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How MLB managers feeling heat, including Nationals' Davey Martinez, block it out

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How MLB managers feeling heat, including Nationals' Davey Martinez, block it out

WASHINGTON -- Davey Martinez likes to venture around town when the Nationals are home. He hunts for a quality bottle of red wine in local shops, at times takes a scooter to work and generally operates among the District denizens as if he wasn’t captaining a creaking ship.

When alone, he’s not overly recognizable but clear enough after a year-plus at the helm of the local baseball team to be noticed. The subsequent interactions, he claims, are often positive. Fans say they believe the Nationals will turn it around. They support him. They’re behind the team.

“Fans understand the game,” Martinez said Saturday. “Of course everybody wants to win. We want to win. Trust me. There’s not one guy in that clubhouse that goes out there and wants to give up a home run, wants to strikeout. We all want to win. But I hear a lot of, ‘You’re doing a great job.’ Positive. Things will turn around. I say, 'Thank you. Appreciate it.' I can tell you one thing, the guys are there to play hard.”

Anyone hurling tomatoes at him in the grocery store? Does he have bad interactions?

“If I did, I wouldn’t tell you, one,” Martinez said with a smile. “And two, you really don’t listen. I don’t even hear most of the stuff that’s going on during games. I really don’t.”

It’s that insular mentality that can help managers survive when the heat is cranked up around them. For Martinez, it’s worrying about “the boys” and not external noise. Chicago’s Joe Maddon prefers “circling the wagons” in a pressurized environment. In New York, where the subpar Nationals open a four-game series Monday night against the stumbling Mets, manager Mickey Callaway is taking shots head-on. MLB Network’s around-the-league show “Quick Pitch” showed Saturday night clips when the Mets announcers called the game “rock bottom.” The Mets were shut out the next day, and he was asked postgame about his job status on both Saturday and Sunday.

Martinez does not use social media. In his free time, he prefers to go hunting or fishing, not scroll through his phone to see any commentary about his job performance. Maddon, his mentor turned antagonist, felt waves early in Tampa Bay and even in Chicago when the Cubs careened to a 2-7 start this year, the last of his contract. He also stays away from Twitter and the radio dial.

“For me, it’s always about circling the wagons,” Maddon said. “As long as you’re pleased with what’s going on within the group, that’s all that matters. Quite frankly, talk radio, social media, that doesn’t matter. If you permit that to matter, that’s kind of your own fault. That’s there for entertainment purposes. That’s there to promote the game. Good. Barroom banter is tremendous. It’s necessary. I get it. But when it comes to running an organization, if you permit noise from the outside to impact your decisions inside, you deserve your fate.”

Rumblings around Martinez have leveled in the last week. A split in Los Angeles pushed back a miserable sweep in Milwaukee. A series win against Callaway’s Mets produced mathematical progress as opposed to any moralistic claims. A tight series against the Cubs ended with a 6-5 loss Sunday. The baseball since Los Angeles has been better.

That doesn’t remove Martinez from outside conversations about his, and the team’s, future. As things cook in New York, the Nationals remain in a desultory spot of eight games under .500 and eight games out. The coming schedule and recently increased health suggests opportunity. Tussling with the Mets is followed by Miami’s arrival at Nationals Park for four games. A quick two-game trip to Atlanta follows. 

Asked about Martinez’s situation, Maddon turned to the space most have pointed at this season: the bullpen. His words were delivered Friday afternoon.

“Love the team on the field,” Maddon said. “Love the talent on the field. Even without [Bryce] Harper being here. Their system has been outstanding. The young players are high-end. I think before you get all weirded out about Davey, let’s get a bullpen that plays consistently well. Then, you can find out what you got. I’m telling you, man, you could do everything right in a ballgame as a manager -- whether it’s pre the game or during the game, that if you can’t get those outs in the latter part of the game, it’s extremely frustrating for everybody.”

The Nationals bullpen was clobbered that evening. It remains last in the league in ERA by a large margin. 

If a Washington turnabout is nigh, it may come from a combination of further roster bolstering (Matt Adams and Ryan Zimmerman returning), the bullpen progressing to the mean and Juan Soto looking more like the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year runner-up. The two first basemen are close to ready. It would be hard for the bullpen to be worse. Five hits in three games for the 20-year-old Soto have him appearing back on track.

In New York, Callaway has little to lean on. His team picked up three hits in two games against lowly Miami during the weekend. Sunday, outspoken starter Noah Syndergaard came to his defense.

"I respect the hell out of Mickey," Syndergaard told reporters Sunday. "Mickey has tremendous leadership values. It's kind of [expletive] what's going on right now with this speculation that there could be a change because we're so early in the season and just one very small step away from putting this all together. It's certainly not on him."

Martinez has not arrived in that territory. Yet. But on the way there -- or out -- he’ll try to use a common tactic of building walls to prevent the outside from seeping inside.

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42-year-old reliever Fernando Rodney will get a chance to prove he still has it for the Nationals

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42-year-old reliever Fernando Rodney will get a chance to prove he still has it for the Nationals

The Nationals are filling their open 40- and 25-man roster spot with veteran reliever Fernando Rodney on Tuesday, a source confirmed. 

Rodney, 42, is joining the Nationals bullpen after nine appearances for Triple-A Fresno which produced a 4.50 ERA and 2.125 WHIP. He was released earlier this season by Oakland after a rough start led to a 9.42 ERA. He will become the oldest active pitcher in baseball once added to the roster Tuesday.

