They continue to deny anything is out of sorts behind the scenes. Recent events make that seem unlikely.
The 2018 baseball season hasn’t been great to the Nationals. They’re almost as depressing than an actual The National song, and definitely more dramatic at this point. While they’ve been underperforming for most of the year, the true downturn and drama started just before the All-Star Break and things have only gotten increasingly twisty from there.
In the past week, things seem to have come to a head. If they haven’t, the team’s public perception and apparent internal turmoil can’t be going anywhere good. While some facts of the situation are concrete, many are decidedly not. Let’s dig in to what is, and what might be, actually happening in Washington.
The Dave Martinez concerns
Pre-All Star Break articles started popping up questioning Dave Martinez’s managing skills and decision making, and the Nationals went in to the break with a .500 record at 48-48. At the time, they were five games back from the division lead. They weren’t that close to first place in the NL East again until the last day of July and are one game above .500 as of this writing with a win over the Mets Wednesday afternoon.
A Chicago Tribune article sported the headline “Nationals spinning out of control under rookie manager Dave Martinez,” a Washington Post piece by Chelsea Janes was titled “Dave Martinez has ‘nothing to complain about,’ but Nats take another one-run loss” and noted that maybe his relentless positivity wasn’t the medicine needed for this particular team.
They had a players only meeting on July 6th, and Bryce Harper had some World Class spin shortly after. Right after Washington was swept by the Red Sox, perfect timing for this crack defense.
“We’ve never been in this position before, and I think it’s an exciting time for us. In years past, we’ve won the division by a lot of games, and we’re able to be behind right now. I’m excited to get out there and test it.”
A recent Post piece called Martinez “fragile” and said his shortcomings are why general manager Mike Rizzo had to “shore up the clubhouse.”
Martinez netted criticism for chastising Bryce Harper’s failure to hustle when there were clearly other fish to fry on the list of the team’s problems, and later in the month players were more notably concerned about some of his managerial choices. So, after the decision to fire Dusty Baker last year already seemed questionable, the criticism directed Martinez’s way didn’t make that choice by the Nationals’ front office seem any better.
The clubhouse rumors
Even with the losing and apparent Martinez issues, the last week is where things really started to get strange in D.C. It started with a Jeff Passan article published on Yahoo! Monday afternoon titled “10 Degrees: How the underachieving Nationals reached the point where trading Bryce Harper could make sense” and included an anonymous source who said the “clubhouse is a mess” and that it had “festered” throughout the season.
Notably, as this will come into play later, that source and three others Passan also spoke to who corroborated the original source’s observation all spoke anonymously because of “fear the organization would punish them for speaking publicly.”
The Brandon Kintzler trade
On Tuesday, also known as Trade Deadline Day also known as The Day After Passan’s article about anonymous sources posted, the Nationals surprisingly traded Brandon Kintzler to the Cubs, and Kintzler was completely blindsided by it. He said of being told he was traded that he was shell-shocked and thought it was a joke when he was told he was going to Chicago.
Kintzler, by the way, was shocked. Thought at first it was a joke but then realized it’s not April Fool’s. Admitted this is a business and that’s how it goes.
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) July 31, 2018
Kintzler is shocked. He said he thought it was a joke. Wanted to stay.
— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) July 31, 2018
Neither reason the Nationals pointed towards, money or bullpen depth, makes sense for the Kintzler trade. He had a 3.59 ERA with 17 runs allowed in 42.2 innings pitched on the year. Post All-Star, Kintzler had pitched five innings of relief in which he had four strikeouts, a .222 batting average against him, and allowed only one run. That’s not usually someone you trade because you have someone far better in the mix.
Kintzler is also only owed $1.6 million of his $5 million salary for the rest of the year, and if the team declines its $10 million option on him next year it reverts to a $5 million player option. Kelvin Herrera has $4.4 million remaining on his 2018 salary, as an example of someone who could have also been traded.
A Washington Post report alleged that the move was made because they believed Kintzler was the anonymous source, saying,
Kintzler was shipped out because the Nationals believed he was responsible for anonymous reports that painted Washington’s clubhouse culture as iffy.
“Dysfunctional?” Manager Dave Martinez said. “I don’t see any dysfunction in our clubhouse. I see a lot of cohesiveness, a lot of togetherness.”
The team also reportedly confronted Kintzler directly about potentially being the leaker.
Based on what I’m being told: The story the Nationals got upset at Brandon Kintzler about was not the YAHOO story. It was a Washington Post piece on the bullpen (July 19th). The team apparently confronted him about providing anonymous info in that story before trading him.
— Grant Paulsen (@granthpaulsen) August 1, 2018
That report has been refuted, but we’ll get to that. Other than the Kintzler trade, the Nationals were extremely silent at the deadline and one source told The Athletic,
“If someone writes a book about the 2018 Washington Nationals the last 48 hours should be four chapters.”
