The final countdown to spring training has arrived, so we’re spending the final days of the offseason counting down the Nationals’ top storylines of the spring. We continue today with the first camp run by new manager Dave Martinez ...
When Nationals pitchers and catchers officially report to The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Wednesday, they’ll walk down the hallway from the clubhouse, peek into the manager’s office and find a new face there. Next door, in the coaches’ locker room, will be only one returning member of last year’s staff.
That’s a significant change for any franchise, and certainly the switch from Dusty Baker and his coaching staff to Dave Martinez and his coaching staff will be significant for the Nats. Yet there has to be a certain familiarity of it all, especially to those players who already have been through this once, or twice, or three times before.
Or even more than that. Ryan Zimmerman is entering his 13th spring training with the Nationals. Martinez will be his seventh manager.
Yes, Zimmerman is the exception, by far the organization’s longest-tenured player at this point. But plenty of other relative newcomers surely are going to feel like they’ve had to go through this too many times before. Max Scherzer is entering only his fourth season with the Nats. Yet he’s already on his third manager and third pitching coach.
No one would try to claim this is an ideal situation. Nationals players, though, are trying to downplay the significance of it.
“Baseball players, we’ve always had change at the manager position, change of pitching coaches,” Scherzer said earlier this winter. “I’ve been through several pitching coaches and managers throughout my career. This is just another opportunity to learn from a different set of eyes and a different mindset, someone who has been across the diamond from me who’s had to prepare against me and now can share what he sees and what little ticks I do have. So this is an opportunity to learn about ourselves and get better. As much as it does suck to lose your manager and part of your coaching staff, you also have to look at this as glass-half-full and as a chance to get better.”
To a man, the Nationals have all offered glowing praise so far of both Martinez and the others who have joined his staff. There’s no shortage of experience in that dugout, with two men who have managed in the majors at least briefly (bench coach Chip Hale, first base coach Tim Bogar), another who has interviewed for managerial openings (hitting coach Kevin Long), a World Series-winning pitching coach (Derek Lilliquist) and bullpen coach (Henry Blanco), a longtime coaching stalwart in this organization (returning third base coach Bob Henley) and an assistant hitting coach who previously worked with several members of the roster in the minors (Joe Dillon).
The guy in charge, of course, has zero managerial experience, and so Martinez is the biggest unknown of anyone who will be wearing a curly W cap in West Palm Beach this spring. The 53-year-old former outfielder and longtime bench coach for Joe Maddon with both the Rays and Cubs is getting a long-awaited first opportunity to captain his own ship, and everyone is curious to see how he does it.
Martinez can come across as a soft-spoken, even unpolished figure. But those who know him know there’s a lot more beneath the surface. He has never been afraid to get in a player’s face and speak his mind. He also tries to foster a family environment that encourages players not to take everything too seriously, enjoying this game they get to play for a living.
So don’t be surprised if there’s a different vibe around this camp, whether that means a Sunday morning brunch on the field before a workout, loud music in the clubhouse or team-building exercises away from the park.
There will be plenty for everyone to learn about Martinez’s in-game tendencies as well. He hasn’t offered up many hints so far, except to say Adam Eaton will be his leadoff hitter and he might consider batting his pitcher eighth on occasion.
Martinez’s toughest task, though, probably has nothing to do with lineup machinations, in-game maneuvers or pitching changes. No, his biggest challenge is help guide this talent-laden group of stars both old and young through the minefield of a season with so much pressure bubbling beneath the surface.
Everyone knows how the last six seasons of contention have gone and what’s at stake in this seventh season of this era for a franchise that may well look very different this time next year. Martinez is no stranger to dealing with pressure; he was bench coach of the team that broke a 108-year championship curse. But he now must get his new players to find that delicate sweet spot between embracing the high stakes without getting consumed by them.
“We don’t permit the pressure to exceed the pleasures of the game,” Martinez said this winter, conjuring up a line that sure sounds like it came from Maddon. “We try to teach our players: Hey, just have fun. They have been doing it since they were kids. Just go out there, be yourself and have fun doing it.”
The fun begins Wednesday. But as anyone who has been around this club over the last six years knows, it’s not hard to have fun in February. It’s hard to have fun in October.