This is a desperate swing by Washington to find help for a bullpen which entered Monday 29th in bullpen ERA. When Rodney was at this best -- something Nationals manager Dave Martinez saw in Tampa Bay -- he threw an almost unhittable changeup. It remains an effective pitch, if he can control it or his fastball. Command of both often give him trouble. However, the unpredictable nature of his pitching -- for better or worse -- is something that provides an odd duality. It can make him both ultra-effective or a ticking bomb. It almost always assures laborious outings.

Washington will be the 11th major-league team to employ Rodney in his 17 years of professional baseball. Being a three-time All-Star and former closer defines his on-field reputation. Randomly barking in the bullpen, shooting an imaginary arrow following a save or operating with a tilted cap exemplify the rest of Rodney's makeup. He once carried a "lucky plantain" at the World Baseball Classic. When pitching for Seattle in 2014, Rodney explained his bow-and-arrow gimmick like this: 

“The arrow? I don’t know,” Rodney said. “Just do something after the last out. Out 27. You know the game is over. I shoot the moon. I shoot the arrow, just let them know game over.

“That’s my game. Every time I go pitch, I do my arrow. That’s what the fans are waiting for. Rodney shoot the moon.”

He won't be on the mound to end a game in 2019 unless it is in mop-up duty. 

Multiple relief choices existed in Fresno for the Nationals. Few were good. Dakota Bacus has been the most effective Grizzlies pitcher this season. Yet, he remains in the minors. Veteran relievers George Kontos and Michael Blazek are also on the Grizzlies' roster.

Washington releasing Trevor Rosenthal on Sunday morning opened a 40-man roster spot. The Nationals sent Erick Fedde to Triple-A Fresno after the game Sunday to open a 25-man roster spot. Rodney fills those slots. Austin Voth remains in the rotation.

The Washington Post first reported Rodney's movement.

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Why controversy surrounds Adam Eaton and the Minor League Pay Problem

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Why controversy surrounds Adam Eaton and the Minor League Pay Problem

Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton found himself at the center of the Minor League pay problem issue this past weekend.

On Thursday, Washington City Paper published an article describing the living and working conditions of a handful of the Class A-Advanced Potomac Nationals, one of Washington's minor-league affiliates. The article, which credited Eaton with saying that he doesn't believe minor leaguers should be paid "big time," but they could be paid slightly more. 

Additionally, Eaton said that he believes the MLB shouldn't make conditions in the minor leagues "more hospitable," because otherwise players could get complacent and, supposedly, have less of an incentive or drive to make the majors. 

Eaton's argument is more nuanced than those few quotes, and on Monday City Paper published an article with the entirety of Eaton's interview available online. 

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH MINOR-LEAGUE PAY?

Four players sued MLB in 2014, alleging that its policies “artificially and illegally depressing” minor league salaries. The case was dismissed, but it elevated the concerns of minor league players and the disparity between the support for them and MLB players (here's a good place to start if you want to learn more about this fight). 

Many have had to live with host families or share small apartments with upwards of five teammates while in a major league team's farm system. Some, including Eaton, recall the abysmal food options provided to players by the teams, often including peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. 

The issue of whether minor leaguers are paid a "livable wage" has become a more prominent issue since the suit was filed.  In 2018 President Donald Trump signed the "Save America's Pastime Act," which enables MLB to exclude most professional baseball players from the Fair Labor Standards Act and thus insulates the current system of pay between the major and minor leagues. 

While those drafted in the earlier rounds may receive signing bonuses upwards of $8 million, those who do receive signing bonuses make up only a small percentage of those in the minor leagues. 

Last year, the monthly minimum salaries for minor league players were: $1,100 in rookie ball and Single-A, $1,500 in Double-A and $2,150 in Triple-A, according to an article from the Associated Press

WHAT DID ADAM EATON SAY?

Eaton's argument is complicated and mainly based on personal experience. (The Nationals outfielder spent time in the Arizona Diamondbacks' minor league system after he was drafted in the 19th round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Since then he's also spent time in the Chicago White Sox and the Nationals' minor-league systems, mainly on rehab assignments.)

It's unfair to lay out Eaton's claim as one claiming that nothing should change and minor league players should continue to be exploited. Eaton explicitly said that he "doesn't disagree [minor leaguers are] being exploited," but added that "it's for the betterment of everybody."

The outfielder credited his experience in the "dog-eat-dog world" of the minor leagues as helping him appreciate the majors all the more, because it kept him from getting complacent and made him focus on baseball.

But Eaton also admitted that there is what he calls "wiggle room" in the minor-league salaries; the minor league teams could increase salaries a little bit (but not too much, according to Eaton). 

WHY IS THERE CONTROVERSY?

The problem stems from the fact that Eaton's argument is complex, and he repeatedly backtracked in his interview with City Paper. Plus, words are extremely subjective. So while Eaton said that if MLB made the minor league life "more livable," then players would get complacent, he also said that minor league players shouldn't be exploited and should make slightly more money. 

Many articles published have used headlines that amount to "click-bait," which shave Eaton's argument down to "minor-leaguers should be exploited because it's a good thing." That isn't Eaton's whole argument, though. 

Understanding where Eaton's argument fits into the entire pay problem is important in understanding why Eaton is under scrutiny right now. And to do that, what amounts to a "liveable wage" and "liveable conditions" must be better defined. Eaton argues that minor league players should make enough so that they're "literally not eating crumbs," but not so much that they grow comfortable. As he claims, it's those minor-leaguers who are "milled by pressure," the 30th and 40th round draft picks with no signing bonus and no guarantee they'll ever reach the majors, who ensure a "longevity in the big league." 

HAS EATON SAID ANYTHING ELSE?

Well, yes. Eaton took to Instagram Monday, after the City Paper article with the complete interview transcript was published, essentially cleaning up his argument and apologizing for offending anyone. 

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