Davey Martinez

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With baseball returning, Nationals' GM and manager contracts remain a pressing issue

With baseball returning, Nationals' GM and manager contracts remain a pressing issue

Timing is everything, as the cliché goes, and it wasn’t right the last few months to address the situations around Davey Martinez and Mike Rizzo.

It is now.

Major League Baseball has a date for spring training to start again. The schedule is expected to be released before the week ends. Keeping everyone safe -- as much as that can be done -- will be the perpetual challenge.

The Nationals can finally pivot to in-house business. They need to figure out their expanded roster, how spring training in Nationals Park will operate, and what pitching strategy they may deploy in a 60-game sprint. Simultaneously, they need to determine what to do about the contracts of Martinez and Rizzo, who are both in the final guaranteed years of their deals.

Martinez is easy. The team owns a club option on his original contract. He will become the organization’s longest-tenured manager this summer. They won the World Series in 2019. There’s no way to manage yourself out of a job (seemingly) during a 60-game season. Fan sentiment is to retain him. Player sentiment is to retain him. For the Nationals, it’s a simple move which remains cost-effective and positive PR. There’s no reason to wait, despite their standard approach to stalling until the very end on personnel contracts.

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The cost is now bargain-basement. Martinez signed a three-year, $2.8 million contract with a fourth-year option for $1.2 million. He would command three times that on the open market. It’s such a team-friendly deal, the Nationals may be well-served to try to tack on two years when discussing the option, let alone promptly pulling the trigger on the option year.

When asked May 1 if there were any discussions at that point about his contract, Martinez responded, “Nothing.” Understandable in the prior climate. It's not now.

Rizzo is more complicated in negotiations, but not merit. He is among the reasons the organization moved from the ashes to the title. His contract expires this year. Of the league’s 30 teams, 27 would probably be interested in hiring him (the Cubs, Dodgers and Yankees are situated).

RELATED: DAVEY MARTINEZ WILL NEEDS HIS PLAYOFF CREATIVITY IN 60-GAME SEASON

He will have distinct leverage for the first time in negotiations. In the past, Rizzo could point at the team’s high-draft pick hits, the regular season wins, the improved culture. Ownership could counter with a flat fact: the team has not won the World Series. They only hired to accomplish that goal, and he was yet to meet it.

That’s off the table now.

Rizzo’s expectation will be a contract that vaults him into the top five of general managers/team presidents in the sport. He has an argument for it. Will the Nationals bestow such a deal on him? If so, the decision will run counter to their usual approach. The organization often acts as if the existing framework is sufficient for success, viewing the people within it as interchangeable. Rizzo, in essence, built the framework, so, does he fall in the same category? They have four months to figure it out, and, finally, the window to start doing so.

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Nationals’ Davey Martinez is going to need his playoff creativity in 60-game season

Nationals’ Davey Martinez is going to need his playoff creativity in 60-game season

The format has been set. The Nationals will play a 60-game season this summer with 40 games against their NL East rivals and another 20 broken up between AL East opponents. Opening Day will be July 23, giving them a month to prepare for the start of a 66-day sprint to the playoffs.

This will be no ordinary season, as the pressure will be on for teams to win as many games as possible. A slow start could quickly turn into an insurmountable deficit. One key injury might spell disaster for a team without enough roster depth. The margin of error is going to be razor thin and every mistake will be magnified with an increased number of teams fighting for playoff spots.

For Washington manager Davey Martinez, this season is not too unlike the one from a year ago. After stumbling out to a 19-31 start, the Nationals played the rest of the season with their backs against the wall. Every win mattered, which led Martinez to coin the phrase, “Go 1-0 today” in order to help his players focus on the game in front of them rather than worry about the bigger picture.

But while that idea was only a mental concept for his players, Martinez used the approach for his in-game managing decisions as well. Closer Sean Doolittle, one of his few reliable relievers, was relied on frequently despite a history of injury problems. He landed on the injured list in August due to fatigue. Everyday starters such as Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Trea Turner and Victor Robles started almost every game over the last four months of the season.

When it came to the playoffs, Martinez went further by employing his top three starters (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin) and co-closers (Doolittle and Daniel Hudson) to combine to pitch nearly 72 percent of all innings throughout the postseason. It was an aggressive approach that could have caused those pitchers to struggle with fatigue if the 2020 season had started on time. But when every game is a must-win, tomorrow’s problems are just that: tomorrow’s problems.

