Jon Heyman: Rizzo never traded Harper, but Nats other moves have shaken team up

The Nats didn’t wind up trading superstar outfielder Bryce Harper (good thing, it seems!), but they still had quite the eventful trade deadline.

In a shocking one-two punch that carries the potential to jump-start or bury the underachieving team, Nats GM Mike Rizzo ridded the roster of two of its better relievers — one he apparently suspected of leaking an unflattering portrayal of the team’s clubhouse and the other after seeing an angry glove-throwing incident he believed demonstrated misplaced priorities and/or showed up manager Davey Martinez. That that release came near the end of what should have been an energizing 25-4 victory over the rival Mets made it all the more surprising.

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.

Kelley was said to be remorseful over the glove toss, though friends say he was frustrated about an umpire rushing him to pitch (and perhaps a bit also about manager Davey Martinez not rushing out to intervene between him and the umpire) and not necessarily as much by what it appeared to be, which was an unhappiness to appear in such an all-time blowout.

Kelley has a rep as an affable fellow, but in that moment, Rizzo didn't want to hear it. Kelley’s glare into the dugout was unwelcome to Nats people — especially Rizzo — and the GM cut Kelley despite a WHIP below 1.00. Brandon Kintzler, the other discarded reliever, who also is known as a good guy throughout the game, also has been generally effective for the Nats after re-signing with them last winter.

But Rizzo obviously wanted to send a message — and since the calls to excise the relievers the Nats are 6-3. It isn't known if there is more to the story, and Rizzo didn't return messages.

In any case, the glove throwing wasn’t a good look at the end of a game that carried the potential to ignite the team, and friends say Kelley was regretful about that obvious error. Rizzo told Nats writers at the time that it was a "selfish act," and added, "you're either in or you're in the way, and I thought he was in the way."

But that doesn’t explain how the other reliever, Brandon Kintzler, fell into trouble with management, too. A quote suggesting the Nats clubhouse, "is a mess," appeared in a story by Yahoo baseball columnist Jeff Passan, and someone apparently fingered (incorrectly, it seems) Kintzler as the author of the unnamed criticism, which also happened to be affirmed by three other people connected to the team in that same story.

With the talented team hovering around .500, Nats higher-ups were said to be brutally unhappy by the team's performance at the deadline. While Rizzo did sent out feelers for trades on bigger players — eight teams were said to have called about Harper — ultimately, they didn't seriously consider any deals, and refrained from blowing up the team. Good thing, too, as Harper has a slash line of .367/.457/.767/1.224 since the deadline, helping to keep the Nats on the cusp of a race they shouldn't give up on.

But there's nothing Rizzo detests more than the airing of dirty laundry. So they didn't quite stand pat.

The word is that Rizzo believed Kintzler to be the leak of the, "mess" quote in the Yahoo story. Less likely, perhaps, he was believed to be a source in a more typical, seemingly more innocuous Washington Post story about pitchers "expressing concerns" about Martinez's bullpen maneuverings a few weeks earlier, though in that story many others are quoted by name. According to people connected to the team, Rizzo suggested to at least a couple Nats players he believed the leak to be Kintzler upon explaining the surprise trade to the Cubs for a prospect — while warning them not to repeat this sort of unwanted behavior.

While several Nats relievers are said to have questioned rookie manager Martinez’s bullpen usage — in the Post story several pitchers are quoted by name rather diplomatically suggesting the well-liked rookie manager Martinez is a work in progress in this area, which shouldn't shock anyone — there is no evidence Kintzler is behind this story where others are quoted (not him) or that he is the one who spoke to Passan, either.

In fact, Kintzler, after hearing from teammates that Rizzo suggested he was behind the negative Yahoo comment, spent time swearing to Rizzo it wasn’t him, either, saying that he didn’t even know Passan (there’s no evidence he does), and going so far as to swear on his children’s lives it wasn’t him.

By this time, it was too late. He was already a Cub.

Soon after, Passan called Cubs president Theo Epstein to tell him it wasn’t Kintzler who gave him that quote, and that in fact he didn’t even know Kintzler and had never spoken to him or texted him. Kintzler has said the same thing, and looking at the story, it seems more than likely the quote may have come from someone affiliated with the Nats who isn't a player.

In any case, Kintzler wasn’t thrilled to be wrongly fingered as a stoolie. But in the end he was resigned to enduring his unwanted moment in the spotlight and told a friend words to this effect: “They’re ticked off at me, so they traded me to the Cubs!”

That is true. There are bigger punishments than sending him to the beloved first-place Cubbies, a team known to have a great clubhouse.

It remains to be seen whether the Nats clubhouse will get better or worse. Kelley and Kintzler have been replaced by Greg Holland, a veteran with an ERA twice as high as theirs, though he has started with two scoreless innings in two appearances in Washington. Indeed, in the early going the team is doing a bit better, though no one has characterized the impact of the surprise changes on the clubhouse yet.

Jon Heyman is Fancred's baseball insider. He publishes his weekly Inside Baseball column each Thursday on the App and You can download the App here and interact with Jon by following him right here.