The Washington Nationals finally had their first full-squad Spring Training workout Monday, a much-needed reprieve from the long winter that’s left most baseball fans dissatisfied with the amount of offseason action.
Mike Rizzo and Co. were among the busiest front offices in the sport this winter, signing the most-expensive free agent of the offseason (thus far) and fortifying seemingly every weak link on the roster.
There was, however, one area Washington was comfortable leaving as is: manager.
Davey Martinez’s rookie season as the Nationals’ skipper was decidedly underwhelming — the team missed the playoffs and finished with a record just two games over .500. But despite the lack of results, the team decided to give Martinez another shot with a full season under his belt.
A year ago, the mood around West Palm Beach was very different. Martinez, widely considered to be a “players’ manager,” didn’t push the team very hard and created a relaxed environment that saw everything from a walk-off celebration contest to camels making a surprise appearance at the Nats’ facilities.
Things are much different in Year 2 of the Martinez Era. The former Chicago Cubs bench coach is stressing the little things and has already hinted that practices will run long if drills aren’t completed smoothly. There’s a greater emphasis on sound mechanics and “doing the little things” as the team prepares for this season.
“For me I’m going to push the envelope a little bit more than I did this year,” Martinez said earlier this winter. “Especially with fundamentals. We talked about it already, the baserunning has got to get better. Not making outs on the bases. Fundamentally sound. Turning double plays. Being more aggressive on defense. Whether we’ve got to shift more, shift less.
“We’re looking at all that stuff. But we’re definitely going to push the envelope, especially in Spring Training. I’ve already told the guys at the end of last year, Spring Training will be a lot different.”
As the Nationals approach the upcoming season with a new-look roster, Martinez believes the group that will be breaking camp for Washington, D.C., at the end of March will be more athletic and defensive-minded than last year’s club.
“We sat down this winter and we identified some issues,” Martinez told reporters on Thursday. “Clearly, we didn’t sit around, we went after the guys we thought could help us this year and we got those guys … I wanted to be more athletic and I think we covered that, and I really wanted to focus on our defense and I think we covered that as well.”
The additions of Brian Dozier, who’s just two years removed from winning a Gold Glove at second base, in the infield and five-tool prospect Victor Robles at center should help the Nats improve defensively. On offense, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy combined to run into 13 outs on the basepaths last year and their departures should eliminate some of those mistakes.
Martinez also tinkered with the team’s starting lineup constantly last season, trotting out 125 different combinations over the course of the 162-game campaign. He plans to implement more defined roles on offense this year to allow his starters to settle in and just focus on hitting.
“A lot of guys talk about sequences and how they pitch guys in certain situations,” Martinez said to reporters Saturday. “And if a guy is hitting behind one guy constantly, you kind of are going to know what pitches you are going to get. So for the most part, I want to kind of keep our lineup the same. Like I said, it all depends on who is off and who’s not, and which guys are really swinging the bats well and who aren’t.”
While fewer mishaps and a better routine for hitters should help push Washington in the right direction, Martinez’s ability to manage in-game situations is ultimately the biggest key to the Nats’ success. The rookie manager was overmatched all year, particularly when making pitching decisions.
Analytics are supposedly a strong suit of Martinez, and that did show up in a few instances such as how he made an effort to prevent starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson from facing opposing lineups the third time around. It’s not clear whether that trend will continue in 2019, but there are certainly expectations for some fresh ideas with Martinez preaching about his new approach.
The Nationals’ clubhouse had some issues that made their way into the public sphere last season — understandable, consider their preseason expectations — something Martinez failed to address. Trea Turner was benched for not running out a groundball but Harper’s lazy approach on the basepaths and in the field was never confronted. As a players’ manager, Martinez has to control the clubhouse narrative and enact consistent policies across the team.
Another year of experience should be beneficial to Martinez, but the Nationals are an organization with a history of pulling a quick trigger on firing managers. If Washington misses out on the postseason once again, it’s difficult to imagine Martinez’s tenure stretching too much longer.