did crash in May of the following year. But then health, better play and Martinez maintaining, helped formulate one of the great turnarounds in modern baseball history. It’s almost hackneyed to recite now: 19-31 to World Series champions.
Back to Williams. He won National League Manager of the Year in 2014 thanks to 96 regular-season victories by a loaded team. That led to a swift decision the following year on the first day of spring training: the Lerners decided to pick up Williams’ third-year option for the following season before his second began. He originally signed a two-year deal with two club options. Williams’ hiring came after an odd contract end for Davey Johnson and a contentious one for Jim Riggleman. Both thought they should continue. Neither were retained.
Johnson and Riggleman continued the Nationals’ instability at manager since their inception. Riggleman’s position, in particular, became such a damning story it bubbled up again six years later when Dusty Baker wondered about his future. Sitting in the visitor’s dugout in 2017, Riggleman explained how all the shuffling moved from a local topic to one inside baseball circles. In essence, a question followed the process: What are they doing in D.C.?
“I think that’s there right now,” Riggleman told me then. “The day Dusty signs his next contract, that all goes away. That’s looming. If something totally unexpected happened and [Dusty] wasn’t here, then that talk would continue through next year. The day that he signs his contract, I think it’s going be, ‘OK, we all knew this was going to happen. It’s all good. Let’s go to work.’” Baker, also, was not retained.
Which led to Martinez’s hiring. He was granted the rare three-year deal with a club option for the fourth year. He held the group above water in the first year, won the World Series in the second and is managing through a pandemic in the third. Everything suggests his contract option should have been picked up by now. Everything except making a too-soon decision on Williams.
“Honestly, I have not thought about it,” Martinez said Monday afternoon. “I’ve been so focused on what we’re trying to do here in a short period of time that I don’t even think about it. My thoughts are keeping guys healthy that are here. Hoping all the surgeries go well -- and [Stephen Strasburg’s] surgery goes well and getting him back. But, that’s it. I don’t think about that stuff. I really believe that stuff will take care of itself in due time. So, keep plugging away here and hopefully win tonight.”
They didn’t. The Marlins beat them, 11-8. The Nationals dropped to 11-15. Which has no bearing on the Lerner’s decision to come. Williams losing the clubhouse was punctuated during an asphyxiation attempt by his closer on his star player, which Williams claimed not to see. He had to go, whether they had prematurely picked up his option or not. No such circumstance surrounds Martinez. Only an obvious choice. Even if he has to wait.