We already knew that the 2021 Washington Nationals would look a lot different than the 2019 World Series champions, and now, less than a week after the end of a forgettable season, shortened and stained by the COVID pandemic, it appears the process of making it so has begun.
The team has parted ways with pitching coach Paul Menhart, who took over for Derek Lilliquist and helped the starting pitching spark the team’s turnaround from 19-31 to the World Series title.
The news on Menhart came a day after veteran reliever Sean Doolittle tweeted his thanks to the team and its fans as he heads into free agency.
Manager Davey Martinez’s wistful tone and misty eyes in his final 2020 post-game Zoom calls with reporters told the story in advance, and he confirmed it after the final out, telling reporters, “There’s going to be some different pieces.”
General Manager Mike Rizzo also noted when the spoke about his contract extension on Sept. 13 that the team would be making some tough decisions.
“I think we’re going to have a good feel for all of our players. We’ve seen them play every day since February, so we feel that we’ll have a good handle on where they’re at health-wise, performance-wise, future performance, and that type of thing,” Rizzo said.
“We’ll take all of those big global kind of roster questions into account when we have our kind of our autopsy after the season, and we’ve got a lot of decisions to make,” Rizzo said, speaking of Doolittle.
“Doo is one of the crucial decisions to make. We’ll wait for all the information and gather all our analytics and medical information and make our decisions based on that.”
Doolittle, who struggled early in the season before making some adjustments in the alternate training site at Fredericksburg, Va., returned in September and did not allow a run in four appearances before a strained oblique ended his season on Sept. 10.
Some fans expressed displeasure with Doolittle’s early-season performance on social media, and he closed his Twitter account for most of the season. He returned to Twitter on Oct. 1 with a message for Nats’ fans that sounded a lot like a farewell.
“D.C. will always have a special place in our hearts,” he wrote on behalf of himself and his wife, Eireann Dolan. The two married in Washington in 2017 and joined to support social and charitable causes, including advocating for the LGTBQ community and assisting refugees. “I’ll always appreciate the special connection I had with the fans.”
He concluded, “I don’t know where this game will take me next, but I’m so grateful for the time I had with the Nationals’ organization, and the fans here in Washington.”
That certainly makes it seem like Doolittle, who turned 34 on the penultimate day of the 2020 regular season, will be looking for work elsewhere next year. Rizzo and Martinez have already hinted that they think they have a future closer in Tanner Rainey, who was 1-1 with a 2.66 ERA in 20 appearances before a right flexor strain ended his season on Sept. 12, and Will Harris and Daniel Hudson are signed through 2022 and ‘21, respectively, so there are options at the back end.
It’s not clear what to make of the team not renewing Menhart’s contract, but it could signal a change in philosophy or practices. Unless there are trades or a major free-agent signing, whoever takes over will be working with most of this year’s staff. Except for Doolittle and No. 4 starter Anibal Sanchez, everyone else who pitched for the Nats in 2020 will be under contract in 2021, according to Sportrac.
But there will likely be room for one or more big acquisitions in 2021. Veterans Adam Eaton, Kurt Suzuki, Michael A. Taylor, and Asdrubal Cabrera are all eligible to become free agents, and the team and Howie Kendrick are weighing a mutual option. Combined with Sanchez and Doolittle’s salary, that’s almost $48 million coming off the payroll. That money could be freed up to sign one or more of the dozens of free agents potentially available for the 2021 season.
By cutting ties with Doolittle and some of the other veterans, the Nats would signal that they will have cash to spend in free agency, and they might adapt for new players.
It’s hard for fans in Washington to say goodbye to beloved players, especially after they delivered the first world championship in four generations and then went through the strangest regular season in major league history. But Rizzo built a contender eight years ago and has kept it contending almost every year since, culminating in last year’s World Series title. He and Martinez have a vision for the Nationals of 2021 and beyond, and they’ve already started moving toward it.