Nats won’t detail Jeffress decision; Lester back in camp

Though they will not reveal any reasons for Sunday’s release of reliever Jeremy Jeffress, the Nationals are acknowledging the surprise move was not for baseball reasons.

General manager Mike Rizzo, speaking to reporters via Zoom this morning from West Palm Beach, Fla., repeated the unusual phrase he provided Sunday in announcing the Jeffress release, saying only it was for “personnel reasons.”

Rizzo deflected several follow-up questions seeking a more detailed explanation but did concede that a “personnel reason” is “an employment issue” and was not related to any on-field performance.

Jeffress was signed only two weeks ago to a minor league deal but looked like a strong bet to make the Nationals’ opening day bullpen based on his track record over an 11-year career. Manager Davey Martinez spoke glowingly about his pitching performance so far in camp as recently as Thursday.

That made Sunday morning’s announcement all the more surprising.

Thumbnail image for Rizzo-Mask-Watches-Game-Sidebar.jpg“We’re just going to stand by the statement I made yesterday: It’s a personnel matter,” Rizzo said. “We’re not going to discuss it any further, per our policy on personnel matters, and we’re just going to keep it at that.”

Jeffress, 33, has dealt with multiple off-field incidents during his career. He was twice suspended in the minor leagues after testing positive for a “drug of abuse” (reportedly marijuana). He was arrested in 2012 on domestic violence charges, though those were later dropped. And he was arrested in 2016 for driving while intoxicated and two years later was sentenced to three days in jail after pleading guilty.

“I’m not what they say I am, I’m what God says!” Jeffress posted on his Twitter account Sunday afternoon. “I don’t deserve this false negativity!”

Asked today what the organization does with regards to gathering background info on a player before signing him, Rizzo declined to discuss Jeffress specifically but spoke in broader terms about the club’s process.

“You know the way we do our business here,” the GM said. “We do a lot of due diligence, and character is a big thing here in this organization. We stand on our track record with that, and we do a lot of work on it.”

Other news items from this morning’s sessions with Rizzo and Martinez ...

* Jon Lester is back at the Nationals facility three days following thyroid removal surgery in New York and is developing a plan with the coaching and training staff to pick up where he left off last week.

The 37-year-old left-hander told both Rizzo and Martinez he feels good and is ready to resume his preparation for the season. They aren’t saying yet he’ll definitely be ready by opening day, but they do feel he was already in a good place before leaving town and don’t believe it will take long to get him back to that place again.

“Let me defer that to the pitching people, but he was up to 50 pitches before the surgery, so he was well on his way to being prepared to start opening day,” Rizzo said. “We’ll see how fast he can build back up, and again, between the training staff and the pitching staff, we’ll make a good, prudent decision with him.”

Lester will be the final member of the Nationals’ projected opening day rotation to take the mound this spring. Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin have already pitched, Joe Ross is making his debut today and Stephen Strasburg will start Tuesday.

* Tanner Rainey was scheduled to throw a bullpen session today and appears to be on track to make it back from a muscle strain near his right collarbone in time to open the season.

Rainey, who had to be shut down for a few days after reporting the injury, was set to throw 20 pitches off the mound today. Martinez said he expects the right-hander to be ready for opening day, taking an important role in the back end of a bullpen that also features Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson and Will Harris, but will no longer include Jeffress.

“We’ll evaluate him again today after he throws his side,” the manager said. “But he says he feels fine. He felt great the other day after throwing, so we’ll see how he does.”

* Rizzo said he has had “internal” discussions with ownership this spring about contract extension offers for Juan Soto and Trea Turner and expects formal offers to be made to both young stars soon.

Turner, coming off the best season of his career, is due to become a free agent after the 2022 season. Soto, who has already established himself at 22 as one of the best hitters in baseball, can’t become a free agent until after the 2024 season.

“We’ve discussed internally with ownership about it, and we’re in the midst of making decisions on what a time frame would look like,” Rizzo said. “It goes back to my early press conference (on the first day of camp) when we talked about it: We certainly have made, and will make, a long-term extension offer to both players sometime in the near future.”

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