Answer to fate of Rizzo and Martinez likely lies in fate of ownership

As so much else within their organization has undergone massive change over the last two years, two of the Nationals’ most important employees have remained right where they’ve wanted to be all along and provided some much needed stability: Mike Rizzo and Davey Martinez.

Even as they traded away or lost countless players from their 2019 World Series roster, even as members of the coaching and front office staffs were shuffled around, even as ownership shockingly expressed its intent to explore a sale of the franchise, the Nats could point to their general manager and their manager as hallmarks of continuity.

There’s something to be said for that. The two people charged with assembling and then leading the product on the field have been here a while now – Rizzo as GM since 2009, Martinez as manager since 2018 – and there’s been no reason until now to spend too much time wondering how much longer they’re going to be around.

Then came Wednesday evening’s report by The Washington Post that the contract extensions Rizzo and Martinez each signed late in the 2020 season only guaranteed their employment through 2022, not 2023 as was widely believed. Their contracts don’t expire yet, but the club holds 2023 options on each, according to the report, and that suddenly paints their situations in a whole new light.

This isn’t any new revelation to ownership or Rizzo or Martinez, mind you. They’ve certainly known the terms of those contracts all along. It’s just now known by everyone else, which of course does change the public perception of the situation.

With the Nationals playing their worst baseball in more than a decade, currently on pace to go an abysmal 54-108, we now know the GM and the manager aren’t guaranteed to return next year.

How do you fairly evaluate people in those positions during the early stages of an organizational rebuild? That’s always been a complicated question. Is a manager responsible for his team’s wretched record when he’s been given a roster that wasn’t supposed to win in the first place? Is a GM charged with blowing things up and starting over allowed only one year to start seeing results on the major league field?

The standard answer to both questions is a resounding no. How could it possibly be fair to determine Rizzo or Martinez’s fate based on the performance of the 2022 Nationals? You have to give them a chance to actually see this rebuild through, right?

Yes, but that doesn’t wholly absolve them of any responsibility for the current state of affairs.

The Nats are losing not only because of a lack of talent but also because of an inability to play anything close to resembling fundamental baseball. They rate right near the bottom of the majors in most measurements of defensive and baserunning production, and it actually seems to be getting worse. The manager and the coaching staff do have to shoulder some of the blame for that, right?

And the Nationals find themselves in this rebuilding situation not only because they lost so many key members of their championship roster but also because they were unable to supplant those players with products of their own farm system. They simply have not drafted nor developed enough quality big leaguers for the last half-decade, and yes, the GM must take some of the responsibility for that.

So while it may not be fair to evaluate Rizzo and Martinez based on the 2022 team’s record, it is fair to evaluate them on how they got here in the first place and how they are losing games. These are valid issues for ownership to consider.

Just one problem: We don’t know how much longer current ownership is going to be in charge. And that situation now supersedes all others.

If the Lerner family was here for the long haul, as we all previously assumed, it would be in a position to make long-term decisions about the club’s GM and manager. But if the family is on its way out, how can it reasonably make those kind of critical decisions?

A new owner always has the right to make organizational changes, but typically that person would have some period of transition time to get to know everyone already in place before making what you hope are informed decisions about everyone’s future status.

If the Nationals are going to have a new owner – and let’s be clear, we still don’t know definitively they will, even if the signs point in that direction – you wouldn’t think that person would assume power one day and immediately clean house the next. It would take some time.

So unless the Lerners are much farther along in the sale process than we realize, and a deal is ratified by Major League Baseball within the next couple months, it’s hard to see how anyone in control would decide it’s the right time to hire a new GM or manager. If the sale process drags on into the winter or even into next season, logic states the Lerners would just keep everything as-is and pick up the options on both Rizzo and Martinez and push those decisions down the road until next year.

Given all that, perhaps this week’s revelation won’t actually amount to much tangible news, aside from putting Rizzo and Martinez’s contract status out there for all to know. Maybe this all just ends with the Lerner family retaining a World Series-winning GM for his 15th season and a World Series-winning manager for his sixth season.

But until we know the fate of the much more complicated ownership question, it’s impossible to know the answers to the questions of the GM and manager’s fates. Much as everyone invested in this organization would love to know right now.

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