Seems like they’re right on track internally. No discord whatsoever.
The Shawn Kelley DFA
The idea that there is no discord in the clubhouse seemed even more unlikely on Wednesday, when the team DFA’d reliever Shawn Kelley after he slammed his glove and stared towards the dugout during a rough relief outing. But remember, they traded Kintzler to have better bullpen depth.
GM Mike Rizzo explained the move semi-confusingly when he said,
“I thought the act that he portrayed on the field last night was disrespectful to the name on the front of the jersey, the organization, specifically Davey Martinez. You’re either in or you’re in the way. And I thought he was in the way.”
While Martinez put it this way,
“It stinks, it really does. I’ve got a lot of respect for Shawn, I do. But that wasn’t right. We just won a game, 25-4.”
Both a little over the top. While slamming a glove isn’t the best thing in the world, it’s hard to get worked up about it when the Astros just traded for an alleged domestic abuser because the cost was low.
Kelley’s reaction to being designated for assignment and explanation for why he was even frustrated in the first place is, in full, thus.
“If the situation occurs and I blow the game in a tight game and slam my glove, it’s not a big deal. We’re athletes, we slam stuff all the time. Hitters slam stuff every inning … It’s a little funny to me for people to think that slamming a glove is — I won’t be the last one to do it. I don’t know if that’s really warranting being released.”
“I was a little upset that no one came out to talk to the umps to defend me,” Kelley said. “Because at the end of the day, I can’t get thrown out right there because now somebody else has got to come in and pitch in a 25-1 game. So I feel like I’m kind of getting fed to the wolves out there in that game and kind of not getting any support from the dugout and that was the glare to the dugout.”
”I hate the narrative being selfish or showing up the manager because I’ve spent 10 years in this league and the only thing I’ve really ever cared about when I leave this game, is people knowing that I cared and I was humble, selfless and I was a good person and good to everybody and treated everybody fairly. That’s kind of what I’m about and who I am as a person. So it hurts a little bit today reading some of the taglines and some of the comments that are out there.”
The respectful, clarifying nature of the comments by Kelley shortly after being released are far more believable when compared to the targeted and “covering our asses” quotes from the front office. Which doesn’t help the FO’s claims that the team isn’t going through some stuff right now.
A few weeks after the DFA, Jon Heyman revealed that things got even more heated away from the cameras, with Rizzo and Kelley actually facing off. Heyman reports,
In the aftermath of that game and scene, the glove-tossing reliever Shawn Kelley and Rizzo staged quite a scene near the team’s clubhouse, and according to onlookers, things got heated between the pair. According to people aware of the incident, Rizzo, apparently quite upset after witnessing the glove-throwing incident, engaged in a shouting match with Kelley before a trio of players got between the GM and reliever.
Seems great! Seems like nothing is happening with management or the front office that would be at all concerning.
The Kintzler and Epstein leak denial
A day after was traded to Chicago, Kintzler went on a D.C.-area radio show to say that he had never spoken to Jeff Passan so he couldn’t be the leak.
Kintzler live on @granthpaulsen and @funnydanny “Ive never talked to Jeff Passan in my life” @1067theFan #Nationals
— Pete Medhurst (@PeteMedhurst) August 1, 2018
Theo Epstein also went on the radio to refute that story, telling Chicago’s ESPN 1000, saying that Passan called him directly to deny that was who he got the information from as well. According to Epstein,
“Unsolicited, Passan called me this morning to tell me he’s never spoken to or communicated with Brandon Kintzler in his life. So that was clearly a false report, and we knew it was a false report because it wouldn’t be in character with the reputation that Brandon has.
“We do our due diligence obviously when we acquire players, and we spoke to a number of teammates who shared the clubhouse with him over the years, and everyone fells strongly that he’s a big positive in the clubhouse. He’s a bright guy who cares about his teammates, who is easy to talk to. He cares, he takes the ball. So he should do nothing but enhance our culture. We’re happy to have him.”
Epstein is no stranger to leak controversies (see: Boston media’s relationship with the Red Sox for most of this century) so it’s a little funny that he’s once again embroiled in one, at least tangentially. It’s good of him to throw a little shade at the Nationals’ choice to trade him with the “everyone fells strongly that he’s a big positive in the clubhouse” line.
Open letter from the owners
On Wednesday afternoon, Nationals owner Mark Lerner posted an open letter to fans via Medium that explained nothing of the past week’s moves, read as generic owners-promising-fans-El Dorado BS, and ended with a vague,
Our goal has not changed — we want to bring a World Series trophy to Washington, D.C.
That’s what our fans rightly expect. And that’s what my family expects.
So in short, everything is fine and clear and we know all the details and this clubhouse is peachy. Not to worry Nats fans, the team is right on track to once again lose in the first round of the postseason. They will not fall short of the norm.
Read more: sbnation.com