Paul Menhart will not be back as the Nationals’ pitching coach. His contract is not being renewed, a source confirmed to NBC Sports Washington, making him the first marker in a coming offseason of change.
Davey Martinez and Mike Rizzo are entrenched. They will be together for six years if they serve the full length of their recent contract extensions. Together, they will make multiple shifts this winter after the Nationals flopped this summer.
First, to Menhart. This is strange -- to a degree. He replaced Derek Lilliquist when the Nationals needed a fall guy after their abominable start in 2019 and Martinez was not going to be fired. Lilliquist, who carried a more gruff demeanor than the rest of the staff, was dismissed. Menhart became a surprising choice to replace him, elevated from his job as minor-league pitching coordinator.
Menhart, 51, was out walking eight-year-old Gracie, his Australian Shepherd-Husky mix, in Richmond Hill, Ga., when assistant general manager Doug Harris called him in late April of 2019. Harris told Menhart to cancel his flight to Florida -- scheduled then in order to check on Trevor Rosenthal -- and instead get ready to come to Washington. He was going to be the big-league pitching coach.
“And I just went: ‘Whoa, Doug. Don’t be messing with me,’” Menhart said at the time. “And he goes: ‘No.’ Because we have that kind of relationship. It was emotional. He goes: ‘Go home. Go tell your wife.’ My wife’s name is Bitsy. And I walk in the door, and I got some tears in my eyes. Bitsy says: ‘What’s wrong? What happened to the dog?’ I said: ‘No, I’m going to be the big-league pitching coach.’ And she jumped up and it was a great, emotional moment for us.”
Now, after 15 years in the organization, and a year-plus as the major-league pitching coach, he’s out.
The value of a pitching coach is difficult to measure. It always will be. Is Menhart credited with massive talents Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin dragging the team to a World Series title? Is he at fault for the mess of a pitching staff in pandemic-framed 2020? The answer in each case is likely, “A bit.”
Does the organization suddenly appear ungrateful for his decade-and-a-half of contributions? It does. Is the team well within its rights to not renew contracts as it sees fit? It is.
Is this a money issue? Doubtful. Menhart’s replacement is likely to be a more well-known name who will command a larger salary.
Is the timing terrible? There’s no question.
But, the reality is the Nationals are moving on. Quickly. Before the season ended, Rizzo touted how much work he, the rest of the front office and Martinez had to do. Rizzo defined the ambition when discussing Martinez’s new contract extension Sept. 26.
“Just as I was the architect of the world champions in 2019, I’m the president and general manager of the last-place Nationals this year,” Rizzo said. “That stings. We’re going to do everything we can not to have that happen again.”
The pitching staff’s ERA was 27th in the majors this season. Scherzer was decent, Corbin was mediocre and Strasburg was hurt. Aníbal Sánchez predictably regressed. Of those four, Sánchez will be replaced. The other three are expected to be their track records. The pitching coach will be irrelevant. They need to form one of the league’s best trios or this team as constructed will not win.
Expect the 40-man roster to undergo a major overhaul, perhaps all the way down to 28 players before it begins to be built back up. The Nationals lacked depth this season. Plus, their veterans floundered. After winning with older players, the average age of the roster should decline. Rizzo admitted the younger players adapted in 2020. The older ones did not.
So, Menhart’s ouster as pitching coach sits as the first signal a reconstruction is under way on South Capitol Street. Martinez and Rizzo are tired of 19-31. Their would-be World Series celebration never occurred in 2020. It was a hapless slog instead, which means changes come immediately after, no matter how long someone has been around.