When it comes to the Washington Nationals’ hiring of Dave Martinez as their new manager, three is the magic number.
Three years. That’s the guaranteed term of Martinez’s agreement to replace Dusty Baker. The deal also includes an option for a fourth year, but it’s the three that's important. It’s the three that speaks volumes because it’s the first time that the Lerner family, which took over ownership of the team in 2006, has given a manager more than two years guaranteed.
Davey Johnson, who had 14 years of experience and a World Series title on his managerial résumé before taking over in Washington, didn’t get three years. Dusty Baker, who was the winningest active skipper in MLB as of a couple of weeks ago, didn’t get three years. Bud Black, who was the Nats’ first choice back in 2015 before backing out and opening the door for Baker, didn’t get three years (which led to his backing out). Two years later, Martinez has finally broken the mold.
The fact that the Nats were willing to commit three years to Martinez should not be overlooked. For starters, it shows that the Lerners are making good on their name and, well, learning. They’re learning that, in a managerial market where veterans (Ron Gardenhire, Tigers) as well as newcomers (Alex Cora, Red Sox) are garnering three-year pacts, two years simply won't make the cut. Not when you think highly of a candidate, which clearly the Nationals do.
They think highly enough of Martinez that he was a finalist to replace Davey Johnson back in 2013. (The gig ultimately went to Matt Williams.) They think highly enough of him that, earlier in October, he was the first name to pop up on their radar following the surprising announcement that Baker’s tenure in DC was over.
And why shouldn’t they think highly of him? After all, the 53-year-old Martinez checks quite a few boxes. As a former player who spent 16 seasons in the bigs, clubhouse credibility won’t be a problem. He’s familiar with the Nats/Expos franchise, having spent three and a half of those seasons playing in Montreal. He’s of Puerto Rican descent and is bilingual, a blessing in baseball’s multicultural landscape. Perhaps most importantly, he’s spent the past 10 years apprenticing under one of the game’s most respected managers, serving as Joe Maddon’s bench coach first with Tampa Bay, then in Chicago.
Of course, the one box that Martinez doesn’t check -- and make no mistake, it’s a supersized box -- is that he’s never managed. Not in the minors, not in the majors, not anywhere. And the last time that Washington hired a guy with no previous managerial experience (Williams), things didn’t work out so well. That said, those 10 years spent watching and learning from Maddon should count for something, as does the fact that Dave Roberts seems to be doing just fine in Los Angeles despite the Dodgers' being his first skippering gig. Add it all up, and presto -- Martinez is on the books through at least the 2020 season.
Speaking of the books, it’s worth noting that Martinez probably won’t cost too much, a detail that presumably made it easier for ownership to go long on his deal. Although dollar amounts haven’t been disclosed yet, it’s safe to assume that the rookie skipper will earn far less on an annual basis than, say, the $4 million that Joe Girardi -- who was linked to the Nats after the Yankees let him go this past week -- made last year. For all we know, the entirety of Martinez’s compensation package over the life of his contract might amount to less than the $2 million that Dusty Baker got paid last season alone. In other words, even though the Lerners have committed what, for them, is an unprecedented amount of time to a manager, that’s probably not the case when it comes to the money. Then again, that didn’t stop them from giving only two guaranteed years to Williams, another first-time bench boss. So clearly, the Nationals are learning, and the magic number three proves it.
For what it’s worth, this isn’t the first time Martinez has gotten three from the Nats/Expos franchise. Back in 1988, when Martinez got traded from the Cubs to Montreal, he was given a jersey with the number 3 on the back. Almost three decades later -- there it is again, that magic number -- he repeats the pattern, going from the Cubs to the Nats (née Expos) and getting three. Three years, that is.
In Year 1, Martinez couldn’t ask for a better situation to step into. He takes over a stacked team that haTs won two straight division titles. The lineup, featuring Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon (among others), is loaded. The rotation, starting with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top, is among the best in baseball. The bullpen, with trade deadline acquisitions Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson remaining to anchor the back end, is sound. But despite all that firepower, the Nats have gotten bounced in the first round of the playoffs each of the two years. It is the reason that Dusty Baker’s time ran out.
“Winning a lot of regular-season games and winning divisions are not enough,” said GM Mike Rizzo, explaining the team’s decision to part with Baker. “Our goal is to win a world championship.”
Despite his lack of managerial experience, there’s little reason to think that Martinez can’t guide Washington to a third straight NL East pennant. If he can lead them all the way to a World Series title, in the process making good on Rizzo’s goal, well then, three will really be the magic number.