RELATED: NATIONALS POTENTIALLY FACING A DAUNTING SCHEDULE IN REPORTED 60-GAME LAYOUT

Now, Martinez must once again adapt that approach. His players have had an extra three months to rest up and ensure they were healthy for the start of the season, so he he’ll have the flexibility to use his players as frequently as he sees fit.

“We went 1-0 all year,” Martinez told reporters at the Winter Meetings in December, before the pandemic hit. “The message is going to be clear: Hey, we’re not going to sneak up on anybody this year, that’s for sure. So we’ve got to be ready to go from day one. With that being said, I want them to understand, hey, we’re going to do business like we’ve done in the past, and we’re just going to try to go 1-0 every day.

“Why change something that works?”

The biggest strategic difference between a normal 162-game season and this abbreviated version will be the use of bullpens. Typically, a team gives its starters a long leash to get out of jams in the fourth, fifth or sixth innings. That luxury will probably still apply to the Nationals’ big three of Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin, but Martinez should be expected to have a quicker hook with Aníbal Sánchez and whoever wins the fifth starter job between Joe Ross, Austin Voth and Erick Fedde.

In the bullpen, the new three-batter minimum rule will still go into effect this season. So while Martinez won’t be able to match up against particular batters more often, the expanded 30-man rosters that teams will have to start the season will give him more options for finishing off an inning if a starter runs out of gas or a reliever gets lit up by the first three batters he faces.

That being said, Martinez’s best relievers will probably be used similar to the way Doolittle was last season. The Nationals re-signed Daniel Hudson and inked veteran set-up man Will Harris to a three-year deal over the offseason, so the bullpen should be in better shape than it was a year ago. But whichever pitchers emerge as the most reliable will be counted on to pitch more frequently than normal, especially when the Nationals go through stretches of close games.

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Martinez will also likely revert to his 2019 approach when filling out his lineup cards if the team doesn’t get any separation in the standings. With Howie Kendrick, Eric Thames and Ryan Zimmerman expected to rotate between first base and designated hitter, the rest of the infield figures to look the same for most games: Starlin Castro at second, Turner at shortstop and Asdrúbal Cabrera at third.

Top prospect Carter Kieboom was competing for the starting third base job when spring training was pushed to a halt. Though Martinez never indicated he was leaning toward Cabrera over Kieboom, the shortened season may simplify the decision to put the rookie on the bench.

The Nationals will need to field the best lineup possible in any given game, with no room for a starting infielder who will require time to adjust to major-league pitching and figure himself out defensively at third. It’s likely that Kieboom makes the team’s Opening Day 30-man roster but doesn’t start until Cabrera either gets hurt or struggles as the plate.

Washington won’t have a ton of drama in the outfield, either. Soto and Robles are both young enough where Martinez won’t be worried about playing them all the time. Adam Eaton is still at the end of his prime, though the DH spot will give the Nationals some flexibility. Given Eaton’s defensive struggles last season, the Nationals could use a double switch late in games where Michael A. Taylor subs in for Eaton at right field while he takes over at DH.

There will be an obstacle course’s worth of challenges for this year’s managers that no skipper in the history of the game has ever had to face. His limited arsenal of reliable pitchers last October pushed Martinez’s creative limits, but this 60-game season will be a true test of what he’s willing to do in order to go 1-0 every day.

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How one DC bar is applying Nationals manager Davey Martinez's 'go 1-0 everyday' mantra to reopening

How one DC bar is applying Nationals manager Davey Martinez's 'go 1-0 everyday' mantra to reopening

When the Nationals sat at a disastrous 19-31 in 2019 and all hope seemed lost, Davey Martinez didn't panic. Instead, Washington's manager challenged the team to just try and win each day, go 1-0. The mentality worked pretty well as 12 games below .500 turned into a World Series championship.

Attacking every day with that attitude isn't just something that works in sports, and in the current times of the coronavirus pandemic, success can come from just trying to go 1-0. That's exactly what Walters Sports Bar, in Washington, is doing as it reopens to the public.

Walters is located right near Nationals Park, and it looks like they have taken notes on how the Nationals made the best out of a tough time filled with challenges. As every day presents something new, and much is uncertain, the bar is focused on just going 1-0 each day. 

The Nationals' 2019 run showed many that things can always get better by controlling only what you can control. As the community around Walters now faces adversity of its own, it looks like it is drawing inspiration from the world champions themselves.

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