It’s easy to forget just how young the Nationals remain. Only 15 years old this season. It’s a thimble full of life for a sports organization. And, the initial years are always transitional.
Really, the organization is even younger. Perhaps just eight years old. The 2012 pop into the postseason -- sooner than many expected -- propped the Nationals onto their feet and into a broader consciousness. Mike Rizzo was in Washington then, drafting, instilling a framework, trying to pull the team from its clambering ways to a team more reflective of its powerful location.
He did that. But, the organization struggled to find a consistent partner for him. Managers came and went with alarming frequency. Rizzo was even overruled in certain cases, as was the situation with Dusty Baker, by an ownership family which wanted a different choice. Enter Davey Martinez, who is now partnered with Rizzo reportedly for another three years. The end of their current contract extensions -- done within three weeks of each other -- will close a six-year period together. No two minds will have a larger stamp on whether the Nationals remain a prominent organization or recede.
“It allows us to give a consistent message, to show that you’ll know the person that is going to be in your career as a player and I think the partnership that Davey and I have together, our communication styles are very similar,” Rizzo said Saturday. “Our aspirations are similar, and kind of our mindset of how to obtain the goals that we want to obtain are similar. I think it’s a good match.”
Obviously ownership did, too. They decided Rizzo’s focus on an extension as opposed to just picking up the one-year option remaining on Martinez’s existing contract was the proper move. No position has been more difficult for the organization to stabilize. They at times appeared flippant about the impact of a manager. Their treatment of the position became an issue in future hirings, though they always held the leverage every organization does: only 30 of these jobs exist. Take it or leave it (Jim Riggleman left it).
Martinez and Rizzo were in sync Saturday when refusing to release terms of the contract. This is a change. First, the organization releases length of deals with players. Second, when Martinez was hired, the press release from the team noted his contract was for three years. Rizzo was asked early in the press conference if it was safe to assume Marinez’s contract length mirrored his. He declined to answer.
“We don’t talk about terms as far as years, length and salaries and that type of thing,” Rizzo said. “We’re comfortable with what we have and the consistency that we’re going to have down the road. That’s all we want to say about terms because it’s private information and we don’t want you guys to know about it.”
He was asked later why the organization reveals length of player contracts but will not here.
“The reason is we don’t want anybody to know,” Rizzo said. “That’s the reason. How much do you make? How many years do you have?”
Rizzo then said they don’t give out terms of player contracts, though they do. And, again, they announced the length of Martinez’s contract when he was hired in 2018. Rizzo went on to explain they give out length of player contracts because they become public domain.
“But as far as other front office people and a lot of managers, they are not,” Rizzo said. “It’s kind of an individual thing with certain people. I don’t want you to know what I make or how many years I have. Davey doesn’t want [you] to know. And I think that it’s only fair when people don’t want certain information out there, that we don’t give it.”
Length of the manager’s contract matters, beyond just personal preference, as Rizzo himself pointed out earlier Saturday.
“I thought it was vital for us to get it done before the season ended,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. The day after this thing ends, we’re going to start on our 2021 prep. To have that floating around and lingering over our heads that we didn’t have this thing done... I said all along that I did not want to just pick up the club option because I thought that that was...walking into a 2021 season with a manager with a lame-duck situation with one year didn’t make a lot of sense to me strategically and roster-creation wise. I thought it was important to get it done before the season ended because we have a lot of work to do immediately following the last out of the last game.”
They do. The Nationals crashed in 2020 after winning the World Series in 2019. Martinez’s teams have twice opened seasons 19-31 in three years of work. This will be the organization’s first losing season since 2011. Martinez’s opening year produced an 82-80 record, though he has repeatedly been lauded by Rizzo just for reaching that point, when injuries and unrest pulled that year to mediocrity. The second season resulted in an unlikely World Series win. The third was filled with injuries, losses and contract extensions for those in charge.
Going forward, the honeymoon effect from winning in 2019 will recede. There will be a reminder ceremony to start 2021, a yet-to-happen celebration because of the coronavirus tossing baseball, and society, into disarray. After that, the wins and losses will take over. And the ultimate influence of Martinez and Rizzo guiding the Nationals will be determined.